Hopkinsville Milling stays true to family ties, baking products

The sun glows on the Sunflour plant, also known as Hopkinsville Milling, at the end of Fort Campbell Boulevard. In the early 1900s, the company was called Crescent Mills.

The sun glows on the Sunflour plant, also known as Hopkinsville Milling, at the end of Fort Campbell Boulevard. In the early 1900s, the company was called Crescent Mills.

By Toni W. Riley

When 5-year-old Robert Harper was paid 25 cents to organize a desk drawer at Hopkinsville Milling for his grandfather Frank A. Yost, the youngster didn’t know he was the fifth generation of the Yost family to work at “The Mill.” Now president of Hopkinsville Milling, Harper easily
recounts the history and development of the company from its beginning in 1874.
At Seventh Street and the railroad crossing, the precursor of Hopkinsville Milling was Crescent Mills, owned by F.J. Brownell and John T. Rabbeth. Brownell was the uncle of Frank K. Yost, Harper’s great-grandfather who joined the firm in 1903.
Harper remembers the evolution of Hopkinsville Milling as it followed history and the changing United States lifestyle. He explains that milling is an industry of pennies.
“Pennies have to be watched at work as well as at home,” he said. “A person can make a good living as a miller, but they won’t get rich.”

Mill life

In the 19th century, every town had at least one grist mill where farmers would bring their wheat to be developed into flour. There were two types of milling trade: One where the farmer had his wheat ground for the family flour and the miller kept a portion as payment for grinding, called the “Miller’s toll.” A second type of trade was called the commercial mill, like Crescent, that would buy the entire crop and resell the flour for baking.
Crescent had the first steam-powered mill in Christian County; therefore, it didn’t need to be on a river and didn’t rely on water-power to operate. As a result, Crescent Mills became a regional leader in milling.
In 1908, Crescent Mills merged with Climax Mill at 21st and Walnut streets, thus Hopkinsville Milling was born. The “Sunflour” name was a combination of both companies.
A new product line debuted in the early 20th century along with the industry-wide development of self-rising flour — one of the first household convenience foods. Harper pointed out that 90 percent of self-rising flour is sold in the South, primarily because of the southern penchant for biscuits.
Corn meal became a part of Hopkinsville Milling in 1917 during World War I. As part of the war effort, U.S. citizens had “meatless, heatless and wheatless” days. But rather than have the mill idle, Hopkinsville Milling began grinding corn and sold it under the label “Sunflower,” which was a play on words from the “Sunflour” flour. Southern housewives began using cornmeal as an extender for flour as well as serving the traditional cornbread. Corn milling declined after the conclusion of WWI, but spiked again during World War II.


Through the years

Frank A. Yost started at Hopkinsville Milling in the mid-1930s, and one of his first jobs was weighing coal. His father wanted to determine which was more economical, burning coal to power the mill or going on the electrical grid. Frank A. Yost took over the mill in 1937 after the unexpected death of his father.
Over the next 10 years, Hopkinsville Milling was busy selling flour to the military and shipping thousands of pounds overseas to war-torn Europe after the German surrender.
As the United States moved into the 1950s and baby boomers began to be born, milling had to keep up with the times. Many mills went out of business, but Hopkinsville Milling actually gained business from some of the failing mills.
Frank A. Yost and Cohen Williams of Martha White Flour saw a marketing opportunity and developed self-rising cornmeal. Again, a predominately southern product, it made it easier for housewives to mix up a batch of cornmeal.
The way flour and meal were sold also changed as the population became more mobile. In the early 20th century, flour was shipped by railcar to a grocery wholesaler who would purchase

Hopkinsville Milling produces six retail food products. Plain flour and self-rising flour under the Sunflour brand, and four others: grits, plain corn meal, white self-rising corn meal mix and yellow self-rising corn meal mix. Photo by Catherine Riley

Hopkinsville Milling produces six retail food products. Plain flour and self-rising flour under the Sunflour brand, and four others: grits, plain corn meal, white self-rising corn meal mix and yellow self-rising corn meal mix. Photo by Catherine Riley

50-pound bags and sell it to the country general store. The store would, in turn, sell the flour in bulk to customers who came in to shop once a month.
Beginning in the 1950s, housewives had new electric stoves, drove cars, went to the grocery store more often, and no longer needed flour in 25- and 50-pound bags.
Trucks were taking the place of railcars for transporting products. With the development of the interstate system, Hopkinsville Milling could ship all its products by truck, which made delivery times more reliable and rid the need for a wholesaler to buy an entire railcar of flour.
Prior to the development of wide-scale mechanization, all grain was unloaded by hand, corn was brought in by the sack and bags of flour were moved and stacked by hand. As a result, Hopkinsville Milling hired its largest fleet, with 150 employees on the payroll.
A major improvement in The Mill was the installation of a pneumatic air system to move flour through production. The system “blew” the flour through pipes to different stages of the milling process and was much safer and sanitary. The previous bucket system could easily catch on fire, which was a constant threat to many mills.
Harper said every mill had its own particular sound and smell, and by paying close attention to both fires and maintenance, breakdowns could be prevented.
Advertising was also becoming an important part of the industry. “Mighty fine baking every time” became the slogan for Sunflour. Brenda Lee and the Jordanaires sang in the ads.
Around this time, Hopkinsville Milling ran a silverware promotion, where customers could send in coupons from the products to be redeemed for pieces of silverware. Harper remembered, as a boy, he would go have a Coke with the “coupon” ladies who would sort the coupons and send out the silverware. That promotion ended when there was no longer a source for the cutlery.
“We occasionally still receive coupons from customers,” Harper laughed, “and Janice Cayce, our administrative assistant, will have to see if she can work out the order with the remaining pieces we still have on hand.”


Harper’s rise


Hopkinsville Milling President Robert Harper stands near a portrait of his grandfather, Frank A Yost. Yost gave Harper his first “job” at The Mill when he was just 5 years old. His task was to clean out his grandfather’s desk. He earned 25 cents. Photo by Catherine Riley

Harper worked at the mill every summer when he came back to visit in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He started out sweeping floors and doing grunt work. As he got older, he began following the miller around to check the flour for color, appearance and moisture. Harper said he wasn’t very old when he realized the “milling bug” had bitten him — this was what he wanted to do for his career.
He joined Hopkinsville Milling in 1993, as director of new product development, after graduating from Yale University and obtaining a Master of Business Administration from Northwestern University. Harper also took the “millers short course” from Kansas State University, which is the only U.S. college to offer a degree in milling.
It was Harper’s job to develop new convenience baking products at Hopkinsville Milling. While Harper feels he did develop quality products, such as baking mix and breading mix, those products were too late to the table and  were already on the market.
Harper became president of Hopkinsville Milling in 1997, following Haywood Strader who became president in 1988. Strader’s stint as president allowed Frank to step back from the daily operations and gave Harper time to “grow up.”
It might appear that there was a skip in the Yost generations when none of Frank’s daughters ran the mill, but Harper pointed out that all the girls — Ritchey, Frances and Anne — worked in the mill at different times. He said the main reason none of them actually took over was because women didn’t run a mill at that time.
Harper learned many things working along side his grandfather, but when asked what was the most important, he grew pensive. His response was “to be fair to the customer.”
Today, Hopkinsville Milling has found its niche with its six retail food products that families have used for generations. The Mill also sells large quantity products to schools, correctional facilities, elder-care centers and commercial kitchens as far north as Chicago and as far east as Virginia.
According to Harper, the secret to Hopkinsville Milling’s success lies in the hands of its consumers and plenty of Hopkinsville “snowbirds” who take their Sunflour products with them to Florida for the winter.
“It’s the loyalty of customers who like the Sunflour products and continue to buy them on a daily basis,” he said.
To what does he attribute the Yost family’s generational employment at Hopkinsville Milling?
He said, “Milling just gets in your blood and stays there.”

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