Dan Diehl loves old buildings, which is a good thing, since he owns the old , a rustic collection of buildings that dates back to the 19th Century. The old mill at the corner of Ferry and Water Street has been a staple in Fenton from the town’s founding days, when it was used to grind locally grown wheat into flour. The main building houses a mill with an old belt and pulley system that has since been converted from steam power to electric. It's still used today.
“When I first bought the place we mixed up a lot of hog feed and chicken feed,” Diehl said.
Deihl bought the mill about 20 years ago. He said there aren’t as many farmers or horse owners in the area who would be a mill’s normal clientele, though he still carries the things they need. These days his customers are more likely to be local gardeners, backyard farmers with flocks of chickens and wild bird lovers who buy seed by the 50 pound sack. He said his pet and bird supplies are competitive with the big box stores, but he doesn’t have the floor space to carry a lot of different brands.
“If it weren’t for the bird feeders, I’d be out of business,” he said. Some of his best selling merchandise is sunflower seed, which he sells as is, or ground into fine chips without the shells. “It’s like caviar, but somebody just came in here and bought three 50-pound bags.”
The old mill has a certain ramshackle charm to it. Deihl knows there are people who would rather see his mill torn down, but he’s ready to defend it.
“You can’t build an old building,” he quips. Deihl does his best to maintain the old barn-like structure and is working on rehabbing a little house that is part of the mill’s complex of seven buildings. Flooding is his worst enemy.
“We’d have five or six feet of water in here,” he said of the feed mill’s store. The mill is just a stone’s throw from the Meramec River and has been under water five times since Deihl bought it in the 1990s. He’s never bothered with dry walling the mill’s shop, so when a flood threatens he just packs up the merchandise and moves it to higher ground. He jokes that he would never get around to cleaning the shop if it weren’t for the floods.
Diehl’s business is a family operation. His brother Mark works with him at Fenton and his sister runs another feed mill he owns in Wildwood. The Wildwood shop is much newer, but he still prefers the old charm of the Fenton Feed Mill.
When he’s not at the mill he can be found farming several small parcels of land in the Fenton area. He keeps hogs and an acre of vegetables across the Meramec and tends a field of soybeans and pumpkins on land owned by the Maritz corporation. He sells the vegetables he grows at the feed mill.
“I wish more people would grow gardens,” he said, lamenting the poor quality of foreign grown produce available in grocery stores today.
“Everyone would have a backyard garden in the old days,” he said. He said Fenton aldermen have shown an interest in starting a community garden, perhaps in the Fabick Nature Area, and have asked him to help out. The community garden would be a place for residents team together to grow vegetables of their own.