Ralph Thompson, who has worked at Weisenberger Mill for 30 years, measures out ingredients for one of the company’s many “just add water” cooking mixes. The measured ingredients are combined in the giant mixer at left. Photos by Tom Eblen
MIDWAY — It is hard to imagine which is rarer these days: an old-fashioned gristmill or a family business that has survived to the sixth generation.
Weisenberger Mills is both.
In a modern world of mass production, father and son Mac and Philip Weisenberger have found a comfortable niche doing what their family has been doing on the same spot since the Civil War.
“We grind about 1,000 bushels of grain a week,” Mac Weisenberger said. “These bigger mills, they do that much in an hour.”
Weisenberger Mills keeps humming along thanks to a diverse line of fresh, high-quality products and the desire of an increasing number of people to know where their food comes from.
August Weisenberger came to Midway from Baden, Germany. In 1865, he purchased a three-story stone mill on South Elkhorn Creek. By 1913, the old mill had become structurally unsound. It was demolished, and the stone was crushed to make a new concrete building. Weisenberger Mills still operates from that building.
The old mill’s water wheel was replaced in 1913 by a twin-turbine electric generator powered by water flowing down the creek. As more equipment was added over the years, the mill had to supplement that power with electricity from the local utility.
With help from a $56,000 U.S. Energy Department grant, the mill will install a more efficient generator this spring. The new generator should allow water from the creek to provide all of the mill’s power needs.
But you won’t find much other new technology here. Most of the grinding, mixing and sifting is done on circa-1913 machines operated by a system of belts and wheels. But how that equipment is used has evolved with changing market demands.
The Weisenbergers’ ancestors — two of whom were named August and two of whom were named Philip — sold nothing but flour and cornmeal until the 1940s. Then the family began diversifying into what are now more than 70 products, including many “just add water” mixes for everything from spoon bread and muffins to hush puppies and fish batter.
Because people cook less at home these days, about 80 percent of Weisenberger’s sales are now to restaurants and other institutional kitchens. Still, every product carries a label stating which farm produced the grain it is made from, and where that farm is.
“That’s one of the advantages to being small,” Weisenberger said. “I can keep up with all of the grain.”
Weisenberger Mills buys all of its grain from within 100 miles of Midway, and much of it comes from farms that have been suppliers for decades.
The mill produces products based on orders, spreading grain purchases throughout the year. That helps the Weisenbergers and their four employees monitor grain quality and produce fresher products. Farmers get better prices, too, because they aren’t having to sell all of their grain at harvest time.
Weisenberger Mills no longer has its own trucks, so two distributors deliver its goods to Central Kentucky groceries. Customers also can buy products at the mill — located on Weisenberger Mill Road off Leestown Road, three miles southeast of Midway — or by placing mail orders at Weisenberger.com or 1-800-643-8678.
The mill gets about 60 mail orders each week — people in California with a hunger for grits, or New Englanders particular about their corn bread.
“But my stuff is heavy and cheap,” Weisenberger said, which means shipping can cost as much or more than the product.
How has this family business kept going for six generations when so many others fall apart after two or three? Mac, 60, said he realized after a couple of years of college how much he enjoyed working at the mill with his father, Philip, who died in April 2008.
Three of Mac’s four children had other dreams: they are an accountant, a neonatal nurse and an energy researcher. But the mill was a good fit for son Philip, 40.
“I started when I was 12 working in the summers,” Philip said. “Next thing you know, you’ve been here a long time.”
Philip doesn’t know if his son, Jakob, 8, will continue the tradition.
“He likes to come out here, and I can get a little work out of him,” he said. “I wasn’t pushed into this, so I’ll let him decide what he wants to do.”
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