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From Housing Prisoners to Grinding Grain: Maine Jail Transformed
09/05/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

This weekend, Skowhegan will reconnect with its roots when a new business opens up downtown. Maine Grains will produce and wholesale stone-ground grain from local farms at a new mill inside the old Somerset County jail building. The company's founders bought the old jail three yeas ago and set about turning it into a working grist mill. As Jay Field reports, the project has taken shape amidst the fading remants of Skowhegan's past as a booming 19th century mill town.

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The Kennebec River flows south from Moosehead Lake. Some 60 miles later, it divides into north and south channels at Skowhegan Island. In the mid-19th century, when the railroad made its way to central Maine, textile manufacturers saw a lucrative future unfolding in front of them. They moved to convert the rushing water into hydro-electric power, and before long, mills turning out paper, flour, wool and other products rose along the waters edge.

There were several shoe factories--and, of course, now New Balance factory is the last one," says Steven Dionne, a lifelong resident here who runs a family contracting business, Dionne and Son Builders. "All around Skowhegan, there were various wood turning mills that produced wooden parts---balusters for stairs and dowels and that type of thing. And a majority of them have closed."

Some of these old buildings----multiple stories of crumbling, smashed-in windows and rusting steel----still sit vacant along the river. Since 2005, Main Street Skowhegan, part of a statewide effort to restore historic downtowns, has invested more than $4 million here. Twenty one new businesses have opened. Several dozen public improvement projects have been completed.

Still, despite the obvious revitalization efforts going on around him, Steven Dionne was surprised when Amber Lampke, a local entrepeneur, called him and asked him to take on a unique project.

"This piece of equipment came from Austria. There are four foot millstones inside," Lampke says. Lampke, who runs the company Maine Grains, is standing on the second floor of the former Somerset County Jail building, in front of what looks like a large wooden cement mixer. The large Austrian stones inside this contraption grind flour at cooler temperatures, preserving more nutrients.

Shortly after Somerset moved it's jail to Madison in 2009, Lampke and a partner bought the 5,000-square-foot building for $65,000. "Our plans to open a mill coincided with the sale of the building. And we decided that an adaptive reuse of this building was a good idea for the communtity," she says.

Turning a jail into a grist mill made perfect sense to Lampke, who had been looking for a way to contribute to the community transformation and restore a lost art to central Maine. "New England was once a major producer of grains and we wanted to revive that here in Maine," she says. "There were bakers that were eager for local grains and farmers willing to grow it."

In the mid-1800s, Somerset County produced about 240,000 bushels of wheat, enough to feed over 100,000 people. Somerset Grist Mill plans to partner with farmers across the state. Within three years, Maine Grains, the mill's parent company, hopes to produce 600 tons of organic grain per year.

The mill will primarily process wheat and oats, but will also handle spelt, rye and buckwheat. Maine Grains will wholesale flour, rolled oats and cereals to bakeries, grocery stores and distilleries throughout New England.

Garin Smith raises chickens, milks cows and grows vegetables at Grassland Farm in Skowhegan. He says the mill opens up another revenue stream for small-scale organic farmers.

"Our production system---where we grow vegetables and we're organic and we rotate---fits very well with small grain cover crops," Smith says. "So to be able to grow a cover crop that is going to produce a bunch of carbon for our vegetables' soil and also harvest a profitable crop off of it, primarily as hard winter wheat, is a great opportunity."

Maine Grains is also leasing space in the building to other businesses, including The Pickup: a local food cafe and community supported agriculture market run by Garin Smith's wife. The mill begins operating Saturday with tours and a kickoff celebration for the public.


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