by ehistoryadmin on October 30, 2014

End of year brings end of era for the mill at Sallins

By Liam Kenny 

The end of the year brings an end to an era as Odlums mill at Sallins has milled its last cargo of oatmeal. The expression “a household name” is used liberally nowadays but the porridge oatmeal produced by the Sallins mill was a true household name. Many a schoolchild headed out for the day fortified by a bowl of Odlums Triumph Oatmeal (O.T.O). The distinctive packaging with its representation of an owl is branded in the mind of children of a certain generation.

The closure of the canal side mill at Sallins in the last month of the year marks the end of a milling industry in the Liffey catchment with roots going back centuries. Alexander Taylor’s map of 1783 points to a mill located at nearby Osberstown while a plaque on the Leinster Mills – an older sibling of Sallins – proclaims its opening date as 1790. The milling industry was transformed by the construction of the Grand Canal through mid-Leinster with the Odlum group having mills or depots at Mountmellick, Portlarlington, Naas and Sallins, all connected by the waterway.

It was a common sight for Sallins folk to see one of the broad-beamed  barges laden with forty tons of corn from the autumn fields moored under the canopy overhanging the factory wharf just below the bridge. After a day’s unloading the barge would be reloaded, this time with milled and bagged oatmeal ready for freighting to merchants in Dublin and other canal harbours.

The mill in Sallins was set up in or about 1915 not long after the Odlum brothers had acquired corporate control of the impressive Leinster Steam and Water Rollers, a mile south on the Naas branch of the canal.

At this stage the Odlum milling empire embraced nine working mills with Sallins specialising in milling for porridge oatmeal. As mill technology evolved specialist skills were needed and among those to come to Sallins mill shortly after its construction was John (Jack) Francis Kelly from Portarlington. Jack was a trained fitter and all his skills were needed to make running repairs on the pulleys, cranes, milling machines, and sieves, all rattling to and fro at a high speed, which were part of the complex milling process. He began work in the Sallins mill in 1919 and he was to stay in the village all his working life. Jack and a number of his workmates lived on site residing in a cottage in the mill yard. He was not to stay long in the mill residence as he met and married Bridget Kelly, daughter of the publican from the McGrath House licensed premises near the railway bridge.

One of the perquisites in later years for the mill families was an allowance of oatmeal which the workers were allowed bring home. Also prized were the linen flour-bags which thrifty housewives used to stitch up and make bed sheets.

Jack was a key employee of Sallins during his working life and no doubt shared many a friendly word with his fellow miller, Michael Culleton, who continued his father’s long record of service in Odlums’ employment at the Leinster Mills.

The Sallins mill produced large quantities of porridge oatmeal each week and in the late 1950s employed some 40 men and ten women who worked in the bagging area.

However this successful enterprise was nearly destroyed in March 1959 when a devastating fire swept through some of the buildings. Sallins was illuminated by the tongues of flame erupting into the sky as the combustible flour stores blazed fiercely. Locals and mill workers formed a bucket chain hauling water from the adjacent canal to try and dampen the fire. It took the combined efforts from fire brigades from all over Kildare and from as far afield as the Tara Street Brigade in Dublin to quell the flames.

The four-storied high mill tower where the oat flakes were milled – known as the O.T.O building – was destroyed. Despite the damage the Odlum company regrouped, reconfigured the mill buildings, and after some time Sallins was back on line. Demand for their flag-ship product, the Odlums Triumph Oatmeal, flourished to the extent that every larder and food press in the country was stocked with the famous O.T.O. cream packaging with the logo of an owl, surely one of the best known brand images in Irish marketing history.

The Odlums thought of everything to promote the popularity of the O.T.O. brand. A new roof was built on the mill building at Sallins with the brand-name O.T.O. painted in big letters against the red corrugated roof and visible to passengers travelling through Sallins by road or train.

The following decade brought better news when the enterprising Odlum company – now one of the kings of milling in Ireland – acquired the Drogheda-based John McCann Oatmeal company and transferred its manufacturing to the Sallins plant. This opened the door for Sallins to the United States market where McCann had a loyal customer base who savoured the “nutty” taste of the McCann porridge formula.

The product was a perfect fit for the Oldlum’s operation and such was the successful formula that in 1995 the Sallins mill was re-engineered to cope with the increasing demand from the United States. In 2005 more than one million tins of Sallins produced McCann Oatflakes were purchased by customers in North America.

In 2008 the McCann’s Oatmeal brand was acquired by Sturm Foods in Wisconsin and the Sallins mill continued to ship over 4,000 tonnes a year to the American company.

However consolidation in the milling industry meant that the days of the Sallins plant were numbered. The Leinster Mills nearby had closed in 1989 and time was running out for Sallins. The last truckload of Sallins milled oatflakes bound for Wisconsin  pulled off the weighbridge just before Christmas and the mills have fallen silent for the last time. Leinster Leader 31 December 2013, Looking Back, Series no: 364.

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