The year was 1903, and 23-year-old J. Wesley Raye, or J.W. Raye for short, had recently returned from the Spanish-American War to the small town of Eastport, Maine. The thriving town of 5,000 people was bustling, with 27 working sardine factories and one mustard mill. Convenient and portable, canned sardines made a popular lunchbox treat, especially when packed in piquant mustard sauce.
Seeing a business opportunity, Raye imported two massive 2,000- to 3,000-pound quartz grindstones from France, built a small mill near Eastport’s railroad line, and started supplying mustard to the sardine factories dotting the coast of Maine. In the early years, townspeople brought their own containers to the mill and purchased mustard directly from the vats. In the 1920s, an electric motor was added to help grind the massive original grindstones, and by the 1960s, jars of Raye’s bright-yellow mustard were stocked on local grocery store shelves, alongside national brands.
In the century following the mill’s inception, the rail line left town, Eastport’s population shrank to about 1,200, and its sardine factories closed one by one, the last shuttering its doors in 1983. But Raye’s Mustard Mill remained, and now stands alone as the last stone-ground mustard mill on the continent.
What hasn’t changed is the high quality of the product. Kevin and Karen Raye took over the business in 2005, and they use the same process and grindstones that J.W. Raye implemented all those years ago. “If J.W. came back today, he’d surely recognize the process,” says Kevin. The mustard is still made using a cold-grind technique that dates back to the Middle Ages; this ensures that the flavors remain and the natural taste isn’t cooked off. “We stubbornly cling to this traditional process,” say Kevin and Karen. “It’s why our mustard tastes so good.”
The variety of Rayes’ mustard flavors have proliferated over the years to accommodate the tastes of modern customers, and to spotlight landmark jewels of Maine’s coastline. Nancy Raye, the previous owner and cousin to the current owners, added a gift shop to the mill, and introduced new mustards to sell on-site, which attracted more visitors, such as scout troops and field trip groups. Nancy also renamed the classic, American yellow mustard as “Down East Schooner,” an homage to the Down East coastal region of Maine, and to a family heirloom — the sailboat owned by J.W. Raye’s father.
This simple name change introduced the historic mill to the specialty foods market. Since then, Kevin and Karen have extended the line to include more than 25 varieties, many showcasing New England goods, such as Raye’s Spring Maple, made with New England’s famous maple syrup, and Summer Harvest, which is made with wild Maine blueberries. The Moose-a-Maquoddy engages wordplay between the local Passamaquoddy Bay and Eastport’s original Moose Island name. Moxie comes with the added flavor of Maine’s favorite local soda. The Rayes also offer several beer-infused mustards using local craft brews from the Shipyard and Sea Dog Brewing companies. The mill’s mustards have won numerous awards, with Down East Schooner alone garnering 15 gold medals at the World Mustard Competition.
Raye’s Mustard Mill now employs 10 people and draws substantial tourism to the area. Folks from all over come to visit the shop, tour the mill, and learn about the history of mustard making. The Rayes rave about their crew: “They take enormous pride in their work. They know they make unique products, and that they’re artisans. Visitors from all over the country call to tell us how ours is the best mustard they’ve ever eaten.”
Nose to the Grindstone
After 100-plus years, the original mustard mill building needs to be restored. Kevin and Karen made this decision around the same time they were pondering a succession plan. They don’t have any children who’ll inherit the business, and they didn’t want to sell the mill to a conglomerate that would discontinue the company’s historic processing methods. As active stewards of the Down East region, they also didn’t want to see someone shut down the mill or move it away from the area. But building an expensive new mill from scratch just wasn’t feasible.
So, they used the same kind of creative thinking that has kept Raye’s Mustard Mill in operation through so many changes. The Rayes, in conjunction with local economic development and nonprofit organizations, devised a plan to formalize the working museum’s legal status into a 501(c)(3). The nonprofit, Raye’s Mustard Mill Museum, will become the mill’s new owner, ensuring the mill remains at its current location in Eastport and uses its time-honored production techniques.
The new museum will surround the current mill, creating a building within a building where visitors can watch the mustard-making process. The enlarged building will also house a kitchen suitable for holding cooking and nutrition classes, a space for community events, and an enlarged and updated gift shop featuring local artisans. The museum will even incorporate an old rail car on the property, turning it into a theater where visitors can watch a film about the mill and its sardine history. “We wanted to provide more educational opportunities, and the museum will do that,” says Karen.
The museum renovation project is a creative, triple-win endeavor. It ensures that Raye’s Mustard continues as a high-quality product, assures that the business remains a vital part of the town, and puts in place an ownership succession plan. Construction is scheduled to be completed by spring 2020.
Much has changed since 1903. But four generations of the Raye family have shown that creatively adapting their product to the market — from a manufacturing commodity, to a local favorite, to a national specialty food item, to a history museum — confirms the continuation of a small, family business in rural America.
Raye’s Mustard Mill Museum is currently raising funds for the $2 million renovation project. Donations can be mailed to Raye’s Mustard Mill Museum, P.O. Box 207, Eastport, Maine 04631, or made online at www.RayesMustardMillMuseum.org.
Renee Pottle, an Eastport native, returns home annually to visit family and stock up on Raye’s Mustard. Her favorite flavors are Sea Dog Beer and Old World Gourmet.