Making It: Mixing Up History & Tradition At Fowler’s Mill
Maker: Billie Erickson, owner
Business: Fowler’s Milling Company, Chardon, sold online, on-site and at various local retail shops
Fowler's Mill has been a landmark in Geauga County for generations. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]
You’ve owned this historic mill for more than 35 years now. How did you come to purchase it back then?
We bought the mill, my husband and I, back in 1985, and we were actually living in Columbus at that time. I had a retailing and marketing background and my husband had an engineering background. He loved to bake bread and we started out searching for really good flours. And then we learned about different mills throughout Ohio and learned that this one was for sale. I grew up here in Chardon, and we decided we would buy it and try to get started in business. We spent two years just getting the building cleaned up, getting equipment in here and making it all work before starting into production.
Billie Erickson shortly after she and her husband reopened the mill in 1987. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]
How did you build the foundation for the business in those early years?
There was an organization of Ohio direct marketing farmers, people who grow products and sell them directly from their farm. And that really launched our business. We learned about many agricultural-related conferences where we could sell our product to farm market operators. So these would be orchard men, people who are raising apples, strawberries, peaches on their farm. People come to the farm to shop in the store, and gradually over time we designed our entire product line, we have about 27 products now, and most of them are designed to be sold with fresh fruit from the farm. So that has been a great niche for us. We have several hundred wholesale customers for our markets all across the country, mostly east of the Mississippi.
The cloth bags have become iconic for several of the mill's baking products. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]
After 35 years, it’s easy to see how much you still enjoy this. What’s your most favorite part of it all?
Well, it's really the whole process, you know. We have a lot of great customers, and we get new customers all the time. And my job is really to do business development and marketing and bring in new customers. Our staff that's been here, we have the same core staff for the last 30 years. It’s an amazing, wonderful staff of people, and they have kept the business going. They run the daily operation, they do the production, they do the shipping. And I just try and keep up with bringing in new business, and then they take it from there. We're just blessed to have such an amazing staff.
Tony Krysiak, production operator, lines up bags of ingredients before transferring the items to the mixer. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]
What can you share about the rich history of this area, which goes back to the early 1800s?
This little area in Munson Township called Fowlers Mill, there was a lumber mill here first. This whole county, but particularly this area of Munson, was very dense with trees and uninhabited around the early 1800s. The Fowler family came here from Connecticut and they settled in Burton, and the two sons, Milo and Hiram, decided that they would come this direction and try to establish a settlement here. The first thing they did when they arrived was to build a lumber mill so they could build buildings. Then they started commerce here and they built several houses. So when you come here and you drive around and look at the historic houses that are here, most of those were built by the Fowler brothers, and they lived in them and raised families here. And then this mill was started in 1834.
Erickson shows a photo from her collection of the mill in its early days. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]
You and your husband both played such an integral role in keeping the history of this mill alive. Would you tell me a bit about him?
His name is Rick, and he passed away four years ago, but he worked really hard over many, many years. He was a very innovative person who could really build anything. He could make something out of nothing. And it was great to be able to do that with him, run the business with him. He felt great about being able to put the mill back into production and have it make product for its time, because throughout its history, it always made product of the time. So that's a really important part of it. Rather than turning it into a museum or an antique store or something like that, we felt pretty honored that we could keep it going.
Billie's husband Rick Erickson, who had a background in engineering, devoted his life to operating the mill and developing recipes for flours and baking mixes. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]
Editors note: An earlier version of the video above was edited because it included proprietary information.