Flour milling once a thriving business

Again this week, we turn to the historical archives found in back issues of The Vandalia Union newspaper. For this weeks column, we are visiting the week of Oct. 13, 1927.

In that issue, an article titled, ‘Flour Milling in Fayette County’ was published in the paper. Special attention was given to the St. Elmo Milling Co., once the most thriving of its kind in this part of the country.

John Kitchen, credited, along with Parker, Whitman and Murray, in laying out the village of St. Elmo, had the mill built in 1871. Some histories credit P.M. Johnston as his partner in St. Elmos first mill.

St. Elmo history tells us that William Smith was the contractor. Smith is also known to have built the first house in St. Elmo, completing it on July 8, 1869.

The mill enjoyed a large business in soft wheat flour from merchants throughout Southern Illinois, and it was principally used in making biscuits. The hard wheat was mostly shipped in from Kansas, and was used for bread making.

The mill was later operated by P.M. and Ben Johnston, and the Foglers, with Morris Johnston having charge of the business. In the early 1880s, the mill was modernized by changing from the old burr mill to the roller system.

It was purchased by F.M. Fogler and W.M. Fogler in the latter 1880s, who built an addition to the building in 1890. The capacity of the mill was from 120 to 150 barrels of flour per day, and a good part of the time it ran day and night.

Until several years ago, it did a big business in soft wheat flour, obtaining most of the wheat from the surrounding territory, operating also as an elevator at St. Peter, which is now owned by August Borchelt.

At that time, it was the custom of the farmers in the entire territory to bring wheat to the mill and exchange it for flour, and it was not an unusual thing to see from 20-30 wagons lined up waiting for their turns, some of them finding it necessary to stay overnight to be on hand early next morning to get their flour.

They made several choice brands of flour, among them being Star, Happy Home and Crescent in soft wheat flour, and Famous and Ajax in hard wheat.

Exports from this mill reached Liverpool, Glasgow, Antwerp, Lieth and Dublin.

In 1924, after F.M. Fogler had operated the mill for nearly 40 years, he decided to retire from active business and leased it to St. Elmo Hay, Grain & Coal Co., which operated the mill one or two days a week. (A.H. Hicks was head miller during part of 1897 and subsequent years.)

J.S. Jones was the head miller at the St. Elmo Flour Milling Co., and in 1927 was manager of the St. Elmo Hay, Grain & Coal Co.

The custom of exchanging wheat for flour is being practiced by only a very few farmers today, there having been a radical change since the war. People, in general, have adopted the practice of buying bread from bakeries and purchasing hard wheat flour for home baking. This greatly decreased the demand for soft wheat flour, and caused almost a standstill in the soft wheat flour mills in this territory.

The article went on to mention the Vera mill, built about 1900 and operated by Mack Parks. It burned in the mid-1920s. Vandalia had a flour mill, known as the Martin Mill, situated at Gallatin and Sixth streets.

One mill not mentioned in the article was the Ramsey Flour Mill, built by Joseph and Thomas James. Their flour was sold around the world under the names of James XXXX Brand flour. A large part of their output was exported to Liverpool, England. Thiele and Bolt each ran the mill for a time.

I am reminded of a similar story, told maybe 60 years earlier, about a man who strapped a bag of grain onto his horses back and rode to the mill an all-day trip. Once he reached there, each fellow had to wait his turn, and some pitched their tents and spent their time fishing in the river.

When it was their turn, they hitched up their horse and provided the power to grind the grain. Some mills kept a portion of what was ground in payment for their services.

Newspapers are a great way to add to our knowledge about our county, our town and our families, and we are fortunate that old issues of The Vandalia Union are preserved on microfilm.

Leave a Comment