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Swany White Flour back in business

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 12/06/2012 2:33 PM

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FREEPORT, Minn. — There is no sign yet on Gary Thelen's new building, but, until it arrives he wants everyone to know Swany White Flour Mill in Freeport is open for business.

That's great news for Thelen who, less than a year ago, lost the original mill in a Dec. 27, 2011 fire. The only part of the original structure that remains standing is the smokestack which was deemed structurally sound. Thelen hopes to put some kind of memorial to the business at the site.

The old building was a mainstay in the community. The mill was over a century old started in 1903 by his grandfather, Peter and Peter's brother, Hubert They made upgrades to the business in 1913 when they added a third floor to the two-story building, dug a basement and installed new mill equipment.

It was that equipment that was unique. Instead of the machinery running on ball bearings, it sued Babbit bearings which required constant oiling during the milling process.

Oiling the machine was second nature for Thelen and his employee Ron Berscheit. Both were working in the building the day of the fire.

Thelen can't forget the day's events. It was 4:30 and Berscheit was cleaning the mill's rolls. Thelen was milling white flour when he smelled smoke. Berscheit soon called to his boss as he saw smoke coming up through the breakroom floor.

He ran to the mill's stairs and heard crackling on the third floor, Thelen said. His first instinct was to shut the mill down. He started to climb the steps to the third floor but the smoke was too thick.

Smoke was coming out of the building's cupola.

"I went outside and thought, 'This is bad,'" Thelen said.

Both men got out and no one was hurt. They stood aside as fire crews worked on the blaze.

"It took two hours for the whole thing to fall in," he said. "I went home around 10. I was probably in shock at the time."

Shortly after the fire, when asked if he would rebuild, Thelen said no. But as the weeks passed, he thought about his next move.

"I am 56 years old," he said. "If I was a younger man, it would've been an easier decision. I am too young to retire and my wife says I am too stubborn to work for anybody else. We put a lot of thought into the decision and decided to rebuild."

Construction started in June and was completed in September, he said. It might be a new building, but Thelen and his wife, Sharon, have added some special touches reminiscent of the original structure. The laminate floors are plank-like in appearance, just like the wood floors of the old building. The ceiling is tin with tin molding and a vintage stove and buffet are great focal pieces in the mill's store.

Much of the furniture, including Thelen's desk, were purchased through Craig's List or at local garage sales.

Last March Thelen visited a mill in Harvey, N.D. that purchased its mill equipment from Italy. The process is similar to the one he used in the old mill, Thelen said. He is purchasing that flour for his Swany White Flour.

Whole grain flours will be ground at his Freeport building from the hammermill that had been in the old mill's basement. The mill will soon be installed in the building after some final adjustments, he said.

Besides the showroom, the new building has 1,100 square feet for the mill and the same space for a warehouse.

While much of the business' focus remains the same, Thelen has upgraded his equipment including a packaging machine. He continues to mix the Swany White Pancake mix himself from a recipe developed by his father, Walter.

Shortly after the fire, Berscheit took another job, but Thelen will be hiring a new employee soon to help with mill's work.

Swany White will soon have a website and is on facebook.