On Saturday, September 8th, a misty morning, my husband, Clif, and I drove to Skowhegan, about an hour from where we live, to the grand opening of the Somerset Grist Mill, a $1.5 million dollar project that has been in the works for just three years. The road was shiny and dark, and as we went up and down hills, we rode past fields as bright a green in September as they were in June. This central Maine region, where the Kennebec River flows, is a fertile part of Maine. Also, once there were many mills in Skowhegan, mills where my grandparents worked, but most of the mills have closed—New Balance is the happy exception. So in a way, the Somerset Grist Mill combines two historical strengths of this region—the mills and agriculture.
Skowhegan, a county seat, has a reputation for being a depressed area, where many people receive state and federal aid. Yet in the parking lot next to the grist mill was a farmers’ market with 20 vendors or so, and business was brisk. In this market, I felt an energy and an exuberance that, if carried forward, could balance and perhaps even lessen the hard times of this mill town.
The grist mill, owned by business partners Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz, is in what was once the sprawling Somerset County Jail, which was built in 1897 and is in downtown Skowhegan, within walking distance of a cinema, a bakery, and other shops. Lambke and Scholz bought the jail for $65,000, and at the grand opening, we learned that the height of the jail was one of its chief features—gravity could be used to bring grain to the various machines.
The tour started at 10:00, and there must have been at least 100 people waiting by the wooden doors. In fact, there were so many of us that the group had to be split in half, and even then, it was still crowded. As with the farmers’ market, there was a feeling of energy and exuberance.
Before the tour, Lambke gave a brief history of the mill, of how the idea sprang from the 2007 Kneading Conference, held in Skowhegan at the end of July. There were no commercial grist mills in central Maine, and the feeling was that a grist mill would be a place that would bring bakers and wood-fired oven makers together with grain growers. Perhaps even more important, the grist mill would encourage the rebuilding of a grain-growing economy that was once so vital to this area.
In addition, the old county jail was big enough to house other businesses, ones that would be in keeping with the grist mill’s philosophy of the importance of local businesses and local economies. Already, there were a yarn shop, a pottery studio, a café, a place where people pick up their CSA deliveries, and the Tech Spot, where teenagers help older folks become more comfortable using computers.
Then the tour began, where we duly admired the various machines—most of them old and bought second hand but one of them brand new, made in Austria with such beautiful blond wood that it almost looked like a work of art. We learned that enough Maine farmers were growing various grains—wheat, oats, and rye, to name a few—that the mill would have no trouble remaining open during the winter.
The finished products will be sold at the grist mill as well as at various stores around the state. So Maine readers, keep your eyes open for flour and other grains that have been ground at the Somerset Grist Mill. Buy these products whenever you can. As I have noted in a previous piece, with climate change and its disruptions, Maine might once again become a breadbasket, and we can only be thankful that people such as Lambke and Scholz had the foresight to open a grist mill right now, in Skowhegan, Maine.
(Click on any of the pictures below to see the pictures as an onscreen slide show)