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Swany White Flour Mills grinds ahead

Swany White Flour Mills, Ltd., in downtown Freeport, Minnesota, is one of the longest-running family-owned flour mills in Minnesota, and shares a common family tree with Famo Feeds Inc., a much larger livestock feed mill along Interstate 94, west of town.

A flour miller dressed in white and wearing a white cap stands in a milling and packaging room.
Gary Thelen, 65, is president of Swany White Flour Mills Ltd., a company his grandfather and great grand-uncle started at Freeport, Minnesota, in 1903. The Thelens also started a company that split off to become a separate company – Famo Feeds Inc. – west of town along Interstate 94. Photo taken at Freeport, Minnesota, June 28, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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FREEPORT, Minn. — Just off the main street in Freeport, Minnesota, is Swany White Flour Mills, Ltd., a company that shares a common history with Famo Feeds Inc., the livestock feed along the interstate west of town.

Gary Thelen is president and sole owner of one of the state’s longest-running family-owned flour mills.

A stainless steel hammer mill stands at right, while a flour miller packs retail packages of pancake mix in a room full of equipment.
Gary Thelen packs pancake mix for Swany White Flour Mills. A hammermill at right is used to make make specialty flours for the company in Freeport, Minnesota. Photo taken June 28, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The flour mill was started in 1903 by Thelen’s grandfather, Peter Thelen, and his grand-uncle, Hubert. Gary’s father, Walter “Pinkie,” born in 1929, partnered with cousin Jack Thelen in the business in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the business split. Jack kept the feed mill (eventually named Famo Feeds). Walter kept the flour business as Swany White.

Two brothers in flour mill clothes smile for a camera. A crank telephone microphone is at right.
Peter Thelen, left, and his brother, Hubert Thelen, started a business in 1903 at Freeport, Minnesota, that would become Swany White Flour Mills. Grandson Gary Thelen, 65, runs the business today. Date unknown.
Contributed / Swany White Flour Mills

Gary, 65, was born in 1956. He joined his father full-time in 1976, and is still at it, nearly five decades later.

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“When I started working for Dad, we had 100–pound bakery flours (bags),” Gary said. “I carried many of them into bakeries around here. Those are man-killers. No wonder I got a new knee and a new hip.”

Besides the mill, Walter farmed 350 acres and raised beef cattle and 1,200 hogs a year. But he lost the farm in the financially troubled mid-1980s.

“Interest rates were high and he got into some bad deals on cattle,” Gary said.

A brick smokestack stands against a new building that houses Swany White Flour Mills, Ltd.
The smokestack was for a steam engine that ran the Swany White Flour Mill in the 1920s. The Swany White Flour Mill l building was built in 2012 after a fire in 2011. Across the street (upper left) is the former headquarters for Famo Feeds Inc., dating to 1903. Swany Mill President Gary Thelen operates the mill and annually demonstrates flour milling with the original steam engine, during the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion at Rollag, Minnesota. Photo taken at Freeport, Minn., June 28, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Gary remembers that in the 1970s, Swany White’s big product was “commercial white” flour — regular baking flour for bread. At its peak, Swany White packed 1,000 pounds an hour and ran 15 hours a day.

“They had a pretty good client base. Years ago, people baked. They had flour drawers in their houses,” he said.

In the 1990s, the company increasingly packed organic flour. They shipped to New York and throughout the East Coast.

Gary took over management in about 1998. On Dec. 27, 2011, fire destroyed the plant. Gary rebuilt and resumed business in November 2012, replacing his retail store. Today, Gary still uses a hammer mill to make his own whole wheat flour, rye and buckwheat. He sells pancake mixes and other products. He has access to a stone mill.

Packages of Swany White Flour mix stand on a table as the miller packs them.
Gary Thelen packs his Swany White Flour Mills pancake and waffle mix packages. Photo taken at Freeport, Minnesota, June 28, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

About 25% of Swany White’s product is sold through his store front.

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Today, Gary purchases white flour from Cargill and repacks it with his label. Swany White sells in farmers markets and health food stores around the region. Gary buys the 13.5% protein stuff in 50-pound semi-loads. He puts the Swany White label on the “high-spec” flour. Some, he sells to BIX Produce in the Twin Cities, and some online.

Increasing wheat prices have taken a toll on profit margins, he said. A semi-load of flour from Cargill several months ago cost him $10,000 and now costs $17,000. But he gets $75 for a 50-pound bag of organic flour and $34 for commercial flour. The math still works out, he said, with a smile.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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