Sunday, May 4, 2008

Fourth generation gone, Weisenberger Mill rolls on

By Monica Wade
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

Weisenberger Mill (photo by Scott Beale, Laughing Squid) has provided flour and cornmeal from the shores of South Elkhorn Creek since the 1880s, and a variety of other products in recent years as the mill passed through the generations of its founding family.

Now another generation has passed, with the April 9 death of Philip Joseph Weisenberger II, the mill’s fourth-generation owner, who developed the niche products that helped it survive in an era when most small mills went out of business.

Phil Weisenberger worked in the mill right up until being admitted to St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington. He had recently undergone triple heart bypass surgery but was unable to recover from it.

“He loved the business,” said Buena Bond, his secretary of 41 years. “It was his life; he was in here every day, including Saturday, when he would make bread for his friends and family with flour from the mill.”

Weisenberger began working at the mill in the 1940s and took over the business in 1955 after his father died.

“He worked hard,” said his son, Mac Weisenberger. “He worked every day and took care of everything.”

Mac started working at the mill after school as a young man and then came to work full time in 1973. “I wanted to work in the mill since I was young,” he said. “Although it seemed like it was a lot easier back then.”

Even with Phil’s death, there is still a Philip Weisenberger at the mill – Mac’s son Philip Weisenberger, named for his grandfather.

Through the eyes of a young boy, the mill may seem like a wonderful playground, but in an adult’s view it is a fully functioning power that requires a great deal of time and work.

Bond calls the generations of owners a “chain reaction.” She said when one Weisenberger passes on, another steps up to fill their father’s shoes.

Beyond Phil Weisenberger’s hard-working attitude, he was also known for his kindness and generosity.

Father Dan Noll of St. Leo Catholic Church knew him for four years, since coming there as a parish priest. Noll said Phil often brought fresh bread that he made as a gift to the Father and sisters of the church. Family members and Noll said Weisenberger donated flour to impoverished nuns living in Louisville. Those nuns were said to have attended his funeral, along with many others who were touched by his generous hand.

Family members said Weisenberger held church in high importance in his life, along with his family and the mill. Noll said he attended Mass at least twice a week if not more often and that he was very active in several different parishes. He said Weisenberger would attend Saturday night mass at St. Francis or White Sulphur and was at St. Leo every Sunday morning, often accompanied by his wife Bett and his sister Betty Bright.

Noll said that in the hospital before surgery, Weisenberger was at peace with the prospect of dying, and was ready and not afraid.

“He really believed in God and in eternal life,” Noll said. “He saw an importance of loving others and keeping justice for the poor.”

He said Weisenberger had traditional values and was a big financial supporter of the church when it had to move to a bigger location.

“He was a generous man,” Noll said. “He was really open and caring. I thought very highly of him.”

Noll said Weisenberger had a happy nature and humble attitude. Bond called him a kind, gentle and happy man. “He always had a twinkle in his eye.”

She also said he was a born salesman and very creative, as he was the creator of the mill’s numerous mixes and batters.

Mac Weisenberger said the mill is partially run by two water-powered turbines, has kept the same flow since 1913, and can produce 150 hundred pound bags in 24 hours.

New, larger mills can produce around 1 million pounds. But the mill has prospered because specialty products created by Philip Weisenberger, such as flour and cornmeal mixes for frying and baking, biscuit mix and pancake mix.

Weisenberger is one of very few small mills left in the United States. Mac said that in 1950 there were 5,000 mills, and that number has dwindled to 500.

The mill is run by four employees: a miller, a mixer, and employees who fill packages, load the trucks and keep the place clean.

Though the mill’s product line has expanded, Mac said it is important to him, as it was to his father, to keep the basic process the same.

“We mill grain the same way since we started,” he said. “We put an emphasis on quality, not quantity.”

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