January 15, 2002
Jesse Phillips brought a piece of Perry history to a recent Rotary meeting and it led me to thinking about that one-time local institution, the Perry Mill & Elevator, maker of “Pride of Perry” flour. It was a home-owned business and the largest employer in town before the state highway department established a division office here. The era was years before the Charles Machine Works, Inc. became a major factor locally and on the international scene as well. Few people still remember the Perry Mill, and fewer still know what “Pride of Perry” refers to.
Jesse’s home on West Fir Avenue was built on the site of the Nida family farm and the house once occupied by those folks has been standing there like a lonely sentinel for several decades. When the Phillips house was built, the Nida home was moved to a new location a few yards south. Jesse has been using it for storage but the old house has been showing its age lately and it is being dismantled. In that process, an empty cotton cloth sack was found inside the wall of a room. Originally it held six pounds of the locally made flour. The sack may have been white at one time, but after years of collecting dust it is now a light beige color. It is imprinted with the product’s name, “Pride of Perry Flour,” the name of the Perry Mill & Elevator as manufacturer, and an attractively designed layout. The printing is in two colors, red and blue.
In his book, Perry, Pride of the Prairie, author Robert Cunningham wrote that Dave McKinstry founded the Perry Mill & Elevator in the early days. Mr. McKinstry had a background in milling and he built a Perry mill just off the square, partially on the area where the Malzahn family had a machine shop before moving in 1959 to the new location on West Fir Avenue to concentrate on building Ditch Witch equipment. Mr. McKinstry used the name “Pride of Perry” for his flour right from the start, and it was a fortuitous choice. His flour was in demand all over the Midwest. Millers from northern cities sent sacks bearing their own brand designs to Perry to be filled with the local product, anxious to claim it as their own.
The writer continued: “Even with the flour consumed, the empty sacks continued to praise Perry, say early newspapers. A Stillwater writer told of a farm woman bringing in an empty flour sack as a convenient receptacle for taking home a large quantity of apples. Sacks were not supplied by the grocers in those days. She held the sack while the grocer poured the apples into the opening, only to see them fall to the floor through two holes in the bottom. She left with a very red face when she became aware she had brought a pair of her own underwear, made from a Pride of Perry sack. Times were tough on the frontier in those days, and frugal wives made do with what they had. It was the era known as ‘jack rabbit stew and kaffir corn cakes’.”
The old Perry Mill, with its 100-foot tall brick smokestack, was an imposing feature on the local landscape for years. It was sold, probably in the late 1920s or early 1930s, to General Mills. In a few years they closed the mill and the negative economic impact was severe for a while. “Pride of Perry” disappeared and the episode is mostly forgotten now, but the mill was one of the mainstays that kept Perry healthy for several decades. Jesse’s flour sack is an excellent reminder of that period. Not many of them are still around. This is the first one I’ve seen in many years.