The historic Doylestown Township Flour Mill has been fully restored
I always wondered what it must have been like to be inside an old flour mill with its heavy machinery and grinding stones fully engaged. Family buddy Wynne Wert and I had the rare chance to experience it two weeks ago as guests of Mark and Fran Fischer. They own the only working flour mill within 400 miles of Bucks County. Three generations of their immediate family reside on their Castle Valley Mill property and operate the fully operational mill in Doylestown Township.
Mark led us through the three floors where grain, oatmeal and flour were processed in a mill built in 1730. Dollars had so many back then that it was the milling capital of the world.
During our visit, various machines rumbled, shaking centuries-old plank flooring beneath our feet. The gears transformed 200-year-old millstones by grinding grain and sending it through chutes to sifting screens. I wondered aloud how deafening it must be when the whole factory was powered up. Would there be dust clouds? “Not really,” replied Mark. “Let me show you.”
As Wynne and I stood nearby, Mark flicked a main electrical switch triggering bells. He then grabbed a long wooden lever to engage pulleys operating flat belts in the three floors. The roar increased but it wasn’t deafening. “See,” beamed Mark. “And the air is clear.”
His keen ear deciphers anything that goes wrong. “I compare myself to a conductor of a symphony orchestra. When the woodwind section is out of sync, the conductor knows exactly where and who it is.
For two hours, we observed all aspects of milling, including feeling the texture of freshly ground produce en route to a packing room isolated from the rest of the mill. From above, we enjoyed spectacular views of a dam built across the Neshaminy to channel water into the reach at ground level of the building.
The passion of the family is contagious, derived from Mark’s grandfather.
Henry Fischer in the 1940s was an émigré from Bavaria where he was a miller, a trade long gone in Bucks. To make a living after arriving in Doylestown, he founded the Fischer Moving Company in town and soon noticed a dilapidated mill for sale just off Lower State Road. He bought Castle Valley Mill to restore it and slowly acquired all the necessary equipment from other demolished or gutted mills.
Mark remembers accompanying his grandfather to the dark recesses of the mill, filled with machinery, carpets, furniture, textbooks and other objects.
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Grandpa didn’t live long enough to realize his dream. But the idea of restoring the mill stayed with Mark, an electrical engineer who founded an aviation company. After moving his family to the miller’s house next door, he set to work cleaning the mill of everything but its machinery parts. Not knowing how to assemble them, he consulted the patents. It gave him enough information to understand how it all came together. It took three years. Meanwhile, he and his son Curran, 12 at the time, attended training sessions in Tennessee to become certified millers.
Grain mills preserve the natural vitamins, nutrients and flavor of the grain. Roller mills do the exact opposite. As Mark puts it, industrial mills “heat, bromine, electrocute and whiten the flour”, leaving a “chalky endosperm”. Synthetic vitamins and preservatives are added. “It’s up to you to add a topping to give it flavor,” says Mark.
Castle Valley became operational in 2010 with grain trucked in from farms in Bucks, Lancaster, Lycoming and Halifax. Before long, the factory’s products were being sold at select distributors and regional farmers’ markets, attracting the attention of well-known restaurant chefs in Philadelphia and New York.
The growing appetite for machined earnings returned to the Fischers largely after the pandemic shuttered the restaurants they supplied. The family reduced production and laid off employees. Then everything changed. The New York Times published a list of working flour mills, including Castle Valley. “Suddenly we were overwhelmed with online orders. My husband, daughter and I were the only ones available to run the factory,” Fran said. Supply barely kept up with demand, forcing long hours in the factory. It didn’t let go. Orders came in from all over the country, especially from health-conscious California. “We were totally exhausted at the end of each day,” Fran said.
Today, a work crew of half a dozen maintains a sense of normalcy amid steady online sales. Due to daily work demands, public tours are not offered. An occasional open house or special event will be announced on the factory website and on Facebook.
After our visit, we savored the experience. “It was no ordinary lazy summer day in the countryside,” Wynne smiled. “An American History in Progress. Can this idyllic place, this family, this business and this history be as good as it seemed to a simple old soul like me? I hope.”
Sources include “Meet the PA Maker: Castle Valley Mill” by Emily Kovach on the PA Eats website at www.paeats.org/feature/castle-valley-mill-doylestown, as well as extensive information on the Castle Valley Mill website: www.castlevalleymill. com. Call them at 215-340-3609. The site lists local retailers of Castle Valley Mill food products.
Carl LaVO, who loves Castle Valley Mill pancakes and oatmeal, can be reached at [email protected]