With the help of a not-for-profit museum they established in 2018, the fourth-generation owners of a Down East mustard company are trying to preserve their stone-ground mill and to make sure it always stays in Eastport.
J.W. Raye & Company, which makes different varieties of Raye’s Mustard, operates the last traditional stone ground mustard mill in North America, according to owners Karen and Kevin Raye. But the Washington Street mill, which dates to the early 1900s, is not in great physical shape and it is not expected to be a cheap fix.
The Rayes have an unusual idea for how to do it too. An affiliated not-for-profit museum the Rayes set up four years ago, they believe, will help them preserve the mill. They also believe the museum will keep the company founded by Kevin Raye’s great-grand-uncle in the same location in the eventual day when they retire.
To help ensure those things happen, they are hoping to raise more than $2 million.
“It was not built to withstand the ages,” Kevin Raye said of the mill, which was built a few years after the company was founded in 1900 to produce mustard for Maine’s then-thriving sardine industry. “The building has been slowly sinking into the ground for decades.”
To preserve the mill, the Rayes want to construct a larger shingled structure that will enclose the existing mill building. Ownership of the property, including the 18 original mill stones that are still on site, will be transferred to Raye’s Mustard Mill Museum — the nonprofit the Rayes created four years ago — which then will lease the existing production space enclosed by the new building back to the for-profit mustard company.
By transferring ownership of the mill to the nonprofit museum, there will be more funding sources available to help preserve it, the Rayes said. Plus, any subsequent owner of the mustard company would be hard pressed to move the company out of town when it would have to leave the museum-owned grindstones behind.
“The stones are the heart of the mill,” Karen Raye said, “and keeping them here is part of our succession plan.”
The Rayes, who bought the company from one of Kevin’s cousins in 2005, have no children of their own but do have two nephews who could one day become the fifth generation of their family to take over the company, the couple said.
Kevin said that 17 years ago, when he approached his cousin Nancy Raye about buying the company from her, she already was in negotiations to sell it to someone else who he said “easily” could have moved the company away from Eastport.
“Knowing how close that came, we want to make sure that never happens,” he said.
Raye’s Mustard currently has nine employees, not including Karen, who oversees the company’s daily operations.
The Rayes’ nonprofit museum already has raised about $470,000 to put toward the projected $2.3 million construction project, including a donation earlier this month of $25,000 from First National Bank.
The museum also plans to raise money for the project by selling a separate building in Eastport that was donated earlier this year by the Hutchins family, longtime owners of Dead River Oil Company. That former Dead River building, located on Key Street, has an appraised value of $157,000.
In hopes of coming up with the remainder of the needed funds, the museum is applying for a $1.8 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration. If the museum is awarded the grant, the Rayes said, the construction project could get underway sometime next year.
“We could have built a large metal building anywhere, modernized our production methods, and been more profitable,” Kevin Raye said. “But it just felt like not the right thing to do.”