Written by Chris Rogers, Winona Post

As Bay State Milling marked its 125th year in business last week, the celebrations — just like the company — started in Winona. The Winona mill is both the company’s birthplace and its flagship to this day, and like the industry of milling itself, the plant is a mix of new technology and age-old techniques.

In the late 1800s, an Irish immigrant by the name of Bernard Rothwell was hired as a day laborer in the port of Boston by a pair of brokers who exported food — including flour — to Europe. As Bay State Milling CEO Peter Levangie recounted the tale, Rothwell was uneducated but a quick study, and, noticing his acumen, the brokers began teaching Rothwell their trade. Near the turn of the century, the brokers ran into problems due to unreliable flour suppliers, so they decided they needed their own mill. They told Rothwell, “Get on a train and go buy us a flour mill.” In 1899, Rothwell’s travels brought him to Winona, where he purchased the mill that launched Bay State Milling.

Since then, the fifth-generation, family-owned, company based in Quincy, Mass., has grown and expanded, with 10 mills across the U.S. and Canada, but Winona remains its mainstay. “We love this community, and we have a lot of long term employees,” Levangie said. While much has been automated over the years, milling is still a very hands-on business that requires good employees, he explained. “The workforce here and the people and the community have been phenomenal and still are … Because there’s a strong sense of place here, people like living here,” he added.

Levangie also stressed Bay State Milling’s desire to be a good community partner in return, highlighting the company’s contributions to local charities, schools, and events, as well as its wish to fit into the neighborhood. “We’re right next to the downtown. It’s something everybody sees as they drive by,” Plant Manager Dustin Sanborn said. “I think the place always needs to look sharp so we’re not an eyesore to the community and that we’re kind of part of that skyline down here.”

The Winona mill itself is 114 years old — a replacement to the one Rothwell originally bought. At the elevators, an employee sits behind a bank of computers monitoring and controlling the flow of grain at a speed of up to 15,000 bushels per hour. As the wheat is being prepared for milling, sensors calculate its water content to achieve the perfect grind — more peeling back layers than grinding, Sanborn says — and the Dough Lab’s suite of instruments ensure the flour meets bakers’ specifications. By contrast, elsewhere in the facility, the roller wheels running a conveyor belt date back to the 1930s, still spinning away, and Sanborn said the traditional reed parts for shifting machines still work better than modern metal ones. Sanborn praised his maintenance team for marrying new technology and a more-than-century-old mill. “There’s a lot of stuff that we’re making and figuring out here. You can’t go to YouTube for this stuff,” he said.

Although it is the fifth largest milling company in the U.S., Bay State Milling’s larger competitors are far larger, and the company has specialized as a result — in organic products, in health and environment-focused grains, and in specialty blends. One of the products the Winona plant produces is HealthSense — a non-GMO wheat bred to have a high fiber content. According to Bay State Milling, a loaf of HealthSense flour has 10 times more fiber than white bread, a piece of nutrition lacking in many Americans diets.

“We do have the advantage of smart, patient owners who really want to perpetuate family ownership,” Levangie said. He added, “Having owners that really care but want and expect performance — that’s a really nice balance.”

“I’m a big history guy … so it was fascinating to hear the story of a guy who started with nothing and built a business like this,” Sanborn said of Bay State Milling’s origin story. He added, “There’s a pride in [being determined that] I’m not going to be the one to make this place not be here for another 125 years.”