This can’t be real. That’s the thought that popped into my head when I saw Wade’s Mill. The rustic wood-and-stone structure, with its big water wheel and dark raised- seam roof, basked in the soft sunlight of a late-fall day. As I approached, car windows wide open, I felt as if I were moving toward a massive painting, a Hudson River School masterpiece.
I snapped out of my reverie as a man bounded toward me, waving and shouting, “Hello, welcome to Wade’s Mill!” I sized him up: a cheerful guy in his mid- to late-50s with good energy and a slender face beneath the bill of a well-worn ball cap.
While he gave me a tour of the mill, I learned that his name is John Siegfried. July will mark the third year since he and his wife, Karen, bought the Raphine, Virginia, property—a pastoral setting in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, about an hour’s drive southwest of Charlottesville.
In December 2015, the Siegfrieds were living in England—John working as a consultant in the oil and gas industry, and Karen as a program director at the University of Cambridge—when a friend, Chris Fox, told them the mill was for sale. Fox had family roots in the area. He’d recently returned from England and settled near the mill, which, ever since it began operating in 1750, was still bringing flour and other ground grains to market. It didn’t take much convincing to get the Siegfrieds to join Fox as neighbors. Well, not John, at least.
“I think it immediately captivated John’s imagination,” Karen says. “I was a little bit more skeptical, initially.”
“Well, Karen was the one who came and saw the mill first, so I blame everything on her,” John jokes.
The Siegfried’s were motivated to move back to the United States to be near their parents, who were getting on in years. Neither John nor Karen was in a position to retire, so acquiring the mill meant buying not only a home but also a small business.
“That was quite important to us,” John says. “It’s just such a lovely setting, and we love the historical part of it. This was the Wild West in 1750. As for the business part of it, I thought, ‘Well, how hard can it be?’ I didn’t actually say that—we walked into this with eyes wide open.”
The mill was built and put into operation by Captain Joseph Kennedy, who immigrated from Ireland in 1733. The Wade family later bought the property and kept the business running for more than 100 years. The grinding stones installed by the Wades in 1880 were driven by the water wheel and still function. But the Siegfrieds now use electric power to turn stones introduced in the 1950s. The mill building has been expanded and beautifully renovated, and John also spends a fair amount of time restoring equipment used by the Wades, such as a decades-old sifter and packing machine.
Wade’s Mill grinds corn, wheat, rye, and buckwheat to produce flour, polenta, grits, and mixes for pancakes, bread, cornbread, and hush puppies. About 70 percent of their business is wholesale, supplying restaurants, caterers, bakeries, specialty grocery stores, and gift shops. The balance of sales occur online or at the mill itself. Local customers include the Boar’s Head Inn, Foods of All Nations, the Greenwood Grocery, and the Ivy Inn. But the business reaches as far north as Washington, D.C., and also into Richmond, Lexington, Harrisonburg, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach.
“We get a lot of new customers through Instagram,” Karen says. “Chefs like to follow other chefs, and when one of our restaurant customers posts images of things made with our products, we repost them, and that often brings in new business.”
While the couple works to expand the business, they also simply enjoy living at the mill. They also rent out a restored early 19th-century schoolteacher’s cabin. Relocated from the Lexington area, the log structure features a living room with a fireplace on the first floor, and two bedrooms on the second. It sits beside a creek and adds to the storybook quality of the property.
The Siegfrieds say they’ve learned a lot in the past three years, and it reaches beyond the ins and outs of business. “If the miller started to smell anything burning, it meant that the stones were too close together, and the friction was causing heat,” Karen says. “Before we bought the mill, we thought ‘keep your nose to the grindstone’ meant to work harder. But it actually means to be smart about what you’re doing, and pay attention.”
If you go
Wade’s Mill is open 10am to 5pm, Wednesday through Sunday, March 30 through December 22. Co-owner John Siegfried gives tours and runs the mill’s historic equipment, including the water wheel, from 10am to noon on Saturday and 3 to 5pm Sunday.