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The Wilkins Rogers Mills facility in Oella, across the river from historic Ellicott City, is slated to shut down in early 2020. Its the last operating commercial mill in Maryland.
The Wilkins Rogers Mills facility in Oella, across the river from historic Ellicott City, is slated to shut down in early 2020. Its the last operating commercial mill in Maryland. (Jerry Jackson)

Maryland will lose its last commercial grain mill when a flour and corn mill on the banks of the Patapsco River across from old Ellicott City shuts down early next year.

Wilkins-Rogers Inc. plans to relocate its Oella milling operations somewhere in the Midwest, according to Baltimore County officials who have been in contact with the company.

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The closure would end more than two centuries of milling in and around Ellicott City, dating back to the mill established on the same site by the Ellicott brothers in 1774.

Wilkins-Rogers has run the Frederick Road mill since 1969 and still employs about 30 people there. Mill officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Officials in Baltimore County’s Economic and Workforce Development office were told the mill would close early next year, said Sean Naron, a county spokesman. He said he believed Wilkins-Rogers planned to move to be closer to grain suppliers.

The family-owned Wilkins-Rogers flour and corn meal milling business serves commercial bakeries, grocers and food service distributors on the East Coast, the company’s website says. It makes flour for pretzels, cake, pastries and cookies and mills whole wheat, all purpose and self-rising flours and yellow and white corn meals. Consumer-branded products include Indian Head stone ground white and yellow corn meal and Washington branded corn meal, flour and breading mix.

Wilkins-Rogers’ planned closing in Oella will be a “great loss” for the economy as well as a loss of one of the last links to a crucial part of the Baltimore region’s history, said James Keffer, executive director of the Historical Society of Baltimore County.

“Grain milling helped build the foundation of our region; the Baltimore region was once the flour milling capital of the world,” Keffer said.

Milling was one of the earliest industries along the Patapsco as the Ellicott brothers, Joseph, Andrew and John, attracted by the power of the river’s flow, built and began running a mill there to process grains grown in the surrounding farmlands.

A succession of owners of the former Ellicott brothers site have run mills continuously up to the current Wilkins-Rogers business, which has sourced wheat from the Eastern Shore and Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties, said John McGrain, a longtime Baltimore County historian who has studied and photographed Maryland mills for decades. The mill was operated by Donut Corp. of America before Wilkins-Rogers took over.

“It’s sort of a shame to close down a 200-plus-year-old tradition,” McGrain said. “It was so nice to have this ongoing tradition that looked like it was going to continue indefinitely.”

The Ellicotts’ mechanized grain mill, designed by Oliver Evans, inspired assembly lines and the American style of manufacturing for many industries, Keffer said.

“It was an enormous operation in its time, with many sets of millstones [powered] by the water power of the Patapsco," McGrain said. “The Ellicotts really were part of the industrial revolution, because they were building mills on a very large scale in comparison to the country mills.”

The state’s mill building boom largely began after the American Revolution, with several mills in the Ellicott City area, and dozens more — which milled grain, textiles and paper — dotting the Patapsco and other waterways during the 19th and 20th centuries, McGrain said. McGrain, who worked for 30 years as a historic preservation planner in Baltimore County, said he documented 149 large and small mills operating throughout the state.

But nearly all the state’s mills have long since closed. Domestic grain milling migrated to the Midwest — America’s breadbasket — and is dominated now by large agribusiness such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill.

The Oella mill closure will be a loss for Maryland’s wheat farmers, the head of a state grain producers trade group said Monday.

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As the only commercial mill operating in Maryland, “Wilkins-Rogers ... provides a good market for our farmers that are growing wheat that is of a quality for flour milling” — for human consumption as opposed to feed for livestock — said Lindsay Thompson, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association. “Nobody likes to lose a customer.”

“For the farmers that were very close in proximity to the facility there, yes it’s going to be a loss," of a reliable and convenient market, Thompson said. "They’re going to have to find somewhere else to sell their wheat. But it doesn’t mean there will no longer be a market.”

Other options might be mills in Pennsylvania or a grain elevator on the Eastern Shore that sorts wheat and sells it to buyers, she said. In 2018, Maryland farmers harvested 200,000 acres of wheat, with a total production of 12.6 million bushels, she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture valued Maryland’s 2018 wheat crop at $60.5 million.

Wilkins-Rogers Inc., through its Washington Quality Foods division, had scaled back in Oella more than a decade ago, laying off 60 employees, then roughly two-thirds of its workforce, in 2007. At the time, a union official for the plant’s workers said the mill planned to stop making mixes for muffins and other products and focus on milling alone, turning wheat and corn in to flour and meal.

The company’s Washington Quality Foods division underwent a brief growth spurt in the late 1990s, buying the former Stroh Brewery Co. plant in Halethorpe to expand milling operations and make muffin mixes and pancake batter. But business was not brisk enough to keep both facilities running, and the company sold the Halethorpe property and consolidated operations on the five-acre Oella site.

Today, according to its website, Wilkins-Rogers has customers in every state from North Carolina to Maine, including large international baking companies, regional baker distributors and national grocery chains.

County officials didn’t have specifics about when the mill would close or how many workers faced losing their jobs. Naron said he did not know the company’s plans for its two other mills, in Mount Joy, Pa., and Palmyra, Pa.

“The county is offering outplacement services in partnership with the state to assist all affected employees if needed,” Naron said.

Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk said that when he last visited the plant, the milling business appeared to be thriving.

“They had a really robust business there," said Quirk, who represents the Oella area. ”It’s sad and a little disappointing to see them go.”

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