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Mill keeps its wheels turning as competitors grind to halt

Published on 4 June, 2006, Last updated at 11:50 GMT

June 4th 2006, PAXINOS, Pa.: A mill near here has been grinding grain for farmers since before the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

Dozens of other grist and flour mills in the region have shut their doors over the past several decades, local farmers and historians say.

But Shamrock Mills, built in 1780 on the banks of Shamokin Creek in Northumberland County, still does a steady business grinding corn, wheat and other grains to make feed for horses, chickens, hogs and cattle.

Sales have jumped over the past five years as even more local feed stores and plants have shut down, said Jim Feese, who, with wife Gail, sold Shamrock in March.

Clark's supply store near Shamokin, the Eyers Grove mill, the Sunlight mill in Sunbury and Agway in Bloomsburg have all closed in that time, Feese said.

"That makes this business about the only feed mill that's around in about a 25-mile radius," he said.

The mill's new owners, Craig and Nathan Richard, are trying to expand the plant's "recreational-style farming" niche, selling feed to owners of deer, rabbits and other small animals.

Shamrock also sells grass seed, minerals, hay, fertilizer, chemicals, lime, birdseed and chicks, among other products.

And mill workers spray herbicide on farmers; fields.

"You can't just be selling feed," Feese said. "(Farmers) want 25 pounds of grass seed, and you're going to send them someplace else?"

Shamrock is the second oldest business in Northumberland County, but "People in Elysburg don't know it's here yet," Feese said.

The oldest business is a water-driven flour mill near Lewisburg operated by an 80-year-old woman and her grandson.

But local farmers do know Shamrock as a long-standing enterprise.

"I've been going there all my life," said Bear Gap farmer Lynn Hoagland, 51. "I can remember going there with my dad when I was 4 or 5 years old."

Hoagland recalls the "special treat" of getting a 6-cent bottle of soda from a machine in the mill's shop.

As an adult, Hoagland has ordered feed from Shamrock for years for chickens and now pigs.

"I was just there today to order feed," he said recently.

Gristmills were common in the late 1700s, and Columbia County alone supported 76 of them at one time.

But by 1974 only 30 of those mills still operated, writes Hiester V. White in a pamphlet for the Columbia County Historical Society.

Today, the phone book lists only five functioning feed mills in the county.

Shamrock, located in Northumberland County's Shamokin Township, is no longer powered by water from Shamokin Creek. But the three-story structure, now electrified, has seen remarkably few changes over the past century.

New owner Craig Richard, 52, Ralpho Township, came to the mill as a boy with his father to get grist ground.

"Basically everything is just the way it was then," he said.

Feese, who took over the mill from his in-laws, Paul and Mildred Blass of Elysburg, in 1980, says his only major upgrade was installing bulk grain tanks outside the mill to increase storage capacity.

Remnants of the mill's past, like a pulley for lifting bags of grain and a dusty auger from days when the mill ground flour, are still visible.

The ground floor's ceiling is still supported by an impressive 45-foot wooden beam.

Feese, Roaring Creek Township, said the mill's operations have remained essentially the same since 1970, when he started working for his father-in-law.

The mill, under Feese, sold about 400 tons of feed, concentrate and minerals each year. It also handled about 150 tons of dry and liquid fertilizer.

Feese would buy grain from local farmers at harvest and throughout the year and store it, he said. Later, he would mill the grain and sell it in bulk or in bags.

He decided what to buy based on market prices, the farmer's price and how much the mill could store, he explained.

If a farmer's price was too high, he might buy two tons instead of 10 tons, he said.

Most often, he noted, it was the farmers who would come to him to sell their crops.

"I know every guy that comes in that door, and I know what kind of grain he grows, and I know what kind of operator he is," said Feese, who is in his 60s. "You get to know the guys. You get to know who you're dealing with."

The mill workers'; knowledge was evident one recent workday, as customers backed their trucks up at the mill entrance and asked for feed recommendations.

Dale Bower, who has worked at the mill for 28 years, often knows what customers want before they say a word.

"This guy wants deer feed," he remarked as Steve Gooler, a lieutenant at the Coal Township state prison, drove up.

Gooler, who has been coming to Shamrock for about 10 years, had indeed arrived to buy seed for a small pasture on his Catawissa-area property, where his deer and goats will graze.

He asked Bower what would be best for the pasture.

Bower concocted a fertile mix of white clover seed, cover oats and alfalfa for the 1.5 acres.

"They've always taken care of me right, here," Gooler said.

He likes the fact that Shamrock has a lot of products in stock, he added.

"This place just was the best," he said. "Yeah, you can go to the farm store and stuff like that, but it ain't the same."

John Moser, owner of Pet King Pet Center on Route 61 near Shamokin, bought $250 worth of animal feed that same day.

Moser, 43, said he carries animal feed as a convenience for customers at his full-line pet store.

He sells at least a couple of hundred pounds of feed per day. But he makes only about a dollar in profit per bag, he noted.

"We carry it as a convenience," he said. "Hopefully they come in to buy other stuff."

Moser, who opened the pet store nearly three years ago, said he began buying feed from Clark's mill next door to his shop.

But Clark's supply store closed the day his store opened.

Moser continued selling feed for Clark's retail customers.

Then, those sales dried up entirely, and he started buying from Shamrock.

Moser left with bags of crack corn and whole corn, feed for sheep and goats and chickens, as well as bundles of straw and hay.

Bryan Carnathan, 41, Selinsgrove, stopped in for 100 pounds of horse feed, paying $13.65.

Carnathan said he's been coming to Shamrock since Christmas, when he acquired two horses.

He said he could choose to have other stores deliver the supplies. But that would cost more than coming to Shamrock.

"It's close to work," he said. "It's convenient. They've got what I want."

by Simon Shifrin


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