One late December evening in 1949 in Cortez, Colorado, the Wark flour mill burned to the ground. Within eight months, the Wark family had it rebuilt and back in business at the same location on the 300 block of Market St.. Five years later, on Feb. 17, 1955, an article in the Aspen Daily Times reported:
The Wark mill is the only one of its kind in the Four Corners area, the nearest mill being a smaller operation in Bayfield, 15 miles east of Durango.
The present mill is a completely modern mill in every respect with the latest type of milling equipment, new buildings and up-to-date milling procedures.
This ‘completely modern mill in every respect’ is still pushing out more than 40,000 pounds of flour every day with the exact same equipment using the exact same ‘up-to-date milling procedures’ (nothing, to this day, is automated) in the same location on Market St.. The Tanners have owned Cortez Milling (the name was changed in the 60’s as ownership, bank recievership and partnerships developed, evolved and faded) since 1966. The smaller Bayfield operation that the Aspen Times refers to was started by Gary Tanner’s great grandfather, that is until it burned down in 1964. (There was a time when Flour mills seemed to be tinder boxes. More than a few burned down in the four corners area during the early 20th century). This is the same great grandfather who built the Long Hollow mill which is still pumping out Blue Horizon flour in a hollow in the shadow of the Red Mesa Ward dam (see edible Southwest Colorado, summer 2015). “He didn’t know anything about milling,” Gary Tanner said, ninety years later, in his office at Cortez Milling. Neither did the Wark family before they jumped in feet first in 1926.
Anymore, it seems mill towns exist only in Pennsylvania and Bruce Springsteen songs. But Cortez Milling still sits in the middle of town, like a time capsule, one block from St. Margaret Mary Catholic church and three blocks from Main St. Its weathered metal exterior looks windblown as if leaning to the west. The four story building’s well-worn wooden floors shimmy under foot to the rhythm of the sifters – polished wooden structures on the second floor the size of a family van that undulate at a high rate of speed (like a washing machine in a spin cycle that is out of balance) – shaking the bran (the hard outer coating) from the endosperm (the good stuff). At ground level incoming trucks loaded with hard winter wheat are weighed using a hand operated sliding scale with a punch card system. It looks like a doctors scale built in the 1930’s for elephants.”Yes, it is the same scale,” Tanner said anticipating the next question. The softspoken Tanner, 65, looks like a stocky football coach with the demeanor of a country preacher.
“Go to any flour mill and the process is the same,” Tanner said. “It’s just computerized.” Even the quality of the final product is determined by touch and feel. Too gritty? It goes back upstairs through a system that looks and operates like a drive-through at a bank but instead of lucite tubes with money heading to your car it is flour in pine piping heading back for another round of sifting. On this particular day four guys, including the owners son, were taking the finished flour and filling sacks, sewing sacks and loading sacks as the mill rumbled under foot – like a locomotive – and flour filled the air.
If Southwest Colorado had a milling museum it would be this actual working plant. A turn-key operation. Businesses like this – ones that source their product locally, have been around for decades and have beautiful packaging are generally self aware – producing t-shirts, mugs and tours. Not here. The Tanners don’t see the novelty. You can’t even order their product online as they have no website (although a domain is registered and a site is reportedly being built). “If people want it then they call and they send me a check and I mail it to them,” Naomi Molina, 28, Gary’s daughter and a fifth generation miller, said. “I mailed some to the North Pole the other day.” You want a t-shirt with the iconic Blue Bird Flour logo? You have to make it yourself. And people do. Google Blue Bird Flour Sack clothes and see what pops up. Dresses. Aprons. Handbags. Even underwear. Want an empty sack? The mill will be glad to sell you an unused one over the counter. One dollar each.
Nobody seems to know who painted the etherial logo of the western bluebird perched on a sheave of grain in a harvested field with a windmill on the horizon (the bluebird seems to be announcing the good news to the world). Tanner believes it has something to do with the Navajo culture (The Navajo Nation, Tanner said, is the mills largest customer) who believe the bluebird is spirit in animal form.
“We wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for them.” Blue Bird is the only flour the Navajos will use for their frybread according to Tanner. They depend on the consistency of its consistency (which is a high gluten and high protein product that makes a stretchy dough). Mind you a consistency that is dependent upon a mishmash of ‘thoroughly modern’ machinery, ‘up-to-date milling procedures’ and the tactile dexterity of a human being. ϕ
Frybread (courtesy of Cortez Milling)
2 cups Blue bird Flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons powdered milk
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ cup warm water
Mix all ingredients, adjust flour and water to dough not sticky. Let rest at least 30 mins.
Fry in lard for best flavor.
Blue Bird flour has a fairly high gluten content which makes the dough pliable without tearing, this is one of the reasons other flours fail.