Thoman Mill

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There were other changes than in milling. When I started at the mill the common farm was 80 acres and employed a hired hand the year around. Before I left farmers were farming up to 250 acres and milking 20 to 25 cows in addition this with no help except that the wife might ride a tractor occasionally. The 80 acre farm was averaging around 18 bushel of wheat to the acre with top yields running up to 25 bushel. Farmers now averaging around 45 bushel to the acre with yields running up to 60 bushel. As old time farming changed, the farmer bought more and more machinery and his use of flour which had been very heavy declined rapidly along with his need of energy foods carbohydrates. The same thing was happening in cities fewer hours of lighter labor and the needs for less energy. The per capita use of flour began to shrink very rapidly. Then a few years later the commercial bakers began strong advertising campaigns to convince women they didn’t need to bake. These were successful and fewer and fewer women did bread baking. Then diets commenced to change. The bread, meat and potatoes diet changed to salads, vegetables, and fruits which were coming on the market year around. The women and the men also began to get weight conscious and commenced to feel that bread and potatoes were puffing them out of shape. With the advancement of the automobile, people walked less with still less need of energy. And the woman learned how to play bridge which may have had something to do with it also. Then prepared mixes commenced to come on the market first the biscuit mixes, then late cake mixes finally frozen pies and TV dinners. Very little flour as such is used now in the average home. The sale of flour is almost all to converters bakeries and prepares of ready-made foods or foods needing merely to be put in the oven. The mix markers almost all own their own mills which are called captive mills and do all the milling for themselves. For many years after export business stopped we had found a good market in the south and before too long that had changed to self rising flour entirely. The south served hot baking powder biscuits each and every meal. They preferred Michigan flour for its whiteness and its tenderness in biscuits. After some years the practice started of mixing in the flour’s soda, an acid phosphate or cream of tartar and salt so only a liquid need to be added. After some years the western mills got a preferential freight rate to the south and took considerable of the business price basis even the flours was not quite as satisfactory. As stated above, for many years self rising flour was the only type of flour for home use shipped to the south. I do not know how far they may have strayed from hot biscuits three times a day but only very little of such flour is now shipped there out of Michigan. I imagine it was the success of this mix that led some mills to venture into the more intricate cake mixes. When we were shipping self rising flour to the south, we tried to introduce the same flour as a biscuit flour to the north in a very attractive sack designed especially for attraction of the buyer. It was not very successful. As long as we advertised it, it moved in moderate volume but slackened as advertising slackened and the margin did not support the necessary advertising. At first the larger mills had the same results with their biscuit flours but they had a deeper pocketbook and more reason for persistence. Here hot biscuits are an infrequent treat while in the south they appear every meal or used to. When the first cake flours appeared on the market, I thought some of trying that but your experience with the biscuit flour decided against it. It would have required a large investment with a long delayed return and was really a job for a large mill with national distribution and large capital and I was wanting to get further out and not further in.

So the per capita flour consumption has had a steady and very decided decline during all my business experience to I would guess a little if any more than half the 1900 figure. The sale of flour to the housewife as flour has almost disappeared. Milling is rapidly moving to the large integrated companies. The need for smaller independent mills is more and more declining except for sales to local bakeries and flour jobbers, delivered mostly by truck, but the active and aggressive mill can still remain successful. In the days of the small merchant mills, Michigan had no really large mills even by standards of these days except in Detroit and Hillsdale and by today’s standards those are moderate sized. The average merchant mill in Michigan ran from 200 barrels a day to 600 or so that means on a 24 hour day. Mills were run then night and day 6 days a week and at times seven days with two 12 hour shifts, recognized as necessary to keep down costs as prices were extremely competitive. As the use of flour declined and the market for the mills shrunk, there commenced the game of musical chairs with mills being gradually and surely driven out of business. Competition became and remained intense and the search for markets never slackened. A mill crippled by fire or other causes were never rebuilt and many were abandoned and stood idle until used for something else or torn down as they failed in business or became consistently unprofitable. It seems that the situation has still not changed as about a month ago I saw that the largest U.S. Milling Company General Mills has closed down seven of its mills which adds up to half its capacity due to the inability of securing a profit from their operation.

Before this century, flour for the domestic trade was shipped in wooden barrels 196# to the barrel which is 14 stone the English weight. Shipping mills commonly had their own cooper shops. The Thoman Mill at one time employed 10 coopers. The staves and the heads came in carlots. The hoops were shaved hoops coming in a few bundles at a time from the small towns north of here. It was the practice in the small towns for a few people to employ themselves in the winter by cutting poles and then with a drawknife shaving hoops off the poles into strips of an inch or so wide and about 6 or seven feet long. These would be just the outer part of the poles so the hoops would always have the bark as part of the hoop. To keep them pliable they were soaked for some time before use in a huge wooden vat full of water near the cooper shop back of the mill. After a spell the vat would accumulate a rich aroma a bit reminiscent of a tannery and after enough complaints had been registered, the vat would be emptied and cleaned. The flour barrel was really a very nice looking package and the making of it very interesting and I spent quite a bit of time when young in the cooper shop watching the barrels being made. Some few years before the barrels were discontinued, crepe paper liners were introduced and used by the mill. Flour was sold out of the barrels just as sugar and crackers once were dipped out according to the amount wished. Along about the turn to the century the use of sacks for flours commenced paper sacks for the local trade and cotton for carlot shipment though we did ship some little in paper to New England. These stuck to the 196# weight as a standard and were packed in 98#, 49# and 24 ½# amounts being fractions of the 196# barrel and were sold and priced by the barrel. Then as the use of flour diminished, 12# and 61/8# sacks came into use and 5# sacks introduced to the local trade. Later the decimal system came into use the mills secured a national lay an then we had 100#, 50#, 25# 12 ½#, 10#, 5# and finally 2# sacks.

We used to ship some flour to the logging camps in Michigan and New England in addition to the New England city trade but our best market after export stopped was in the south. The south demanded a very white flour and Michigan wheat had a natural white color. However to get the flour whiter and whiter bleaching was introduced. The first method was called the Alsop process and the only one ever used by us. This consisted in passing air over an electric spark which greatly activate it and the flour was sprayed in a chamber kept filled with the activated air. Flour contains carotene a yellowish oil that gives a slightly creamy color to the newly milled flours. This was called “bloom” by old time millers who were very proud of a nice clear creamy appearance of their flour. However the housewives did not want bloom they wanted dead whiteness. The color gradually disappeared in storage in a matter of a few months depending on conditions of storage. The Alsop process would produce in a few days the results of months of storage without treatment. The treatment sounds rather harmless but was the subject of a great deal of controversy between the mills and manufacturer and the government, as to whether the process was really bleaching. Western wheats produce flour somewhat darker than Michigan nor does it lose its color as readily as Michigan flour anyway they require stronger treatment. The West got preferential freight rates to the south and needed a whiter flour to take advantage of this windfall. The stronger flours were not as satisfactory even though bleach as Michigan but were considerable cheaper and took over a very large portion of the market there. But there was also a demand from bakers for a whiter flour to make whiter bread. So stronger bleaches came on the market. These used chlorine in some form. One was chlorine in a liquid form used as a gas and called Beta Chlora. In another type, chlorine was incorporated as a powder and fed into the flour. This entirely disappeared in a short time leaving practically no detectable residue as an addition to the mineral content of the flour known as ash. Both were very effective. The chlorine used as a gas was found to have another property than merely bleaching. When used with pastry flours, it held the cake in the oven right at its point of furthest expansion through some action on the gluten. So thus it avoided that slight shrinkage that is apt to occur in flours made from untreated flours which makes the cake slightly heavy. It also enables the dough to carry a large percentage of sugar keeping the cake moist and fresh longer as well as making a sweeter cake. So this was used with all fancy cake flours such as Swan’s Down, Soft as Silk, etc. I am sure that this type of treated flour is used in all cake mixes.

The Thoman Mill as it was being torn down in 1957 and replace with a parking lot. (FPLA/CADL)

Before the end of the last century there was little or no trouble with insect infestation of wheat, flour or mills at least I heard of very little. But about that time I can recall the commencement of some treatment for it. As far as our mill is concerned, the first use of preventatives was carbon disulfide. It was a liquid and was set around in pans to gasify. It seemed not only to eliminate the infestation but also to give the applicators the experience of a glorious drunk. So I think it can safely be said that the insects all died happy. I image these were the two types of grain weevil. Some few years later the Mediterranean Fly arrived in this country and spread unbelievably rapidly. For quite a few years it was a real pest that required constant vigilance. If left undisturbed a very short time, it would completely fill a spout or an elevator leg with a thick mat of web. The first method of meeting this was to burn papers heavily impregnated with a liquid made from tobacco I presume heavy in nicotine. I bought small cans, punched the top full of holes, bent over a thin strip to hold the papers up from the bottom and these when lit and set in the bottom of the spouts and elevator legs did a very excellent job. By keeping on top of the situation we had no trouble at all but mills that neglected the treatment till the pest got a good start had a very serious and expensive problem on their hands. From that time on I do not recall any trouble with that insect I presume that our regular treatments by the improving method pretty well kept it eliminated. Weevil however still required constant attention. This burning of papers created a fire hazard and I was never happy about that. Other and better methods were looked for the industry. Then in the Northwest, Minnesota and the Dakotas, the use of extreme cold was tired successfully. It was found that zero cold for twenty four hours would eliminate both insects and their eggs. While that was suitable for the section where it originated, it was not practical in this area. It was also found that a heat of 110 to 120 degrees for twenty four hours would be just as effective. So for some few years each summer on the Fourth of July weekend which fortunately always seemed in a hot steam, with the city keeping steam in the mains as a favor to us, we would seal the mill up tight and turn on all the steam possible till Monday morning. This worked very well except that for the first couple days after reopening we had a free Turkish bath with the heat coming out of the walls. They acted just like a hot water bottle. I do not really recall any failures but it was always a worry whether we would get the hot weekend before the city turned off the steam. So next when it was found that teargas was effective we turned to that. This meant extra careful sealing all doors, windows, and any cracks anywhere. The gas is very penetrative and hard to control and confine. We liked hot weather for that also as it made the gas much more active. It required gas masks and the worst of it was coming back Monday morning and trying to do business with the walls and floors giving back gas. For a couple of days or so, our place looked like a soap opera audience. Then too the gas being very penetrative, went deeply into stored flour. When the flour was used in a bakery it was about as effective in killing the yeast enzyme as it was in the insect life and eggs. So it brought complaints of bad batches of bread as well as tears to the eyes of the bakers. And no matter how tightly the place was sealed, always some little gas would escape and occasionally people a block or more from the mill would find their eyes full of tears and at times get quite concerned about it. It seemed to travel in clouds. We were not the only people who accepted the tears from the gas at all philosophically. After weeping this out for some few years, the use of hydrocyanic acid gas was developed and we used that until the closing of the mill. It did not affect the flour in any way and was very effective. Such life as it touched departed. However since the handling the material as well as the gas itself did not permit the slightest carelessness, I supervised personally the whole operation from handling the materials to setting off the fumes. The hardest work was to convince my help that it dint give anyone a second chance. It also required careful sealing but since the gas was lighter than air, there was no danger to the outside. It take a minute or so after the odor can be detected it smells like peach pits before it gets to lethal strength. I am happy to state that no one around our place ever learned what it smelled like. In addition I kept a guard around the place during the time of its greatest concentration, and also entered the plant first on Monday morning. There have been of course many changes in milling even in the few years intervening. Mills still require constant care to prevent insect infestation and in recent years a matching to five a final treatment just before the flour drops into the sacks or bin has come into wide use it is called the Entoleter. It throws the flours at great speed by centrifugal force against the walls and eliminates any life or eggs by impact. And this same principle has been applied to make four by some few mills milling by impact instead of by steel rolls. It seems to produce flour with somewhat different properties but so far is only used to a quite small extent. There are other phases of milling interesting to me at least such as the cleaning of wheat for milling and the progress and change made in that. And then too a great deal of flour is now delivered in bulk saving the cost of sacks. Many railroad cars have been built for this special use and mills that deliver as short ways by truck have special trucks in use. Of course this is the only use for users of large quantities of flour. But it does show in this age of extreme competition the lengths a manufacturer had to go to search for the ultimate economy, and reduction in cost.

Later—Since giving this paper I have run across an account of my father that will clear up the age of the mill. He states that the mill was built in 1868 and opened for business January 1st, 1869. So if the writer who spoke of the mill being built in 1857 is correct that a mill was built at that time, it would probably have been the Breisch Mill known as the Pearl Mills. Mr. Thoman also states that flour in his time sold as low as $2.50 per barrel and as high as $15.00 per barrel. And apparently we also had exported flour to France and Holland.

Bart Thoman from the Oracle Yearbook 1901

I have always wondered who wrote this paper on the Thoman Mill in Lansing. An article in the January 11, 1966 Lansing State Journal confirmed my suspicions that it was Bart Thoman the son of John P. Thoman. The paper was presented at the January meeting of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing at the Lansing Public Library on January 12, 1966. (LSJ1/11/1966) Later that same year the Lansing State Journalon September 27, 1966 reported that David Reynolds the son of Eleanor Reynolds, who was the daughter Frank Thoman, remove the buhrstone from in front of the old Frederick Thoman residence at 521 S. Grand. Just where the millstone is today is a mystery. (Is it on Capitol?) Wallace Bartley Thoman was born in Lansing on October 3, 1884 to John Phillip and Candace (née Paramore) Thoman. Not much is known about Wallace Bartley Thoman early life except that he graduated from Lansing High School in 1901 and he liked to be referred to as Bart Thoman. He was active young man while in High School, he was editor of the 1901 Oracle yearbook and was a member the Phi Alpha Delta fraternity. There seemed to be three things that were important in Bart’s life, the milling business, the city of Lansing and his work in providing education opportunities to the disadvantaged youth of Guatemala. He served on the board of several public and private organizations. It seems Bart shunned the limelight, preferring to not give interviews but to allow his work in the community and in Guatemala to speak for itself. It would have been fascinating to see Bart give his presentation on the history of Milling in Lansing on the cold January night. Bart never married. He was close to his sister Candace, together they formed the W B & Candace Thoman Foundation to serve the community and promote education. Bart Thoman died on January 20, 1979. (LSJ1/22/1979)