The whirring of the belts as they turn the grinders, the coating of fine dust rising as the grain and corn are crushed to minute particles of flour, corn meal, and grits — these are the sights and sounds that have emanated from the Adluh Flour plant in the heart of the Vista in downtown Columbia since the early 1900s.
Adluh Flour originally grew from a grain and feed company established in 1906, known as Columbia Grain & Provision, owned by B.R. Cooner. He recognized a need for a milling company that could process grain products for farmers in South Carolina, and the Adluh Milling Company was born in 1914.
It was during this time period the well-known Adluh logo was born. The Columbia Shriners had formed a drum corps to play at events across South Carolina, and the captain of the corps, Peter Mazyck, decided to use his daughter’s name, Hulda, as the name for the drum corps, but spelled in reverse.
Cooner, who was also a Shriner, was so enamored with the name “Adluh” that he asked Mazyck’s permission to use the name for his new milling company. The following year, a likeness of Hulda, “the little girl with big blue eyes and a head covered with bright golden curls,” appeared on Adluh product packaging. By the following year, the girl’s image was incorporated into an image of a drum, followed in later years with the addition of a pair of crossed drumsticks, thus paying homage to Hulda and the Adluh Drum Corps.
Construction began in 1920 on what is now the iconic 123-foot grain elevator that towers above the Vista when the two companies merged, keeping the name Adluh Milling Company.
But times would not remain good. Finances took a nosedive, and the company declared bankruptcy in 1924, remaining closed for the next two years. That same year, the Allen family of Wadesboro, North Carolina, bought the mill and brought it back to full operations.
The Allen Brothers Milling Co. had a long background in milling, with mills located in their hometown of Wadesboro, as well as Mebane, North Carolina, and Peachland, North Carolina. The family made the decision to keep the established Adluh brand and never looked back.
The company has seen many changes over the past century, but one aspect has remained constant — the Allen family still runs the company with Bill Allen currently at the helm. Leadership has passed down through four generations from J.B. Allen, Sr., to Bill’s father, J.B. Allen, Jr., and his brother-in-law, E.J. Edgerton, Sr., to Bill’s cousin Jack Edgerton, Jr., the longest serving president of the company, and now to Bill.
Other family members are also active in the operation. Beth Edgerton Ellis, Jack Edgerton’s daughter, serves as vice president; Bill’s son, Doug Allen, is director of marketing and sales, and Jack Edgerton, Jr.’s son-in-law, Roger Horton, keeps the plant running as superintendent and plant manager.
Bill understands the significance of the family for the longevity of Adluh Flour, but he also credits his loyal employees as key in keeping the company in business these many years.
“Our team is what keeps our legacy going each and every day,” he says. “They are the nuts and bolts that hold us together and are responsible for us still being here today.”
At its largest point the plant was six buildings, including two warehouses, a flour mill, a meal and feed mill, grain elevators, and the office, but today it is a bit smaller. It remains the only flour mill still in operation in South Carolina. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the West Gervais Street Historic District.
Remnants of the plant’s long history are on full display throughout the property, including a two-man timber saw, framed old cotton sacks with the Adluh logo imprinted on them, and even an original electrical panel. When it initially opened, the mill sat next to the Southern Freight Railway yard, where six tracks delivered grain and ingredients. “It made sense at the time for the mill to be built in this area because rail service was so important then,” Bill says. “The farmers market was located nearby along with other mills, so it was a logical fit.”
The rail lines have since been pulled up or disappeared under concrete, but a portion of one track still remains. “When Southern began pulling up the tracks, they happened to overlook one boxcar on the side of the building,” Bill says. “The tracks were gone, so there was no way to move it, and it remains here today.”
The building now used as the company office, which has its original brick walls, is believed to have been built in the early 1900s. It has a front countertop that was hewn from original timbers salvaged from the renovation of the warehouse. The 9-foot doors leading to the conference room also originally hung in the warehouse. As part of making the building functional, a portion was renovated to include a test kitchen, in keeping with the Adluh flour slogan of “Table Tested.” The office also demonstrates the family’s love for animals.
“This building is what’s known as Sally’s house,” says Bill. “In 1939, my grandfather found a stray dog on the property. She lived here as the watchdog until 1959.”
That was Sally No. 1. It took a few more years for Sally No. 2 to come along. When initial renovations began for the office building in the early ’70s, J.B. Allen, Sr., found another dog living under the building with her pups.
“My grandfather found homes for all the pups and took Sally No. 2 to live with him at his home off Trenholm Road,” he says. “He would go to the market on Main Street and buy her fresh ground sirloin hamburger.” Sally No. 1’s photo hangs on the wall of the conference room.
Oakley, a black Labrador retriever who actually belongs to Bill’s son, Doug, now spends at least part of his day at the mill. It is not an accident that Oakley’s bed is directly behind Bill’s desk. “This is pretty much a place destined for dogs,” Bill says with a laugh.
Bill’s grandfather had a reputation for being quite the generous man, known by many of his friends as the “Candy Man.” In her later years, Bill’s grandmother was moved to a nursing home near the former downtown Providence Hospital.
“My grandfather visited my grandmother not once, but twice a day, every day,” Bill says. “He kept a trunk full of soft candy that he bought from the old Columbia Candy and Tobacco by the case. He would give everyone in that nursing home a piece of candy. He was a consummate generous and caring gentleman.”
Within the cooling room, where ingredients such as black pepper, garlic, paprika, and sugar are stored, sits another relic from the mill’s past. A large vintage double-door, cast-iron safe, manufactured by the Cary Safe Company, sits in its original spot where it was installed in the early 1900s. It bears the name Columbia Grain and Provision Company in gold leaf across the top. “I was told the safe is so heavy that it had to be put in place first, and the building was put up around it,” says Bill.
A ghost is rumored to be wandering around the mill. A longtime employee by the name of Jerome Busbee, who was originally hired by Bill’s grandfather and worked at the mill some 50 years, had a favorite handcart that only he used. Legend has it that the extremely heavy cart disappeared from the warehouse one day during renovations, and no one seems to know what happened to it, but most believe Jerome is still pushing it around the mill.
Although not nearly as old as many of the other pieces in the mill, one of the most recognized objects has become a landmark on the Columbia skyline — the neon Adluh sign perched atop the grain elevator. “My grandfather put that sign up in 1961,” Bill says. “The grain elevator is 123 feet tall, and the letters tower above that. I’ve never been up there, and you’ll never see me up there either!”
While the sign is not currently in working condition, Bill hopes that it will be restored and working again in the near future.
In 2010 the family began exploring the idea of redeveloping an unused portion of the warehouse that was originally the Thomas & Howard Wholesale Grocery. The building underwent a significant facelift, and in 2015, Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom opened there. Other tenants include an engineering firm and a real estate development company.
“We try to be good neighbors for the Vista,” Bill says. “We do our part to coexist and support one another.”
Allen Brothers Milling Company may not be as large today as in days gone by, but under the name Adluh Flour and other brands, including Carolina Gem, Eat Mor, and even a few private labels, the mill continues to produce flour, grits, cornmeal, breaders, and baking mixes that can be found in restaurants throughout the Southeast.
While the majority of what the mill produces today is distributed through institutional food services, Adluh products can be found in a few gift shops around the Midlands and at the main office on Gervais Street. “We found our niche in the early ’90s to use strictly the institutional food route through various distributors such as U.S. Foods, Sysco, and Performance Food Group,” says Bill, “and there are some gift shops that sell our products.”
Their products carry the Certified SC Grown label, and the flour has been named as the state’s “official flour” by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. “It’s one of the reasons the mill was originally founded — to process wheat and grains grown by South Carolina farmers,” Bill says. “We buy as much local product as we can. Many of our farmer families are also in their third or fourth generations of farming. We have a close relationship in supporting each other.”
The company has been through a number of hardships, including the COVID-19 pandemic, but remains committed to enduring for years to come.
“The basic milling of flour and cornmeal is done today the same way it was when the mill was first built,” says Bill. “We are fortunate and blessed, and Adluh is very much alive and well today because of the dedication of our family and our loyal longtime employees.”