Weisenberger Mill honors its past and charts a course for a bright future
MIDWAY, Ky. — Six generations of Weisenbergers have been milling wheat and corn on the banks of South Elkhorn Creek near Midway, Ky., for 150 years.
“Weisenberger Mill is a true example of the American dream,” Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said after a recent tour of Kentucky’s oldest water-powered commercial flour mill.
The Weisenberger success story began in 1848, when young August Weisenberger left his home in Baden, Germany, and boarded a ship for a trans-Atlantic voyage to the fledgling United States of America, which had 32 states at the time.
“He was only 21 years old, so that was a pretty bold move,” said Ernest “Mac” Weisenberger, current caretaker of the family business. “He came in at Ellis Island.”
August’s travels took him to Pittsburgh, where the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers form the Ohio River. He took a riverboat down the Ohio, stopping for a time at Cincinnati and Louisville. He sailed as far west as St. Louis before retracing his route back up the Ohio to the falls at Louisville.
August, who had some millwright experience in his native Germany, settled in Woodford County and started milling near Spring Station in 1862. Twenty years later, in 1882, he purchased a mill at the current site in southern Scott County.
'New' mill built
Built in the early 19th century, the mill was rebuilt in 1913 by August’s son, Philip, using rock from the original mill. Mac’s grandfather, August II, kept the business going when his father died in 1936. Mac’s father, Philip II, took the reins in 1955.
Philip II developed specialty products before his death in 2008 that have enabled Weisenberger Mill to continue to prosper. In its early days, Weisenberger’s primary products were soft wheat flour and white cornmeal. The mill now churns out more than 70 products in various sizes, such as flour and cornmeal mixes for frying and baking as well as mixes for biscuits, pancakes, muffins, hush puppies, pizza crust, spoonbread, and even scones.
A tour of Weisenberger’s mill is like a trip into the past. From a one-lane girder bridge over Elkhorn Creek to the climb up two flights of narrow stairs lightly dusted in white flour, people can barely carry on a conversation above the noisy churning and sifting of its century-old, cast-iron machinery.
“If something breaks down, we can’t go to a store and buy a part,” said Philip III, Mac’s son and heir apparent to the business. “We either have to make a new part or find one off an old machine.”
The mill is partially run by two water-powered turbines, which can produce 150 100-pound bags of flour in 24 hours. In contrast, larger, modern mills can produce about 1 million pounds during the same time.
Weisenberger Mill is one of a few
Weisenberger is one of very few small mills left. Mac said there were 5,000 mills in the U.S. in 1950, but that number has dwindled to fewer than 700 currently, according to a list maintained by Manta.com.
Weisenberger Mill is run by four employees: a miller, a mixer, and employees who fill packages, load the trucks, and keep the place clean.
Though the mill’s product line has expanded, Mac told the Midway Messenger website that it’s important to him, as it was to his forefathers, to keep the basic production process the same as it’s always been.
“We mill grain the same way since we started,” he said to the Midway Messenger. “We put an emphasis on quality, not quantity.”
It’s that quality that creates loyalty with customers. After the tour, Mac and Philip III welcomed two ladies who stopped by the mill to buy some of their products.
“Weisenberger Mill grinds its products the old-fashioned way,” Commissioner Comer pointed out. “At the same time, it has adapted to the changing needs and demands of its customers. Where many other businesses have come and gone, Weisenberger Mill has survived and thrived. They are a great example for other small Kentucky Proud businesses to follow.”
The Kentucky Proud logo is displayed prominently on packages of Weisenberger products, and the name of the Kentucky farm that grew its wheat and corn is printed on most labels and boxes.
“I like this; I wish more Kentucky Proud businesses would put the name of the farm it came from,” Commissioner Comer told Mac during the tour.
Mac said Kentucky Proud has benefited Weisenberger Mill by “giving exposure and recognition to Kentucky products, and I like that.” He feels that printing the Kentucky Proud logo on Weisenberger products “gives us a little bit of an edge” in the competitive supermarket aisle at Kroger.
“Good markets for us are smaller shops like Good Foods Co-op [in Lexington],” Philip III told Commissioner Comer. Three-quarters of Weisenberger Mill’s business is to food service companies.
To find out more about Weisenberger Mill, go to www.weisenberger.com.
Top left: Phil Weisenberger, left, explains the Weisenberger Mill operation to, from right: Kristen Branscum, executive director of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s marketing office; Jennifer Mueller, the KDA’s director of business development, and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer during a tour of the Midway plant in February. (Photo by Chris Aldridge)
Middle right: The fifth and sixth generations of Weisenbergers carrying on the family milling business near Midway, Ky., are Mac, right, and his son, Philip III. Behind them are photos of the first four Weisenbergers (counterclockwise from top left): August, Philip, Philip II, and August II. (Photo by Chris Aldridge)
Bottom left: The tag on this bag of self-rising flour indicates the wheat for the flour came from the James Farm of Fayette County. (Photo by Chris Aldridge)