MaryJane Butters began working with Joseph Barron, Jr. when she started marketing the dry falafel mix she sold mail-order and to area restaurants and needed a way to mill her locally grown, organic garbanzo beans. Several times a month, she’d drive her old 1964 Rambler station wagon to the mill and spend the day working alongside Joseph.
The mill, located in Oakesdale, Washington, had originally been built in the East in 1862. In 1890, J.G. Porter hired a crew to dismantle it, piece by piece; load it on rail cars, along with the milling equipment that was inside; and transport it to Oakesdale, where a steam plant, warehouse and crib elevator were added. Joseph’s grandfather bought the mill in 1907, converting its source of power from steam to electricity, turning the attached steam plant into a residence where the next two generations of Barrons would live and work, milling flour and animal feed.
But the historic mill closed in 1960 because it could not compete with the huge, centralized flour factories coming into existence.
So Joseph set up a small electric specialty mill in his garage, where he created a market for a variety of organic flours and cracked grains, refusing to demolish the old mill or sell the machinery. When his health began to fail, he put both up for sale, sifting through prospective buyers as carefully as he did different kinds of wheat. His only child, Joan Roehl, of Kenmore, Washington, said dozens of people inquired.
History Grinds On
Before his death in 2000 at the age of 91, Joseph sold both the new electric mill in his garage and the original four-story mill building to MaryJane Butters. The only surviving flour mill of 19 that once operated in Whitman County, it stands four stories tall, full of exquisite machines that fill all four floors, handmade in the manner and style of heirloom violins or grand pianos—treasured artifacts from an era when time was more plentiful and people poured their artisan hearts into the making of everyday tools.
“For three years, Joseph and I worked side by side milling the grains and legumes I needed for the dry mixes I sold mail-order,” MaryJane Butters said. “When Joseph put his historic mill up for sale in 1997, I baked up a plan that involved a state-funded rural-rehabilitation loan.” Joseph, a man of few words, announced in the end, “I think you’ll do.”
To MaryJane Butters, it’s the perfect extension of her Paradise Farm Organics, Inc. dba MaryJanesFarm mail-order company in Moscow, Idaho, and her goal of feeding people healthy, time-honored, organic food.
Eventually, her years spent working alongside Joseph, after living in remote Forest Service outpost locations with only a living, breathing, sourdough “mother” for companionship, would lead her to combine those experiences and write a pioneering wild-yeast bread book. Using heirloom grains and healthier-for-you airborne yeasts, her book, Wild Bread, walks you through how to bake like it’s 1890.