Earlier this year, April 30 almost marked the end of a 72-year era for a Dauphin County feed mill business. It was the day when brothers Paul and Earl Herr finished selling the second of two local feed mills that had operated under the name of John M. Herr’s Sons in northern Lebanon and Dauphin counties.
It started in the summer of 1949, when their father, John Herr, had purchased an existing feed mill on the main street of Grantville. This rural village was surrounded by farmland containing 27 dairies within its municipality of East Hanover Township. In September that same year, John Herr also bought a second feed mill 10 miles away in Jonestown, Lebanon County, another area rich with dairy farms.
Paul Herr recalls that his father had grown up on a farm in South Lebanon Township and, after high school, had started working at a nearby feed mill in tiny Midway. Just before World War II, John Herr’s father, Isaiah L. Herr, bought that mill, which blossomed as the only Master Mix feed dealer in the area.
After John Herr married his wife, Hilda, they operated “a little 2- or 3-acre truck patch” and started a family. Hilda Herr supplemented their income by raising asparagus and tomatoes, which she would take to market stashed in the rumble seat of the family car along with eggs from their chickens. Hilda Herr was quite content with life there and Paul Herr recalls her sorrow at leaving when his father bought the Grantville mill, which included an adjacent house into which the Herrs moved.
Although Paul Herr was only 5, and his brother Earl was 9 years old, at the time of this relocation, they were soon working in the mill sweeping floors, pushing bag carts and riding along on the delivery trucks. Both boys literally grew up in the feed mill business. It became a lifelong career for Paul Herr. Earl Herr worked in the Jonestown mill for several years before a three-year stint in the military, followed by a decision to go into the ministry. The brothers bought both mills from their father when he retired in 1979. Their father continued to oversee the Jonestown location, while Paul and Earl ran the Grantville operation.
Tragedy struck in 1954, when the Jonestown mill burnt to the ground. It was subsequently rebuilt and remained operational until 2018, when it was sold as the Herr brothers started downsizing with an eye to retirement. Their feed business in Jonestown ran about 80% dairy, with the remainder being mostly pet foods. Paul Herr said that, while there were several parties interested in continuing that mill’s operation, prospective buyers had found it impossible to obtain the necessary financing. Thus, the former Jonestown mill was sold and repurposed as a daycare center.
A Family Tradition
The original mill purchased by John Herr in Grantville was replaced by the next generation with a larger, more modern mill a few blocks away, built in 1959. Several additions were made through the years to accommodate its growth. When Paul and Earl Herr took over, they doubled the space of the mill. They also added a farm store, which sold everything from basic hardware to horse tack, pet supplies, lawn and garden accessories and seeds, as well as vegetable and flower plants each spring. In a town that retained its rural character, it was the “go-to place” for many needs.
The farm store came to generate about 25% of the Herr brothers’ business in Grantville, while the other 75% morphed from its originally strong dairy base into horse feeds. This was due largely to the 1972 opening of the Penn National Race Course less than 2 miles from the mill. The local growth of horse farms catered to the Thoroughbred horse-racing facility. Conversely, the advent of large-scale chicken and hog operations nearby had meant those producers obtained their feeds from the companies to which they’re under contract. That left backyard owners of small-scale operations comprising most of Herr’s recent chicken and hog feed customers.
Through the years, John M. Herr’s Sons sold a variety of feed brands, including John W. Eshelman Red Rose feeds and Manna-Pro. More recently, they dealt in Purina products and Blue Seal, a New-England-based brand. The Herrs also sold feeds for almost any pet, zoo animal or exotic bird. Paul Herr particularly recalls selling kangaroo and elephant feed to the circus, when it performed in nearby Hershey and Harrisburg.
Paul Herr elaborated that their mill also mixed a lot of custom feeds for their clientele, with some customers using their own grains that were stored at the mill. In addition to livestock feeds, Herr’s was able to make feeds for exotic animals and dog food, too. He added, “But, now they want it looking pretty in fancy pellets,” which cut back on some of that business, he said.
The landscape around Grantville has changed in recent years with the addition of the Hollywood Casino to the Penn National Race Track complex. The casino doubled the purses at the track, which Herr said brought in “more people with better horses.” An increase in the immediate area’s motor vehicle traffic led Faith Road, along which the mill stands, to be dead-ended about eight years ago, making it more of a challenge to access Herr’s facilities; steady customers continued to come, but some business from casual passersby was lost to competitors like Lowe’s and Tractor Supply Co.
A Changing of the Guard
Why sell the feed mill now?
“I should’ve retired 10 years ago,” Paul Herr admitted, before his health was affected by carrying “too many 100-pound bags.”
“You wear out,” he said bluntly.
He regrets missing out on his grandchildren’s growing-up years, but now looks forward to spending more time with his great-grandchildren.
The John M. Herr’s Sons mill in Grantville was sold by a Realtor to local businessman Jeff Bonawitz, an installer of commercial waterlines and owner of storage facilities. Bonawitz’s businesses were displaced by the construction of over 1 million square feet of warehousing space just north of Grantville, along Interstate 81.
Until less than 24 hours before the April 30 sale date, it looked like the mill in Grantville had sold its last bag of feed. But that was when David Stoltzfus, owner of Peach Bottom-based NewCo Resources, stepped forward with a plan to lease part of the mill and store from Bonawitz to open an additional location for his premium home and garden products operation.
According to Gene Martin, manager of the Grantville site for NewCo Resources, the facility will remain open on a limited basis during remodeling of the premises, which should be complete by the end of summer. They will continue both the mill and farm store businesses and expect to add new product lines, as well.
How is Paul Herr taking all this? He already misses “talking to the people” who have frequented John M. Herr’s Sons through the years, but said he won’t miss the responsibilities with personnel and suppliers, nor all the applicable government regulations.
And so, instead of coming to an end, this historic feed mill’s story will continue with a changing of the guard.
The feed mill is located at 176 N. Faith Road, Grantville, Pennsylvania. For further information, contact the mill at 717-469-0988.