A couple of weeks ago, I was very fortunate to be able to lead a field trip to the Somerset Grist Mill. The mill is located in an old Maine paper mill town on the mighty Kennebec River, Skowhegan. To the outsider, Skowhegan may appear a bit downtrodden, but it is quickly becoming the bustling heart of the fledgling movement to restore Maine’s once vibrant grain economy to its former glory. In 2007, grassroots organizer Amber Lambke helped organize the Kneading Conference, which drew bread-bakers, grain farmers and millers from a wide area to learn and talk about bread-baking, using local grains, and to examine how to revitalize the area’s once robust grain production. The conference, which continues today, was hugely successful, and one of many great offshoots from it was Lambke’s and business partner Michael Scholz’s decision to purchase the former Somerset County Jail and reinvent it as a grist mill, farmers’ market site, and retail space. After years of research, fundraising and construction, the mill began operating in September 2013.
I had an image of an old-fashioned pokey complete with small barred cells, but the jail, constructed in 1863 (about the time Henbogle House was built), has been modernized over the years and was in continuous use as a jail until 2007 when a new facility opened. One or two barred and concrete block cells-turned offices were visible, but the majority of the building reminded me more of an early 70s public school. Walking down a narrow corridor, we came to a heavy door, and upon opening, could see the workings of the mill.
At the heart of the operation are two wood-framed Austrian mill-stones, a pneumatic system used to move the grain through the milling process, a state of the art robotic grain dryer, and a 1930s Clipper grain cleaner. Outside the building were grain silos linked to the hydraulic system.
Farmers deliver whole grains to the mill, where it is stored briefly before being moved to storage bins on the top floor, above the milling area. When milling begins, the grain is gravity fed into the mill. Once ground and sorted, it is fed into the bottom floor for further sorting, bagging and shipping.
Of course I could not resist the opportunity to try some of their products, so I purchased a bag of sifted wheat flour (which has some of the coarse bran sifted out) to try, and some oats. I’ve made pizza and English muffins from the flour, and gave some to my friend Karen and she made pizza. We agree, it is delicious and makes a very workable dough. I’ve yet to try the oats but they are on the vacation week cooking agenda.