LEHI — By all rights, Sherm Robinson ought to be kicked back in a beach chair somewhere, sipping a cold beverage, buying cotton candy for his grandkids, his biggest worry deciding where he’s going to have dinner.
But, nope, at age 69 he’s right where he’s always been — running a flour mill.
And not just any flour mill, the one that is a Utah icon, the one that tens of thousands of cars pass by every day on I-15, the one that starred in “Footloose.”
If you don’t know Lehi Roller Mills, you haven’t been paying attention.
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Robinson’s grandfather bought the mill in 1910 from a coalition of farmers and businessmen who had erected it on Lehi’s Main Street five years earlier — giving them just enough time to discover that running a mill wasn’t as easy as they thought it was going to be.
George G. Robinson, by contrast, knew what he was doing. He came from a long line of millers, dating back to the 1600s in England. His father, George M.D. Robinson, had relocated from Vermont to Utah in the 1800s for the express purpose of setting up mills in the emerging farm economy.
Under Robinson control, the mill thrived, establishing relationships with local farmers and businesses that remain to this day (including being the first supplier of special spices for Kentucky Fried Chicken).
When George died in 1936 his son, Sherman D., took over. When Sherman D. died in 1980 his son, R. Sherman, assumed command.
Sherm II, whom everyone called Robbie, modernized the equipment and increased the mill’s capacity to 100,000 pounds of flour per day. In 1984 he consented to let Hollywood use the mill as a backdrop for “Footloose.”
The movie’s producer, the late Daniel Melnick, had a vacation home at Sundance and for years drove past the distinctive Lehi landmark, admiring its striking lines, particularly at sunset, and plotting to someday use it in a movie.
He finally figured out how with “Footloose,” a tale about a city kid who brings music and dancing to a conservative, religious farm town.
Art imitating life.
Sherm Robinson agreed to the movie for a small upfront fee (about $15,000), plus $1,000 a day whenever shooting halted milling.
For a few weeks, everyone got to mill around with Kevin Bacon, Sarah Jessica Parker and John Lithgow.
“I’ve never had a better experience with people than with them,” says Robinson, who jokes that he is “only one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon.”
More than three decades later, rare is the week, he notes, that tourists/movie buffs don’t pull into the parking lot and take photos and have a look around.
The '80s and '90s and early part of the new century were very good years for Lehi Roller Mills. When they celebrated the mill’s centennial in 2006, the future looked as bright as the past.
Then, a perfect storm of troubles erupted.
The Great Recession was just the start of it. One of the mill’s customers got in the crosshairs of the Food and Drug Administration; the bank that held a sizeable loan the mill had taken out failed; they couldn’t get another one because of the FDA investigation; at one point the federal government was sending notices to Lehi Roller Mills customers warning them not to buy its flour.
Robinson calls this the “government gone wild” phase of his life. He spent a lot of time in court with his lawyers.
Fortunately, after all was sorted out, Lehi Roller Mills was found not guilty of any crimes or misdemeanors.
“You know how we say, ‘Where there’s smoke there’s fire?’” Robinson asks, shrugging. “Well sometimes we should say, ‘Where there’s smoke there’s smoke.’”
But the damage had been done, and the mill he’d given his life to, the mill his father and his father’s father had given their lives to, was seriously broken.
More than one person suggested selling the three valuable acres the mill sits on to Marriott or Hilton, cash the big check, and move on.
But Robinson couldn’t do that, and by 2014 he did something he swore he’d never do: filed for bankruptcy protection.
It was at this juncture that Ken Brailsford entered the picture.
Much like Daniel Melnick, Brailsford, a Utah County resident and uber-successful network marketing guru, had driven past the distinctive Lehi landmark many times, admiring its striking lines and iconic stature.
When he learned of its financial problems, he stepped in and agreed to buy the mill. On one condition.
It would continue to be run by a Robinson.
Sherm Robinson remembers their conversation.
Brailsford: “Do you think you could work for someone else?”
Brailsford: “Why is that?”3 comments on this story
Robinson: “I worked for my dad.”
So the old mill has new ownership under the same management. All of which has Robinson, despite everything, turning cartwheels.
“It’s a miracle, really, with where we’ve been,” he says. “I’m so grateful Mr. Brailsford came forward.
“I feel it’s important for the community, and for my family, that we’re still here. For me, it's personal. The mill, it has kind of a spirit to it, if you will. Kind of a glow. If you drive past around sunset, you can actually see it.”