125th anniversary of Lindsborg’s Old Mill begins with a good greasing
LINDSBORG — For 364 days out of the year, the Smoky Valley Roller Mills building at the Old Mill & Swedish Heritage Museum in Lindsborg is quiet as visitors walk through and contemplate its history.
But then, the giant mill inside awakens, roars, flaps and groans during the town’s annual Millfest celebration, traditionally held the first Saturday of May.
This year marked the mill’s 125th anniversary. And this year, Sharon Entz of Newton was in charge of preparing the mill for its annual show.
Entz, owner and operator of the Crust & Crumb Co. bakery in Newton, is a graduate of Kansas State University with a milling science degree. So, she definitely has the credentials to run the mill.
She has also spent the past decade working as a volunteer at the mill. And, beyond that, milling is in her blood.
“Before my grandparents immigrated from the Ukraine to Canada, they were flour millers,” she said. “When they moved to Saskatchewan, they became farmers, and then my mother married a farmer in Kansas, and that’s how I ended up in Kansas.”
Even with her background, it takes a certain know-how and technique to run an antique flour mill.
“A few days before Millfest, we have to make sure all the Babbitt bearings are greased,” Entz said. “The Babbitt bearings are old technology ... You have to constantly make sure that shaft is lubricated so the bearing doesn’t get too hot and burn down the mill.”
No pressure. The Smoky Valley Roller Mills is only on the National Register of Historic Places, and the only one of its kind still operating in the Midwest.
At one time, Kansas had as many as 500 mills.
This mill operated until 1955, originally powered by water turbines. In the 1930s, it converted to electricity.
It’s a roller mill, which means it uses a series of corrugated rollers to grind the grain. History buffs call it the “granddaddy of the modern mill.”
“I always feel like when the first break rolls in an operating mill, it smells like honey when that wheat is just getting broken open,” Entz said. “It really has a very sweet honey smell to it.
“This mill is one machine basically, because it is all controlled by one electric motor. It’s all leather, wood and steel. It’s just beautifully restored … It’s really cool seeing the craftmanship and walking on those wooden floors that bounce a little bit from the equipment running.”
When the Smoky Valley Roller Mills is in full operation, some have described being on the top floor as similar to standing in a boat that’s being tossed at sea. The floors shake. The vibrations of the machines and pulleys are a cacophony of sound.
“If you don’t have a strong stomach, it can definitely feel a little nauseating and disconcerting as it’s moving under your feet and you see these very large machines just whipping around at high speed,” said Adam Pracht, marketing and communications director at the museum.
When fully operating, each of the floors has a different sound.
Consider the wonderment of the basement, where the drive shaft and train of the mill operate.
The first floor, where the process of grain getting crushed into flour begins.
Second floor, with sock dusters and purifiers, belts, wheels, boxes and whirling wood and metal.
And the third floor, where the floor is vibrating and rocking like in a boat.
Pracht said it took Entz a full day to make sure the mill was ready to run for Millfest. No small task: In its heyday, it took four to six people to operate the mill, which processed 30 to 35 bushels of wheat per hour.
“And we are so appreciative because … she was working in the very top of the elevator legs,” Pracht said. “Those are about 20 feet above the floor. And the catwalk in there is about 18- inches wide. And each and every one of those has to be greased all along the way.”
Now, imagine doing that even though you're not a fan of heights, like Entz.
“At the beginning of the day, I was pretty scared and nervous about going up there," she said. "But I got used to it by the end of the day.”
It’s the sounds of the roller mill that make Millfest so special, a chance modern-day Kansans only get once a year. In large part of because of Entz.
“Even though I spent 10 years in the milling industry, I had never oiled a Babbitt bearing before,” she said. “ I learned from somebody who knew what they were doing … making sure that you get every single oil and every single little cap that feeds oil to the Babbitt bearings, so it took me seven hours.
“And boy, I mean, I’m 46 and so I can move, but I was pretty sore after crawling up and down all the ladders to get everywhere to oil every bearing.”