Blaschka Mill: 167 years old and still working

John Oncken
The Blaschka Mill at Marshall is still sturdy after 167 years.

Over the many years I’ve written this weekly column the subject matter has ranged far and wide from the latest ag news to portraits of family farms to farming history to yes, even bicycle riding.

The wide variety of subject matter has brought forth from readers an equally wide variety of questions and comments. Always a surprise to me were the many comments and questions I received during my many years (until four years ago) of 500 mile summer bike trips and 2000 miles a year pedaling a 27-speed touring bike.

Perhaps reader curiosity stemmed from their knowing I wasn’t a young athletic 150-pound tour de France type. Many admitted they planned to buy a bike and do as I was doing.

My columns centering on farming history, old buildings, equipment and farms and businesses always draw reader response. Maybe it’s because I and everyone I know is getting older and we think about farming as it was when we were growing up or visited granddad's farm. Then again, maybe it’s because in this era of computers, cell phones, e-mail,big equipment and high technology where answers are instant and patience is almost unheard of, people increasingly look to the past when life was lived on a slower track.

Whatever the reason, history, especially farming history, seems to be important to us these days.

Wells and Roger Johnson settle up.

A trip to the feed mill

Young folks will not remember the days, not terribly long ago, when a trip to the local feed mill was a big event. Farmers loaded the trailer or pickup truck with corn and oats and went to the local mill where the grains were ground and mixed and put into hand tied “gunny sacks” and hauled home to the barn and fed to the animals by hand.

Products and services are listed on the big blackboard in the mill office.

Most towns had two or more feed mills — always located along the railroad tracks — selling different brands of feed supplements. My dad often talked of getting together with other farmers and discussing local and world issues around the wood stove at Oregon Milling owned by John Struck and there were at least two feed mills at nearby Stoughton which he visited on occasion.

I guess one could call it a primitive peer group where farmers shared information about farming practices, politics and family,

A revisit

A week seemed like a good time to revisit the Blaschka Mill at Marshall about ten miles from my home. I had passed it many times in recent years and wrote about it many years ago. It’s a remnant of the past having been built in 1851, was sold several times over the years and in 1921 four Blaschka brothers, Adolph, George, Frank and William bought the place. During the Depression, George and Frank left the mill because it wouldn’t support four families. In 1938, William's son Ernie took sole ownership of the mill and was involved until his death in 2013 at age 94.

For many decades farmers backed up to the unloading dock where grain was unloaded for grinding.

On past occasions, now owner, Pat Wells (Ernie’s daughter) was in the smallish office at her desk doing whatever while carrying on a conversation with her husband Ralph Wells (recently out of the hospital) and customer Joel Weber. Of course, I settled into a somewhat rickety chair (like all feed mill chairs) and joined the conversation which wavered between a couple of local farms and the mill history.

Feeds and seeds for sale

Wells arrived with a list of seeds he was buying for what he called “deer plots” and he was on his way just as Kelly Meinholz and her dad Rich walked in to buy some wood shavings to use as bedding for Kelly’s Angus show calves. The Angus are part of 16 year old Kelly’s FFA supervised ag experience as a Sun Prairie High FFA member, and are owned by Mike Chadwick, a registered Angus breeder who lives nearby.

Pat Wells can tie the unique “millers knot” with a fast zip, zip, pull motion.

A bit later, Roger Johnson another Marshall resident came in to buy seven bales of straw for his garden.

Shavings, seeds and straw bought in small amounts by city folks are the kinds of things sold at the Blaschka Mill these days. Add in chicken, rabbit, bird, horse and other animal feeds, minerals and supplements and specialty items for the small hobby farmer make up much of Pat’s customers wants and needs.

Grist mills came first

That’s much different from the days when the grist mill was the center of ag business and often the first business to be built in newly founded villages and cities where animal feed and flour for baking were basic needs of growing populations. Over the years farms and their livestock herds grew in size and the weekly trip to the feed mill became impractical and commodities delivered directly to the farm for use in TMRs by bigger mills with modern equipment became the norm in the mid-1980’s.

The once much used roller mill now stands silent.

Change came

Nowadays, livestock farmers most likely work with a nutrition consultant who formulates a ration that ultimately is hauled to the farm in a semi-trailer and put in bins where it is mixed into a total mixed ration that is computer controlled.

Most of the old feed mills are long gone having been replaced by bigger operations with high tech equipment and serving a regional customer base. There are also a few family owned feed mills like Riverdale Ag Services at Muscoda that offer the “old mill” atmosphere but are high tech, very modern and offer a wide variety of services from spraying to grain storage.

You can still find the long closed old feed mills if you look hard. Some have been converted into shopping malls. Some have found a future as antique or quilting shops. Most have fallen down or are in the process. A few still remain standing tall and sturdy, probably on a rusty rail siding, most often empty, waiting for time or people to set their fate.

An even fewer of the anarchism's are still in business, grinding feed and living the life for which they were built so long ago remain.

Still in the past

Such is the Blaschka Mill at Marshall. This relic of the past is located in the downtown of one of the Madison area’s fast growing communities, at the junction of two traffic heavy highways and would you believe—still operates daily as the kind of mill farmers knew in the 1900’s.

The thousands of people who pass the Blaschka Mill every day traveling State Highways 19 and or 73 on their commute from and to Madison, Waterloo and Sun Prairie probably never think much about the imposing building that stands so tall and sturdy on the shore of the Maunesha River.

Visitors to the area often do pay attention and stop to take photos and ask questions and owner Pat Wells says several wedding parties have been photographed there with more planned.

The old old equipment — roller mill and power generating turbine — are still pretty much intact but unused but the ground floor is full of bags of feed and other supplies.

What does the future hold for the 167 year old Blaschka Mill? "I plan to stay open, there are so many customers who depend on us for supplies,” Wells says. “And dad always hoped to keep it in the family for 100 years — that’s in 2021.”

Yes, you can stop and visit — maybe even buy something — and be a part of living history that isn’t a museum but an actual business. You’ll enjoy!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at