Dave Snavely stands beside a pond, across from the towering grain bins and milling plant, on his family’s property in Lititz. He lives in a house above the pond. It was built in 1756 — long before the road that it sits on bore his last name.
The pond is fed by Hammer Creek. For decades the creek’s water turned the wheels and powered the mill that his great-great-uncle John Snavely bought in 1875.
The mill has undergone many changes in the more than 143 years since Snavely’s great-great-uncle bought it. For one, it’s an entirely different building. (A fire destroyed the original building in 1985.) Another difference is the mill is run on electricity and a state-of-the-art automated computer system made by a Manheim company. There is one thing that hasn’t changed. The name on the bags of flour still reads “Snavely.”
One of the oldest
Snavely, 44, and his brothers, Doug and Dan, own Snavely’s Mill — one of the oldest continually operated flour mills in North America.
Dave Snavely is the miller (he calls himself more of a “nuts-and-bolts guy”) and oversees the entire milling process at the Lititz location. Snavely’s has two other locations, one in Mifflinville and another in Clintondale. The Lititz location is the oldest and biggest of the three mills by far — and the most modern.
There have been challenges over the years, from wars, depression, recessions, trends in diet. (Of the gluten-free trend, Snavely notes it’s a small percentage of the population and “there are lots of people eating pretzels, bread and snack foods.”) And there was the challenge of overcoming the disastrous fire of 1985.
Dave Snavely calls the fire a “blessing in disguise” because it forced them to modernize. An expansion, and the introduction of the first automated mill in 1992, allowed them to serve bigger clients. The fire may have saved the business.
Then and now
In the late 1880s, when John Snavely ran the mill, workers heaved bushels of wheat from horse-drawn carts, hoisted hundredweight units of grain to the higher levels of the mill to be ground and loaded kegs of processed flour back onto carriages.
“Those were men,” Dave Snavely says.
On a good day those men might have processed about 400 pounds of flour.
“I have a postcard around here,” Dave Snavely says. “They had 96-pound flour kegs loaded on a horse-drawn wagon that would take them to the rail siding in Lititz and go from there.”
On a late summer day, Snavely consults an app on his smartphone and says they are currently processing about 1 million pounds of flour at all the company’s sites, with tens of thousands of pounds of flour being processed an hour.
“I wish Grandpa Snavely could have seen this,” he says. “He really would’ve went, ‘Wow!’"
Increased production meant increased power, a lot more power than the water from Hammer Creek could ever provide. Now the mill uses electrical power to keep things running.
“I always joke that when we start the mill up the lights in Lititz go dim,” Snavely says.
From a computer station inside each of the six mills, Snavely can see a running total of the amount of all the varieties of wheat being processed as well as the kilowatts of power being used throughout the day. (At the time, they were at about 3.1 kilowatt hours per hundredweight.) The state-of-the-art technology allows the mill to function as efficiently as possible and alerts Snavely and his teams to malfunctions with the equipment.
Corn cob college
Even though the mill can run by itself, Snavely keeps one of his six different mills at the Lititz location off the automated system — and the workers are required to know how to run it themselves and how to fix the equipment in the event of a mechanical breakdown.
“It’s a learning tool,” Dave Snavely says. “They’ve got to physically put the grinders together and make sure there is wheat on the mill and know what kind of wheat."
Dave Snavely says he could run the entire mill himself if he had to, and repair nearly every piece of equipment here. He learned the same ways his current workers learned — although he says this mill is nicer than the one he worked on before the 1985 fire. He recalls being thrown into the metaphorical fire as a young man learning the trade.
“Those guys (I worked with) weren’t very forthcoming with information, so everything was learned hard,” Dave Snavely says. “You were thrown into it and you figured it out and you learned to teach yourself, (though) my dad was always available to ask questions of in later years.”
He refers to his formative on-the-job education as “corn cob college.” He says he was interested in attending milling school after he graduated from high school, but the business was growing so fast that there was no way he could have left. He credits friends in the industry with bolstering his knowledge.
“I know lots of people in the milling industry, and everybody’s friendly,” Dave Snavely says. “You can call them and pick their brains. It’s great. And I still do that.”
But he mentions they’ve also sent workers to milling and grain sciences classes offered at Kansas State University. too.
The company is fairly small — about 60 employees, and there are quite a few with the last name of Snavely working at each location. The family vibe is evident. And Snavely is obviously proud of his team.
“We have great guys here — girls, too,” Dave Snavely adds.
His father, Jerry, who was the president of the company from 1985 to 2009, died in 2011.
“I think he was really happy that we kept going,” Dave Snavely says. “He probably would have never admitted that.”
Later, by the pond, when Snavely is asked whether he thinks the family tradition will continue, he says he hopes so and that many of his nieces and nephews work with the company and his daughter, Megan, a junior at Warwick High School, recently learned how to unload a truck. He says she also runs tests on the wheat in the laboratory in the evenings.
“She says she wants to be a vet,” he says, and then looks into the pond and points out some ducks that his daughter raised.