Given that Ardent Mills' Newton plant recently celebrated its 100-year anniversary, it goes without saying that the local flour mill has a lot of history behind it.
Over that century, ownership of the mill itself has changed hands several times — and numerous employees have come and gone in that span at the production facility. With the recent milestone, one such employee is getting ready to share his perspective and a little slice of that history, as Sam Andrews prepares to release his first book "Trackside at the Mill: 1981-1998" this fall.
When Andrews started working at the mill in 1981, he began documenting his daily routine. Being in the mill and helping in the process of turning wheat into flour before it was shipped off, Andrews had a good perspective of what all went on — from receiving the wheat to the milling process to the shipment out of the warehouse — and is aware of just how much that process has changed over the years. That evolution of the plant is part of the reason Andrews said he wanted to write this book, so the history would be preserved and future generations would understand what all went on at the mill.
"Just about everything that's talked about in there (the book) no longer exists. Everything's changed; the milling industry, the railroad, it's all changed and it's all gone," Andrews said. "After I left, years later, I looked at all these notes and said 'well, I need to do something about it.' It's my wife that actually gave me the idea of writing the book."
At least a quarter of the book is a year-by-year breakdown of the work Andrews was doing at the mill, but he noted a good portion also addresses the history of the milling industry in Newton and how the operation at Broadway began — though the connecting fiber is the role rail transportation played from the beginning all the way through Andrews' employment with the mill (when it was owned by Cargill).
"This book, it's not a 100-year history of the milling operation or about milling science," Andrews said. "It's more the connection with the railroad, the transportation sector of it. For decades and decades, they relied on the railroad to move their products."
"Basically, I look at it as an eyewitness account as if you're standing at the south walls of the mill looking out over Broadway, looking out over the street and seeing what's going on on the tracks," Andrews said.
During Andrews' time at the flour mill, the focus shifted from producing sacked flour that was exported to numerous foreign countries (including Egypt, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, among others) to bulk domestic flour. That change took place in the early 90s and led to the plant sending out about five carloads of flour per day (rather than four).
The export market is something Andrews said the average person might not know about the mill's history — with wheat harvested in Kansas making its way to the Middle East — while he agreed with current staff that the foresight of founder Rudolph Goerz also helped set the Newton mill apart and allow it to continue production to this day.
"I don't know how he did it, but he raised the capital and when he built this mill he wanted to have it in a location where he had access to more than one railroad ... so he decided to build it here in Newton, and when he built it he spent the extra money to build it very proficiently," Andrews said. "It was a large size, built entirely of concrete and steel. Most of your factory buildings from 100 years ago were built with brick with sturdy wooden floors. This thing here, for a flour mill — for a factory building, period — was well ahead of its time."
For comparison, Andrews pointed out that a competing mill just across the street (Ardent Mills' current warehouse location) made of brick and wood burned down in the late 1950s.
Sharing his story and his experience having been a part of the mill's history, Andrews hopes potential readers will take an interest in the product, its surprising reach, the various owners and operators who have kept the mill going for such a lengthy period of time and the joint history between two staples of Newton — mills and the railroad.
"There's a lot of history in here of both the mill and the railroad, about how the two entities worked together. There's information of all these freight trains that came through here — where they came from, where they were going, where the loads of flour when they left here went to, stuff that people probably never even gave an idea or even thought of," Andrews said. "We've got it documented here."
Andrews is targeting a September release for his book and it will be available for purchase at Anderson's Book and Office Supply (627 N. Main St., Newton).