“Forest Lake Roller Mill” was the sign on the two-story building, yet it was more popularly known as the Red Mill, originally located on South Lake Street. The first owner was John Chase.
In 1913, Peter Berg became the second owner. The Berg family came from Massachusetts and settled on a farm on the bay. Berg’s son, Harry, shares his knowledge of the farmers who came to the mill to have their grain ground and to buy flour. He also remembers that during his childhood, because there were only Indian trails around the lake, his father skated to and from his home to the mill in the winter and rowed back and forth by boat in the summer.
Moving the Mill
In about 1914, Peter decided to move the mill across the railroad tracks to his property off of Southwest Second Avenue. Moving the mill was quite a feat for that time period. A turn-post, powered by horses, was placed 30-50 feet ahead of the mill. As the horses walked around the turn-post, a rope that was attached to the mill pulled it forward inch by inch. In tracks, movers had to wait until after the 7 a.m. Taylors Falls’ commuter train left Forest Lake.
About 1920, Peter built a two-and-a-half story addition to the existing buildings. He sold his own brand of flour, “Flavo Flour,” at the mill. Shortly after, times changed and the mill became a casualty to the depressed price of wheat. Up until this time, area mills had purchased wheat at $3 a bushel. When the price dropped to about $1 a bushel, about 500 mills and elevators went out of business in Minnesota, including Berg’s Red Mill. It was a sad day for the Berg family, who had struggled to keep the mill operating.
Subsequent owners of the mill were Frank and George Johnson. Eventually Houle’s Elevator used the building as an addition to their business. The building, which was designated one with historical value, was carefully torn down in the spring of 1984. The heavy beams were as sturdy as the day first they were put together. The original wide planks used for the mill’s hardwood flooring was a design used long ago when the mill was dismantled, the Houle family reused much of the floor paneling and timbers.
This old familiar landmark caught the attention and talents of many artists as they painted the old Red mill on canvas.
The tall elevator buildings west of the railroad tracks have been a part of the Forest Lake skyline since 1916. At that time, Ed J. Houle, knowledgeable in farming and business, decided to start an elevator and feed mill business along the railroad tracks on railroad property, which was very important to this type of business.
Ed Houle’s father, John Houle Sr., gave his son logs from his property to be used as lumber for the building. In 1920, Ed’s brother, Harry, became a partner in the business. The Johnson mill, or Red Mill as it also was called, was purchased by the Houles and was used in addition to their elevator. Today it’s known as E.J. Houle Inc.
The mill was the focal point in town for farmers who needed feed ground and the big wire grass clamps, west of Forest Lake and Wyoming, needed oats and hay for their horses.
Lucille (Lutz) Dupre, Forest Lake, grew up in a typical farm family of this period. Lucille accompanied her father, Leo Lutz, on his many trips to town. She recalls that the first stop on their trip would be at Houle’s mill to drop off feed to be ground. On the way home, she slowly nibbled on the candy, compliments of Houle’s. The Lutz farm was three miles east of Hugo.
Ed’s son, Willard, (as a youngster) spent time in the elevator office. He remembers farmers standing or sitting around the wood stove to keep warm as they discussed their crops, the weather and other topics of interest. Many times the conversations were in French, Swedish, or German, since customers came from many different ethnic settlements in the area.
Willard joined the business in 1938, only taking time out to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II. Upon his return home, Willard was put in charge of the office.
Merton Houle, Harry’s son, also was familiar with the mill as a youngster. He joined the business after completing time in the U.S. Army/Air Force. He was in charge of the physical plant at the mill.
Joe Fladland, Martin Lunzer, Ed Grant, George Schmidt, Fred Peterson, Oliver Holmgren, Paul Palmer, Fred Speckler, Paul Rapp, and Lyle Alm are a few names familiar to the earlier customers. If farmers had a problem with crops or livestock, Norty Taylor provided a personal touch by going to their farms as a troubleshooter. He was with Houle’s from 1957-68.
Turkeys seemed to be the newest thing for farmers to raise during the 1950s. About 20 farmers became turkey growers, and Forest Lake laid claim to being the turkey capital of Minnesota. Houle’s furnished feed to the turkey farmers.
Slowly there was another change in our rural area as many turkey farmers went out of business.
The original Houle brothers experienced many changes in methods and products to support their business. The second and third generation of Houles added more products. In 1962, Houle’s dog food became one of their most popular. Unfortunately, the firm’s dog food plant in Stacy was destroyed by fire on June 29, 1982. However, the mill continues to market the dog food locally.
E.J. Houle, Inc. is a veritable supermarket in food for animals and birds. From its outlet connections, it furnishes monkey chow, and food for elephants, giraffes, zebras, and even snakes that live at the Como Zoo in St. Paul. In addition to supplying food for exotic animals, Houle’s supplies feed and products for many local horse owners. Bird seed for all varieties of birds are also a popular item.
The Houle family recently sold the mill and property to Gerten’s Lawn & Garden.
All Elsie Vogel material is excerpted from her book, “Reflections of Forest Lake.” Vogel was a former columnist at The Forest Lake Times.