Craft Culture: 130 years of water and the grindstone at Schech’s Mill

Schech's Mill in Caledonia is the oldest water-powered mill in Minnesota using its original stones // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Schech’s Mill in Caledonia is the oldest water-powered mill in Minnesota using its original equipment // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

At first the vibrations in the water are faint. Small ripples break through the surface of the stream as they push out from the base of an old stone building. But the current soon becomes a rapid swirl as more than 8,000 gallons flow into the creek with each passing minute.

The disturbance outside is matched by a show of force inside. With the turn of a wheel, a 1,000-pound stone begins to rotate. It sounds like railroad cars clattering to life, picking up speed until the individual clicks blend into a continuous rhythm.

The mill is alive.

Nearly every weekend Ed Krugmire drives three hours from Afton, Minnesota, to carry on a legacy passed down through four generations of his family. Schech’s Mill sits at the end of a single lane dirt road in between a smattering of southern Minnesota towns whose populations don’t number more than 3,000. Ed’s great-grandfather first bought the mill in 1887, and the family has kept the historic site running ever since. Today, the antiquity is the oldest water-powered mill in Minnesota still operating with its original equipment.

“Nobody else can do some of these things,” says Ed, who took over the Houston County mill when his parents passed away in 2006. “I’m lucky that I’m handy with the equipment and know how things go together, otherwise it would be a struggle to keep the mill going.”

Ed Krugmire is the owner and caretaker of Schech's Mill // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Ed Krugmire is the owner and caretaker of Schech’s Mill // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

The three-story building is a portal back to a time when phones attached to strings, kerosene lamps burned bright, and electricity was a luxury most couldn’t afford. Yet while modern advances swept through the towns surrounding the mill, inside little has changed. As its caretaker, Ed spends hours preserving the small slice of history to prevent it from turning into another abandoned building taking up space in the countryside.

“Most mills just sit there and don’t run. We have the three original turbines and the four millstones,” says Ed, who grinds a variety of grain using the same process they did in the 1800s. “No other mill does that. If I don’t take care of it now, then it would be really difficult to get going again.”

Powering a legend

Schech’s Mill almost looks magical when you step through the doors. A white dusting of powder settles over everything in the room: the thick oak and pine beams, the centuries-old equipment and the wooden floors.

From his hat to his pants, Ed wears a strict uniform of light gray, beige, and white. Black isn’t a color that stays clean for long when you’re working in a flour mill. Even the 64-year-old’s beard, flecked with gray, falls in line with the rest of his getup. From the slippery floors to the haze that hangs in the air, flour is everywhere. When you breathe in, the pulverized wheat escapes into your nose and settles in your lungs.

The building is a labyrinth of chutes, bins, pulleys, and gears. As the sole operator, Ed has run the mechanical marvel by himself for more than a decade. The mill’s showpieces are its four large millstones, made of French quartz, and three original turbines buried in a concrete vault beneath a hatch in the basement floor. Each piece, except for the third turbine installed in 1924, dates back to building’s inception in 1876.

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The water-powered equipment at Schech’s Mill yields stone-ground flour // Photos by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

To make flour, Ed starts by dumping a hard winter wheat into a grain hopper, which feeds the kernels down in between two slabs of stone. As the tan-colored behemoths spin against one another, the grain travels through the crevice between the top and bottom stones. As the wheat makes its way through the rough surface to the outer edge, it’s ground into a fine powder.

Ed relies on Beaver Creek to power the millstones. Thanks to a manmade stream called a millrace, dug out by a horse and scoop when the site was first built, water flows under the building and through one of three turbines. When those machines start to spin, they can generate anywhere from 15 to 40 horsepower—enough to get a stationary stone moving instantly. Compared to the amount of power and money it would take to accomplish the same feat with an electric motor, water power is cheap. Plus, the turbines lie deep enough below the surface of the stream that they never freeze, making them well-suited to withstand Minnesota’s bitter winters.

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The 64-year-old maneuvers through the flour-making process by sound and sight. He can hear when a belt slips or when a machine plugs up. Unlike the technology installed in modern day mills, there’s no beeper to alert him if a grain roller stops turning. He simply has to listen for a problem, and then find it quickly. Maintaining the historic site is by far Ed’s biggest challenge. He repairs the antique equipment piece by piece, and hopes to get a third millstone and the industrial sifters on the second floor running again soon.

“It’s not like you can just blink your eyes and have it done. There are no directions on how to fix these machines,” says Ed of the eight-foot long hexagonal sifter. “It’s trial and error. [It’s] experimenting. It’s not a simple fix.”

Living history

Schech's Mill in Caledonia, Minnesota, is a four-generation water-powered operation // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Schech’s Mill in Caledonia, Minnesota, is a four-generation water-powered operation // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

There’s likely not another person in the state who could walk into the mill and navigate the idiosyncrasies of the 19th-century equipment with the deftness that Ed can. The 64-year-old is the last descendant in a long line of millers that first began with his great-grandfather, MJ Schech. MJ emigrated from Germany in his mid-20s and moved to the Twin Cities to work as the head miller for The St. Paul Roller Mill Co., a large-scale flour mill in the Midwest at the time.

When the Caledonia mill came up for sale, MJ jumped at the chance to buy it for $3,000. At the time, what set Schech’s Mill apart was the breadth of products it ground. While most small mills couldn’t crank out more than flour and cornmeal, Schech’s Mill also produced graham flour, buckwheat flour, whole wheat flour, and whole wheat cereal, a recipe Ed’s great-grandfather came up with while working at the St. Paul mill.

In 1914, Ed’s grandfather took over the mill, followed by his parents in the mid-1940s. At age six, Ed’s dad put him in charge of wheeling around sacks of grain that neighborhood families brought to the mill by horse and wagon. During that time the mill stopped producing flour products and switched to grinding oats and corn for animal feed. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when Ed’s dad started giving tours of the mill, that he returned to making small amounts of flour and cornmeal for tourists to take home. After college, Ed took on more responsibility in the family business in between full-time gigs as an industrial arts teacher and contractor. Alongside his dad he learned how to repair the mill’s unique machinery and sift flour by hand.

Ed Krugmire, owner of Schech's Mill, grows his own corn for cornmeal // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Ed Krugmire, owner of Schech’s Mill, grows his own corn for cornmeal // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

“There’s value in old things. You can see how things were and how things have changed,” says Ed. “I’m sharing that history and carrying it on like my mom and dad did.”

In the age of mechanized mills, Ed still finds value in producing small-batch flour and cornmeal like the three generations of his family before him. The old-fashioned method ensures the grain doesn’t lose nutrients during the grinding process. When flour is stone-ground, it stays cooler throughout the process than when it’s roller-milled at larger, industrial companies. The high heat and high speed of the rollers tends to destroy the vitamins in the grain, meaning producers must try to add them back in later.

Cornmeal is the most popular flour ground at Schech's Mill // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Cornmeal is the most popular flour ground at Schech’s Mill // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

“Everyone wants to get back to nature and all-natural food,” says Ed, who has seen a resurgence in tourists who value artisan-made goods. “People are growing their own crops for all these health reasons and what I’m doing is leaning toward that.”

Ed grows his own corn for the mill’s most popular product, cornmeal, and sources the rest of his grains from a farmer down the road. As design trends continue to lean toward restoration, Ed finds more and more people who appreciate relics from a bygone era.

In 2016, Ed secured the mill’s first new customer in years, a distillery based out of nearby Spring Grove, Minnesota, which opened its cocktail room and released its first spirits in June 2017. RockFilter Distillery’s founder, Christian Myrah, shares Ed’s penchant for crafting things by hand. Christian, a fourth-generation Norwegian farmer, experiments with heirloom and lesser-known grains to distill organic rye whiskey and bourbon. Christian grows the grains, his dad cleans them, and then Ed mills them using hydropower.

In the coming years Ed hopes to find more people like Christian who want to take part in keeping more than a century of history alive. Unlike electricity, water power wasn’t designed for speed, but longevity. Like the turbines that power the building’s French quartz stones, Ed is out to prove the mill is here for the long haul, too.