The sign at the Oakesdale mill says, “If no one is here, serve yourself.” For decades, customers have. Left their money, took their flour: 100 percent whole wheat with vitamins, minerals and a bit of Joseph Barron’s soul in every bag.
For more than 70 years, the miller of Oakesdale has ground wheat into flour, feeding first the farmers of the Palouse, then their livestock and now, organic diners from Seattle to New York.
Fifty miles south of Spokane, the Old Mill stands along McCoy Creek, where the willows dip and bend. It is four stories tall and 107 years old, full of intricate working milling equipment.
Time has worn down its buhr grindstone - and now, the miller, too. Barron got pneumonia last year, bronchitis, emphysema and then heart trouble.
In a new mill across the creek, Barron could mill 500 pounds of flour an hour. But at 88, hefting 50 pound sacks of flour was too much. Maintaining the immense Old Mill, which quit operating 38 years ago, seemed impossible.
He considered giving it away to one of the area’s historical societies, but they were too distant or too poor to pay the upkeep.
So Barron put both his flour mills up for sale, sifting through the prospective buyers as carefully as he has different kinds of wheat.
His only child, Joan Roehl of Kenmore, Wash., said dozens of people inquired.
On Dec. 4, the only surviving flour mill of the 19 that once graced Whitman County was sold. Longtime customer Mary Jane Butters and her husband, Nick Ogle, agreed to preserve the Old Mill and to continue milling Joseph Barron’s flour using his new (1960) mill equipment. They kept the name “Joseph’s Flour,” the three-grained hot cereal he invented, even the hand-lettered sign.
To Butters, it’s a perfect extension of her Paradise Farm Organics mail-order company in Moscow, Idaho, and her goal of feeding people healthy food.
To Barron, it’s simpler.
“She liked the old stuff and was willing to keep it,” he said.
Barrons have been milling wheat and other grains in Oakesdale since 1907, when Joseph’s father, Joseph Barron Sr., bought the original mill from Harvey Gray for $11,500.
Two years later, Joseph Jr. was born in a living area attached to the mill. There were three blacksmiths, three railroads, a jeweler and a cobbler in Oakesdale then. Young Joseph grew up to the sound of hammers and anvils, of a town building and growing.
Then the town got built, farming became more mechanized and the population of 800 slowly slipped to about half.
The Barrons held on. Joseph had gone to work for his father in the Old Mill straight out of high school in 1927. But the larger mills in Spokane were rapidly taking over. People bought their flour at the supermarket. The gristmills began to die.
The Barrons held on by cleaning seed, storing grain and selling coal. They survived the Great Depression and World War II, when Joseph got a deferment for his work.
They survived until 1960, when he closed the mill. Calendars from those years still decorate the office wall inside the mill, above the original company typewriter and safe. Notebooks with farmer’s names scrawled in pencil hang on nails above bins.
“It’s like they just walked away,” Ogle said.
Barron worked for a while for a co-op but shortly returned to his trade, opening the new mill, a modern electric set-up with two mills in a small building behind his house. He began milling and selling organic flour.
“Joseph has adapted over and over again. He survived,” Butters said.
“I was born into it,” he says. “It gets in your blood.”
With a roar like a jet airplane as it starts, Barron’s electric mill uses centrifugal force to explode the wheat berry rather than crushing it. The process helps lengthen the shelf life of the flour, which, according to testers at Washington State University, doesn’t go rancid for two years - a critical element when no preservatives are used.
“It’s the difference between cutting lettuce and tearing it,” Butters said.
What began as a small trade in the 1960s serving hippies and other “health faddists” became a small but steady business. Barron sold rye flour, corn flour, corn meal and cracked wheat. He sold the soft white wheat of the Palouse for pastry flour. But he went to Three Forks, Mont., for hard red wheat, which makes the best bread.
“It’s a cult flour,” Butters says. “All these women who come to the mill wouldn’t use anything else.”
Flour and bread made from it are sold at food co-ops in Moscow and Colville and at A&T; Specialty Foods in the Spokane Valley.
Joseph’s Flour was not always known by that name. For years, he sold his products under the trade name “Nutri-Grain” until the Kelloggs Co. bought the name in 1980.
He was selling Joseph’s Flour several years ago when Butters, an organic entrepreneur selling falafel, needed a place to grind her garbanzo beans. Barron agreed to do it. She was immediately enchanted by both his new operation and the old place.
She loved the Old Mill’s woodwork, handrails worn smooth, the knot-free lumber and the function of the mill as the glue that once brought the community together.
“The first time I toured the Old Mill, I was humbled by the grace and grit of their lives.”
But Barron was not ready to sell. He’d just used a grant and $10,000 of his own money to put a new roof on the mill, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He was spending up to $1,000 a year on upkeep of the old place. But it wasn’t until his health started to go that he wanted out.
“I hate to do it. I’ve made many friends and had a lot of good customers who expected good flour.”
Butters says her goal is to continue to let Barron be part of the business. Eventually, they’ll move the new mill equipment to Paradise Farm, eight miles outside Moscow.
The company offers 10 specialty flours including, kamut, an heirloom grain that Aztecs grew, millet, spelt, quinoa, brown rice flour and garbanzo bean flour. She also expects to use equipment from both mills to process grains and legumes into organic falafel, tabouli, hummus, pilaf and instant refried beans. Her husband, a second-generation Palouse farmer, has fallen in love with the work.
Butters plans a grant donor campaign to raise money for the Old Mill and wants to offer tours as Barron did. Old Mill Days, Oakesdale’s annual community celebration, is based around the mill.
“It is there in the middle of town reminding people they once were a community, they relied on each other,” Butters said.
Barron’s wife, Ethel, died more than a decade ago and he lives near the two mills with his cat, Blackie. Barron wanders out each morning to the new mill where, as Ogle putters, flour dusts his shoes, his cheek.
“Never lost the place,” Barron says. “Never lost it.”
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