RAPHINE, Va. — After living abroad for 35 years, John and Karen Siegfried decided to return to America by buying a piece of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley agricultural, industrial and cultural past, and adding a new occupation in the process.
In July, the Siegfrieds purchased the Kennedy-Wade Mill, a gristmill west of Raphine in northern Rockbridge County. The deal included the Wade’s Mill brand of grits, flour and pancake mixes ground in the mill.
“We knew we wanted to come back to America,” said John Siegfried, 58, “and why not milling as a next career?”
John Siegfried has spent his life in the oil and natural gas industry, which took the family around the world. Karen Siegfried, 57, will remain in England as executive director of the University of Cambridge’s masters of business administration program until their youngest son, Zack, graduates from high school next year.
The couple learned about the property when longtime friends who retired to the Shenandoah Valley sent him a photo of the mill. He and his wife visited, and he spent six months learning milling and the business from the previous owners before taking over operations.
The gristmill has been an integral part of Rockbridge County for centuries. The door plaque denoting its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places says it was built in 1750 by Capt. Joseph Kennedy and later owned by members of James Wade’s family for more than 100 years.
Account ledgers from the late 1800s and early 1900s, found in a barn on the 5-acre property, include entries for members of the Houston and McCormick families. They could be from the same family tree as Sam Houston, who was born in the county, and Cyrus McCormick, who grew up on a farm about 5 miles away.
Now, John Siegfried carries on the mill’s tradition, grinding yellow and white corn, hard and soft wheat, rye and buckwheat into an array of products that include grits, a variety of flours, polenta, and pancake, bread, cornbread and hush puppy mixes. The yellow corn, rye and wheat are bought from local farming collectives, and he is seeking a local source for white corn and buckwheat.
Though the millstones installed in 1880 still function, Siegfried uses two sets of electric millstones to grind grain into marketable products before bagging the product by hand. White grits are the most popular item by far, with “anything to do with pancakes,” second.
The products, sold under a Wade’s Mill label, go to about 50 restaurants and retailers as far east as Richmond and as far north as Washington, Siegfried said. The products are all natural, with no preservatives, and are ground to order. Grains are milled only about eight hours a week.
The chefs at Hank’s Grille and Bar in McGaheysville, near Massanutten Resort, and its nearby sister restaurant, Thunderbird Cafe, are Wade’s Mill devotees. Judith Lehman, head baker at Hank’s, prefers its whole-wheat bread and rye flours.
“One time when they ran out, we had to get commercial whole-wheat flour, and for some reason that would not make good bread,” Lehman said. “The flour we get from Wade’s Mill does better. It’s a little bit coarser grind, and it tastes really good.”
The company’s white grits are served for breakfast at the Thunderbird Cafe (and sold in 2-pound packages there), and used in the shrimp-and-grits appetizer at Hank’s. “They have more flavor,” Lehman said, “than if you would get them in the grocery.”
The restaurants’ proximity to Massanutten Resort, a popular attraction in Rockingham County, has aided the spread of the Wade’s Mill name. Visitors often order grits after returning home.
“I get calls from all over America — Big Fork, Montana, the other day, and Chico, California,” said Siegfried. “Every week, I get calls because people have been there, they’ve been to Massanutten, and they’ve come down the hill and had dinner or breakfast.”
The Siegfrieds plan to sell online again once their website, wadesmill.com, is revamped. They also sell their products and private-label offerings (fruit preserves made by Shawnee Canning Co. in Cross Junction, maple syrup by Southern Most Maple Products in Bolar, and honey from Whistle Creek Apiaries in Lexington.
A two-bedroom cabin on the mill property with a kitchen is slated to become a rustic retreat offered on Airbnb.com.
The mill is open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. John Siegfried tries to have the water wheel turning then and gladly gives tours to visitors, showing them the older as well as the newer milling equipment and explaining the site’s rich history and importance. He said he wants to make the old mill stones more accessible so he can show visitors how they work.
When Karen Siegfried joins him next year, John said she plans to use her gardening skills to grow herbs and flowers to sell.
In addition to retail and wholesale ventures, the couple wants to leverage the property’s agritourism potential.
“I think it can be more of a destination,” said John Siegfried. “The historic nature of the mill lends itself to curious people (who) want to know more about the history of this area, the history of the mill. ... This was the Wild West in 1750.”
One recent visitor, Craig Dietz of Lexington, visited the mill on Oct. 1 along with his wife, Adrienne Hagen, and his parents, Jim and Linda Dietz, visiting from Columbus, Nebraska. They hit some of the area’s historic hot spots, including Wade’s Mill. They left with pancake mix, corn meal and an appreciation for the mill and its importance in 18th- and 19th-century Rockbridge County.
“We’ve been touring a lot over the past few years, and this is genuine,” Linda Dietz said. “It’s not like the commercialism you find in some places. It’s an active business with a rich history.”
Jim Dietz said he was impressed by the structure’s craftsmanship and the fact that it still functions after so many years.
The Siegfrieds are carrying on another Wade’s Mill tradition. On Oct. 22, the gristmill’s grounds hosted the site’s 21st annual Apple Butter Festival, which included blacksmithing and wood-turning exhibitions.
From his perspective, John Siegfried said the career change might be coming at the right time to capitalize on the locavore food movement and farm-to-table restaurants. That should help the couple grow its business.
“I think there’s a big push,” he said, “for knowing where your food is produced.”