March 25, 2013

Going Against the Grain: Historic Jail Becomes the Maine Grains Grist Mill

  • By: Katherine Flynn
Lambke and her business partner, Michael Scholz, bought a 5,000-square-foot jail building in 2009 and turned it into a grist mill. Credit: Amber Lambke
Amber Lambke and her business partner, Michael Scholz

When Amber Lambke toured a historic jail building in downtown Skowhegan, Maine, in 2007, she already thought that it seemed like the perfect space for a grist mill that would process grains grown by local farmers. It didn’t matter that the jail would be pricey to renovate, or that, at the time, it was still filled with inmates.

Lambke purchased the 14,000-square-foot building in 2009, beginning a process that she saw as essential to reviving a once-thriving grain economy in central Maine.

“We realized that farmers in our area weren’t really interested in growing grains until they knew who was going to buy them and process them,” Lambke says. She saw the mill as a way to bolster their livelihoods, while at the same time providing residents of Skowhegan and neighboring towns with organic, fresh-milled flour.

Lambke managed to secure grants and private loans for the renovation of the jail building, but she turned to Kickstarter, the crowd-funding site launched in 2009, to finance the purchase of some of the equipment necessary to outfit a fully-functioning grist mill.

The building now serves as a small-business incubator, as well as housing the mill. Credit: Amber Lambke
The building now serves as a small-business incubator, as well as housing the mill.

Kickstarter provides an online space for campaigns with a set monetary goal, and allows supporters to make online contributions within a set time limit. Incentives are tied to different donation amounts. For instance, for $25, you could receive a “Knead Dough?” bumper sticker from the Maine Grains campaign, or a 5-pound bag of whole wheat flour for $75. If a campaign doesn’t reach the entirety of its goal, it doesn’t receive any funding.

“I was familiar with it as a trend, and started to study which [Kickstarter projects] became successful and why,” she says. “It came at a great time where it mobilized all these people that wanted to help in some way. We raised $30,000 in 30 days from about 300 people.” The mill opened in September of 2012, fully equipped to tackle the goal of processing around 600 tons of Maine-grown grain each year.

Today, Maine Grains in the Somerset Grist Mill sells flour and rolled oats in 5- and 50-pound bags at the Pickup Cafe, housed in the building, and through distribution companies throughout New England. The Somerset Grist Mill also serves as a small-business incubator, and tenants include Happy Knits, a knitting-supply store, and the Tech Spot, a place where high school students help community members with computer questions.

Lambke thinks that there is great power behind the idea that community projects like the grist mill don’t have to be left in the hands of a wealthy few.

“It’s great to be able to harness mass public support to actually do things,” she says of crowdfunded projects. “There’s a story to tell in the use of crowdfunding tools to get towns behind their own revitalizations.”

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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