By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Gary and Sharon Thelen were shocked and devastated to watch Swany White Flour Mills burn to the ground in December. But their hope has been renewed in the rebuilding of their facility on the same site in Freeport.
Gary’s grandfather, Peter and Peter’s brother, Hubert, bought the mill from Anton Hoeschen in 1903. The 1913 remodeling stood for 98 years.
Peter’s son, Walter (Gary’s father), and Hubert’s son, Jack, moved into partnership together in the mid 1960s. They combined with Freeport Roller Mill and also expanded with locations in Roscoe and St. Joseph.
It was in 1976 that the partnership was split, with Walter keeping the Swany White name and renaming the main Freeport business “Swany White Flour Mills.” Jack’s widow retained the other parts of the business.
Gary worked full time for his father from 1976 until buying his father out in 1998.
Gary was in the mill when the fire started. He was in the main floor office and thought he smelled wood burning about 4:30 p.m. After he ran upstairs and saw smoke, he then ran outside and saw flames coming from the cupola.
“I was a fireman for 25 years; I know when it’s bad,” he said.
Within a couple of hours it was gone. “That was always my fear,” he said. “All that history just burned up.”
The mill had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Old flour sacks lined the office walls. On the third floor was an old roll-top desk containing paperwork from transactions his grandfather made.
But Sharon describes Gary as “too young to retire, too old to start over and too stubborn to work for someone else.”
It was after finding out that 40 percent of the insurance payout would go to taxes that the decision was made to rebuild.
“Family members had said that surely I wasn’t going to let the Swany White name die,” Gary said. “It was a fairly quick decision.”
The cleanup was complicated. Since the Thelens couldn’t prove there wasn’t asbestos, it was treated as a hazardous site. Cleanup was completed in April.
Ground was broken on June 12, and now the walls are up and the roof is on. Wiring is in progress and plumbing and heating are being installed.
“Our goal is to be producing in September,” said Gary.
For the past several months, a mill in North Dakota has been making Swany White organic flour, which the Thelens have been distributing. The first order was filled in May.
Three of Swany White’s largest customers are Bix Produce in St. Paul, French Meadow Bakery in Minneapolis and Frankferd Farms in Saxonburg, Penn.
Swany White proved to be a favorite with many people. The Thelens’ niece, Kayla, went to Cash Wise in St. Cloud the night of the fire and filled a whole shopping cart with Swany White flour. The Thelens also heard about someone who went through the checkout at a store with many Swany White products and was asked by the cashier if something was happening, because that was the third or fourth person who had come through with a lot of Swany White items.
In addition to Swany White flour, the biggest sellers were pancake mix, bread mixes, flax seed, oatmeal and nine-grain mix. With those, the new facility will also sell rye flour, steel-cut oats, corn meal, buckwheat flour, oat brain, full fat soy flour and several other things. Swany White is certified organic, and 70 to 80 percent of the pre-fire business was organic.
Items used to be hand-packaged but in the new facility all packaging will be automated.
Swany White products will now be sold online as well. “We visited a mill in Wisconsin which sells through Amazon.com,” said Gary, “and we’re getting things set up to do that too.”
Sharon is designing the new Web site which is still under construction. It will be: www.swanywhiteflour.com.