MILLERSBURG — Mary Lou Rankin doesn’t fit the modern stereotype of an entrepreneur. She isn’t young. She isn’t high-tech. But she makes delicious fried apple pies.
Those pies have made Rankin something of a celebrity across several counties between Paris and Maysville.
Rankin sells apple pies and other homemade baked goods most Saturdays on Main Street in this northern Bourbon County town of 800 people, from the front of a former hardware store she ran for 31 years.
Look for the sign of a big, red apple with the mathematical symbol for “pi” on it.
Every summer and fall, Rankin fries hundreds of pies and other home-cooked food to sell from her Mary Lou’s Kitchen booth at festivals in Paris, Augusta and at Blue Licks State Park near Mt. Olivet.
“I’ve been doing this about 35 years,” Rankin, who turns 86 this month, said as she carefully turned a few pies in her electric skillet as the dough became just the right shade of golden brown. “I’ve worn out a whole lot of skillets.”
Rankin grew up on a Harrison County farm, where she learned about entrepreneurship and responsibility.
“We were taught to work,” she said. “Some of ’em now don’t know what work is. I’ve always thought that if you have a job, you do it.”
Her late husband, Robert F. Rankin, worked for a time at the Old Lewis Hunter distillery at Lair in Harrison County. It closed in 1974.
“Then my husband went out to look for a little farm and ended up with a hardware store,” she said. “Can you figure that one out?”
He soon became a plumbing contractor. She ran the hardware store, which closed in 1996, while raising their two sons.
Her oldest son, award-winning artist Gaylen “Frosty” Rankin, now uses the back of the store as his art studio and gallery. The front is now used for storage, and as a place for his mother to sell baked goods, flowers and vegetable plants in season.
Rankin said her mother was a good cook and taught her how to make fried apple pies. But she never thought of making them to sell until the Millersburg volunteer fire department, of which her husband was a member, burned down in 1975.
“The city said they couldn’t afford to pay for it, so all of the women got together,” she said. They made and sold baked goods and other items for several years and finally raised enough money to rebuild the firehouse.
Her fried pies were so popular that people kept asking for them, Rankin said. She realized she had found a business opportunity.
The key to a good pie, Rankin said, is homemade crust fried to perfection. She used to buy her apples locally, but now gets sun-dried ones from California. She prefers sun-dried apples to fresh, and mixes them with a secret blend of spices.
“My mixture, of course, I’ve worked on that for years,” she said. “I’ve got a fella that just keeps after me about it, and I’ve got one in Winchester that wants to buy my recipe.”
She especially enjoys meeting and talking with customers. A man from Cincinnati came to her store earlier this year. “He said, ‘I was told that you make the best pies in the country,'” she said. “I never saw the man before in my life.”
She has met a few famous people while selling food at festivals, including journalist Nick Clooney and jockey Pat Day. When her son was presenting a piece of art to Gov. Steve Beshear, she came along with fried pies for the first family.
“I got to meet the governor,” she said. “Now I’m ready for the president.”
Rankin said she keeps cooking as much for her health as for the money. After two bouts with cancer over the past dozen years and recent cataract surgery, she worries that if she slows down too much she won’t keep going.
When she isn’t cooking and selling food, Rankin mows and tends her yard. In the winter, she re-canes chairs for customers, a craft she has done for three decades.
“It keeps me mentally sharp,” she said of work. “I’ll tell you what, if you don’t use your brain you’ll lose it.”