BELLVILLE -- The old red mill sits on the banks of the Clear Fork river, bordered by the bike trail on one side and one of Bellville’s oldest roads on the other.
Gazing at it is like glimpsing back in time, as if transported to the age when folks traveled the streets of Bellville by horse and carriage and trains whizzed down the tracks of the B&O Railroad.
The mill is more than a relic from another time. It’s the cornerstone of Elzy Mill & Trade, a sprawling Bellville business that takes up two blocks of Ogle Street.
“It’s unique,” said manager Gary Carter. “Years ago, this was the building block of the town. Everyone had to have animals to get around, so you had to have a feed store.”
The historic mill dates to the Civil War. But what makes it novel is not so much its age, but the fact that it’s still used as a mill today.
“You don’t see that too often,” said Donnie Clark, owner of Elzy Mill & Trade. “There are a lot of old mills still standing, but a lot of times they’re no longer mills. They’re antique shops or rotting away if nothing else.”
Nevertheless, Clark says the mill’s simple system of augers, gears and gravity remains as efficient for producing feed as the modern, push-button facilities of today.
Clark bought the mill in 2011 with his wife, Jamie, and his parents, Butch and Toni, so that they’d have a place to sell the non-GMO corn grown on the family farm.
Since then, the business has tripled in size to become a seven-building operation. Today, Elzy Mill & Trade produces non-GMO animal feed and mixed grass seed and also includes a country-style store.
Although the mill was once the heart of the operation, the store has become the main attraction for many of Elzy’s customers. Shoppers can request their custom feed and grass seed at the counter, or peruse the wooden shelves for everything from pet food and fertilizer to cast iron skillets and homemade maple syrup.
“I needed some softener salt, but she came along because of all the other stuff in here,” said Todd Bowman as he meandered around the store with his wife, Trisha.
“I wanted to look at all the fun homewares,” said Trisha. “I like that there’s a mix. He can come and get the practical things that we need for our property and I can come and do some of the fun stuff.”
Having a diverse product offering, often influenced by input from customers, has been a major key to the business’ success.
“A lot of what we sell in the Elzy home collection is a result of customers saying ‘You really should offer this,' ” said Clark. “We’re willing to do and try about everything and that attitude, along with our business model on the feed and grass seed side of things, that’s why we’ve tripled our size.”
Despite the rapid growth on the retail end, the staff is intentional about what gets put on the shelves.
“With our customers, what we’ve heard over the last eight years is that quality is king,” Clark said. “We personally test everything in here. I don’t want to sell garbage; I don’t want to sell cheap.”
In the future, Clark would like to see the business continue to grow.
“We use every inch of available space right now for either production or retail. We do some wholesale business as well,” he said. “We’re still growth-oriented. We wanna add some more retail space. I think demand is starting to get to that point where we can add more space.”