Late one Friday night, a group of students scrambled up the stairs in The F. W. Stock & Sons Mill.
The freshmen saw the climb as a rite of passage, while the seniors made the trek out of habit.
An intoxicated freshman wandered away from the group.
Suddenly, the floor disappeared beneath him.
A female student screamed. But the freshman man had latched onto the sides of the pit.
His legs dangled beneath him as bits of rubble dropped 75 feet onto a slab of concrete.
Unintentionally, he had discovered one of many precipices in the labyrinthine passages of the old mill complex.
Since the mill closed in 2003, both college students and local kids have grown to consider the mill a gigantic playground.
But the land is still private property. This summer, police identified three high school students and four college students as trespassers.
“Right now, these cases are pending a decision on my part as to a resolution that would be short of criminal charges,” Hillsdale County Prosecuting Attorney Neil Brady said.
Dean of Men Aaron Petersen said that warrant requests for the students have been issued by the Hillsdale City Police Department but any action is pending Brady’s review.
“When students take responsibility and try to make their wrongs right, my experience is that Mr. Brady will work with them outside of formal charges,” Petersen said.
However, Brady said that future violators will probably not receive similar grace.
“Future violations will most likely involve charges for trespassing and entry without permission,” he said.
“The first objective is to get this to stop,” Petersen said. “There seems to be a willingness to prosecute and be aggressive criminally if that’s what it takes.”
After unidentified vandals smashed antique windows in the mill this summer in a separate instance, owner of the property Jeffrey Horton worked with Hillsdale police to increase surveillance on the premises. This led to the identification of several trespassers in August.
“It’s been a problem over the years,” Detective Brad Martin said. “After Dr. Horton purchased the land, it was really frustrating.”
Horton said that the frustration is not just over the vandalism and trespassing. Horton and Martin said that they are primarily concerned for student safety.
“I understand that young people are looking for thrills and adventure but that building is somewhere they should stay away from,” Martin said.
Large gaps in the floor of the two main buildings originally contained mill machinery, but now nearly invisible chasms, as narrow as three square feet and as deep as 75 feet, are scattered around in the darkness of the already hazardous mill.
In the silos, staircases wind upward approximately 150 feet, with rusting equipment on each floor. The group of college students climbed onto the roof of one silo via a ladder.
“My office cannot underreact to those sorts of violations because lives are at stake,” Petersen said.
Horton said that students climb the mill because of the mystique and the tradition.
“This is one of those things like climbing Central Hall but it’s more feasible,” said one of the students caught in the mill. “But risky business is risky business, and we got caught.”
Horton said he hopes to renovate the abandoned buildings.
“Someday, like a phoenix, the mill will rise from the ashes and become something new.”