Surviving the greatest challenge
While King Milling endured some trying times over the past century and a quarter, the single greatest threat to its existence occurred on March 7, 1943, when the company’s wooden mill burned to the ground. The mill was completely destroyed along with thousands of bus of wheat.
The temperature the day of the fire was 18 degrees below zero. Water that was sprayed on the building by firefighters froze almost immediately upon reaching it.
Brian Doyle noted that at the time of the fire, the United States was in the middle of World War II, and building materials were in tight supply with all available materials going to the war effort. Securing building priorities from the War Production Board and Certificates of Necessity from the War Department, assembling materials and recruiting skilled labor for a new mill seemed almost a hopeless task.
“All the able-bodied people were overseas at war, so it was younger boys and old men working on the mill rebuild,” Brian Doyle said. “They poured concrete by hand right there. They used a pulley system with buckets to raise it up. Amazingly, they built it in basically the same number of days it took to build our new mill in 2013. It was phenomenal. They worked around the clock.”
The responsibility of overseeing the mill rebuild, which took a little over two years, fell on the shoulders of company president, William Doyle, Brian Doyle’s grandfather. The stress took a heavy toll.
Ten days after the mill reopened, in April 1945, William died of a heart attack while on a business trip in Chicago. He was 54 years old.
“I’m sure the stress of all that was bad on his heart,” Brian said. “The Doyles didn’t have longevity anyway due to heart disease, but that had to be a contributor to his early death.”
Because William’s brother, Charles, had died in 1943 due to complications from a stroke that he suffered seven years earlier, the next in line to run the company was 23-year-old King Doyle, who at the time was serving in the U.S. Navy on a destroyer in the South Pacific. Because of his father’s death, the Navy gave King Doyle a 90-day leave, as his ship was in dry dock from a kamikaze attack. The war ended before the leave was over, and the Navy released King from active duty.
So it was up to King and his 15-year-old brother, Mike, to keep the family business moving forward.
“There was a guy (Milton Fuller) out of Topeka, Kas., who was a friend of my grandpa’s who came to Lowell to help with the business for four years,” Brian Doyle said. “He helped teach my dad the business and how to grow it.”
And grow it they did. During their 50-year tenure as the company’s leaders, from 1945 to 1995, King and Mike accomplished the following:
Increased the mill capacity to 5,400 cwts
- Increased wheat storage capacity to 2.8 million bus with the addition of 900,000 bus of storage in the 1970s and 1 million bus in the 1980s
- King Milling became one of the first mills to switch from a bucket elevator system for conveying flour to a more sanitary pneumatic system
- Newer transportation systems were introduced, including bulk trucking and a system capable of loading 500 cwts of flour into a truck in just under 4 minutes
- Bought property owned by C.H. Runciman Co., which had been operating as a producer of navy beans, and eventually converted it into King Milling’s current main office and from a bean processing facility into a whole wheat mill
- Implemented a wheat heating process that deactivates enzymes in wheat, enhancing shelf life and improving other end-use characteristics
- Became one of the first flour mills to apply color sorting technology to wheat by installing the first Sortex machine in the A Mill in 1978.