When the early settlers in Marion County harvested their first wheat crops, they had to haul the grain a long distance, i.e. Junction City, Cedar Point, or Burlington, to have it milled into flour.
Some of these enterprising Americans soon developed their own mills for local trade. The first mills were operated using wind and water. Later, steam engines ran the equipment.
In addition to the historic Ehrlich mill that existed south of Marion from 1871 to 1962, numerous others were established throughout the county.
In 1876, Jacob J. Friesen Sr. and his son established a grist mill west of Gnadenau, a Mennonite village located southeast of present-day Hillsboro. The equipment was operated by a Dutch-style windmill similar to those used by the Mennonites in southern Russia. It ground corn, barley, rye, and wheat. A replica of the windmill sits in the Hillsboro Museum complex.
S.B. Riggs built a steam-powered mill at Peabody in 1873.
After wheat acreage expanded and a roller system of milling wheat was developed, several commercial flour mills sprang up in Marion County. They gave the flour a better appearance and a uniform quality.
Entrepreneurs in almost all of the small towns in the county established flour mills, each with their own brand names. Several of them became profitable enterprises, producing flour for shipment to larger cities in Kansas and elsewhere, as well as to local customers.
The fledgling town of Hillsboro had three grain elevators in 1881 but no flour mill. Officials convinced Jacob Funk of rural Marion to join with townspeople to finance and build a steam mill. The Union Roller Mills, better known as Funk and Sons, was reported to be “the best in the state.” Customers came from beyond the county line.
The Nov. 24, 1882 issue of the Marion County Record reported, “Mssrs. Funk and Son are running their mill night and day, yet they are very much behind with their orders. Their flour is being sold in New Mexico and Colorado very extensively.”
Unfortunately, the mill burned in 1884. The Bartel Ebel family constructed a new mill in 1891 and operated it until 1896. Known as Hillsboro Roller Mill, it was discontinued in 1937.
The townspeople of Marion wanted a mill of their own. They established the Marion City Mills in the heart of the city in June 1882. A Sept. 1, 1882 article in the Marion County Record stated the mill was operating at capacity: “The Marion City Mills are so crowded with work that they run night and day. Considerable new machinery is being added to increase the facilities for grinding.”
Built of limestone, the mill was three stories high and had a basement. It was located on Water Street between First and Second streets. The flour was branded as “Patent Process Horseshoe.”
In 1877, millers Jacob and John Ehrlich built a mill on the Cottonwood River two miles northwest of Marion. They moved their operation downstream to Marion in 1884, when they built a flour mill of native stone on the west end of Santa Fe Street. An elevator was added in 1886. Known as the Cottonwood Valley Mills, it processed wheat, corn, and rye using steam and water.
The mill was damaged by fire in October 1920 and never was rebuilt. The stones were used to build a large barn west of Marion on 190th Road, the ruins of which are being disposed of at this time.
The Ehrlichs also took over operation of the Marion City Roller Mills. Both mills prospered until poor wheat crops and the economic depression of the early 1890s forced the Ehrlichs to sell their milling properties.
Jacob Ehrlich left the milling business, but John Ehrlich bought the Stone Brook mill south of Marion and restored its name to Excelsior. J.S. Good owned and operated the Marion Roller Mills until the early 1900s.
By 1886, Peabody had two steam operated mills. One was constructed by J.O. Moffet. It operated until 1921. Shortly after World War I, when Europe was experiencing a famine, Moffett sent a train carload of flour to Belgium, with the label “White Light.” Several years later, one of the sacks came back with a statement of appreciation embroidered on it.
Pete Shriver and his son operated a mill built on the Cottonwood River at Florence. It was built in May 1874 by James Graham. Until it burned in 1919, the Pioneer Mill produced several brands of flour, the best-known being “Kansas Cyclone Flour.”
E.P. Mowrer built a flour mill in Lost Springs in 1902. He rebuilt after a tornado destroyed it. As with other mills, the Lost Springs Roller Mills changed owners several times. It was shipping 50 to 75 carloads of “Silver Wave” flour yearly to eastern markets by 1914. It burned in 1916.
In 1894, the Groening Brothers Mill and Grain Company at Lehigh was established with the help of Karl Ehrlich. The mill was owned by Frank and Abram Groening in 1900. They sold “Lehigh’s Best Flour” and “Pride Flour.”
A five-story mill established in Aulne in 1907 produced “Ideal Flour” through 1911.
At Tampa, R. Fritch and Ed Asmann were operating a flour and feed mill in 1900. It produced “Queen of Tampa” and “Crown” flour. The mill burned in 1912.
A flour mill was in operation in Goessel in 1900. In 1907, Hillsboro had two mills. The Johann A. Klassen roller mill was located at the present site of the Cooperative Grain and Supply elevator. The Ebel brothers’ mill was located across the railroad tracks to the north.
Other mills too numerous to mention existed at various places. Marion County no longer has a flour mill. Many flour mills were converted to livestock feed mills. Their production of flour was replaced more cheaply by larger mills in surrounding counties.
(Published sources: Marion County Kansas: Past and Present, by Sondra Von Meter, 1972; The Friesen Mill, Peggy Goertzen, 1994)