Sunday, December 8, 2013
EASTPORT -- On a recent foggy September morning, Kevin Raye put on a blue rain slicker, walked to the curb and arranged letters on a roadside sign.
State Senate President Kevin Raye strolls a pier overlooking Cummings Cove on Passamaquoddy Bay during a recent tour of his native Eastport. The pier is home to Eastport Chowderhouse, where Raye worked as a server during his teen years. Raye, a Republican, is running against Democratic incumbent Mike Michaud for the U.S. House of Representatives in Maine's 2nd Congressional District.
Staff photo by Ben McCanna
Washington Avenue is the major thoroughfare into downtown Eastport and just about everyone who visits the isolated Downeast outpost will drive past the sign and read its latest announcement: "Check out our new gift packs and travel mugs."
The sign bears Raye's name, as does the 109-year-old building directly behind it.
For more than a century, Raye's Mustard Mill has occupied this quiet plot of land and served as de facto gateway to this town of about 1,300. More recently, the mill has become the cornerstone of the Republican businessman's campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Small businesses represent the largest sector of Maine's economy, and Raye says his firsthand experiences as a small business owner give him insight into its rewards and challenges.
And those challenges have grown.
"The past four years have been very difficult in this economy," said Raye, Maine's state senate president. "We feel very fortunate that we are where we are, and we've been able to grow, but we know it's been limited by the economy. Like everyone else, we're hanging on and hoping for better times ahead."
For Raye, 51, this election is a decade-old rematch against Democratic incumbent Mike Michaud, who has handily defeated other Republican challengers since their original contest.
Over the last 10 years, Raye has become an influential state legislator and a successful small business owner -- a combination that may convince voters in Maine's 2nd Congressional District to give him another look this time around.
All in the family
Raye has given many tours of his mustard mill before, but he seems to enjoy it, and his jokes land well.
It was a quiet Saturday last month. Customers were already filing into the gift shop, but the attached mill was dormant. Once or twice a week, the Rayes fire up an electric-powered drive shaft that runs the length of the building through the rafters high above. The drive shaft turns long flat rubber belts, which turn the grind stones and operate pumps.
"It looks like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory when it's running," Raye said.
Vinegar- and water-soaked mustard seeds are pumped from a holding tank through a series of four massive stone grinders -- each the diameter of a wagon wheel. The grinders are made with two stones -- a top stone and a bottom stone, with a paper-thin gap between them. The mustard flows into the space between and is ground into a paste, which grows progressively smoother as it's pumped from grinder to grinder until it pours into a barrel where its aged before bottling.
Aside from a few tweaks to comply with evolving federal standards for food safety, the mill is virtually unchanged since the day it was opened in 1903 by its founder, Jay Wesley Raye.
"My great-great uncle -- who passed away in 1948 -- could walk in here today and fire up the mill and do the whole thing," Raye said.
Four generations of Rayes have owned the mill, but it's not a hand-me-down. In 2005, Kevin and wife, Karen, bought the business from Raye's aunt at fair-market value.
The mustard is the real deal. Forbes Life magazine, for instance, added Raye's yellow mustard to a list of the world's eight greatest mustards. Martha Stewart sometimes hands out jars to her studio audiences as gifts.
Depending on the season, the mill employs between six and 10 people, including Raye and his wife. Three more employees are family members. Another three employees have worked at the mill for more than 20 years, Raye said.
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