I’ve always been drawn to distinctive buildings. Whether we’re talking about old barns, factories or abandoned houses, the structures speak to me.
There are hundreds of these buildings scattered throughout rural and urban places in our state. Some are still in use, others are vacant and waiting for a new purpose, and many have lost the battle with nature after years of neglect.
Recently I was drawn to an old feed mill off Wisconsin Highway 95 on the edge of the city of Arcadia in Trempealeau County. Standing next to a creek and a dam, it had obviously been powered by water at one time in its past. Although it was a cold winter day when I passed through, I pulled over immediately to take photos.
Standing next to the feed mill was an old schoolhouse – at least the front of it. The building had collapsed in the middle.
A nearby roadway – aptly named Mill Road – was barricaded off before reaching a creek. Since the road continued on the other side of the creek, it was obvious that there had been a bridge there at one time.
A sign identified the building as the East Arcadia Feed Mill. Broken windows – some wide open, some boarded over, some still with glass – dotted the building’s front. The mill’s faded-red clapboard siding was marred with holes.
The front door was open, but I was not dressed for exploring and didn’t want to trespass. So I stopped just for a few minutes and then was on my way. But I left with some questions. Who owned the building? What was its history? How many farmers did it once serve? When did it close?
A little research led to some answers. The building was apparently once owned by a man from Arizona, according to a story that I found in the Trempealeau County Times. This past year, the town of Arcadia received federal money to help remove the 60-foot bridge that had crossed Turton Creek. The bridge had been closed for a few years and was in danger of falling down.
Further enlightenment came from environmental paperwork filed with the state of Wisconsin. The East Arcadia Roller Mill was built in 1900 for the millers Michael Stelmach and John Kamla. It’s a two-story side-gable gristmill built on a stone foundation with frame construction and wood siding.
There are two doors; a metal hoist frame used to tilt trucks for unloading stands to the west of the entrance, next to a pair of grain-loading doors at grade level. A stone basement level is visible above the riverbank. The milling machinery has been removed but there are still chutes and pulleys. The turbine is stored on-site.
The building was used partly to store grain and flour. Its first and second floors have tongue-and-groove wood-wall cladding and wood floors. Four large timber columns provide structural support.
There is an internal grain elevator, which runs from its basement to its roofline. Storage bins on the second floor are connected to delivery chutes on the first floor. Stairs near the northwest corner of the first floor provide access to the second floor and basement.
The one-room schoolhouse was built in 1906 to serve Korpal Valley District 2. It was moved to the feed-mill site and used an office after the school closed in 1943.
Next to the mill is a concrete dam dating to 1915. Holes along the top of the dam provide evidence pointing to what was no doubt once an important component of the mill’s water-power system – the mill pond. The holes were once filled with posts that held up flashboards that could be used, in turn, to dam up the creek. The redirected water was then used to power a wheel turbine in the mill’s powerhouse, which has been removed. The discharge area is still visible.
In later years, the mill was made to run on electricity. Yet, despite its being brought up to date, its future seems unclear. The building’s owner had it listed for sale a few years ago, but I have so far been unable to ask him about his plans.
With its broken windows and open doorways, the mills shows the elements are taking their toll. The schoolhouse appears to be too far gone. Without some work and money, another piece of Wisconsin farming history will soon be beyond repair.
Chris Hardie is a freelance journalist who writes a column called Back Home.