In the upper floors of F.W. Stock & Sons Mill, the air still smells faintly sweet. Bars of sunlight fall through broken windows and clouded glass, and insects buzz in the dust and the heat and the stillness.
The floor is carpeted with paint flecks, decorated with pigeon feathers, and riddled with holes. Caution tape sections off swathes of water damage where the rotted wood is unsafe. Abandoned cleaning supplies rest by cobwebs, waiting for the next round of powerwashing.
But in the lower floors, everything is different.
David Wheeler, CEO of Mar-Vo Mineral, transformed the first few levels of the five-story building. He painted the floor a glossy blue, turned the kitchen into a display room, and filled the warehouse with Lucky Buck, a national product hunters use to increase the size of deer. He patched the ceiling, stripped the electric, and powerwashed the first few floors.
“Part of this was an effort to revitalize the city. This mill was a focal point of the community,” Wheeler said. “It was a real black eye to the community to have the biggest employer in the region for almost 100 years sitting here empty and getting graffitied and having windows broken out.”
The mill once dominated the region, employing hundreds of workers and shipping its products throughout the United States. In the late 1800s, when Hillsdale thrived on business from the railroad, the mill was the largest family-owned plant east of the Mississippi River.
Even as late as 2000, Stock’s Mill was worth $3.2 million to Pillsbury, a General Mills company that owned the mill before selling it a few years later.
The next owners stripped the building of equipment and shut it down. The mill sat vacant for over a decade, getting vandalized until it became a collection of smashed windows, rotting wood, and graffiti. In 2010, it sold at an auction for a mere $30,000.
Wheeler remembers the mill before its decline. When the mill still produced donut mix, Wheeler hauled waste products out of the mill and used it to feed his hogs.
He came back to the mill when his mineral-mixing business outgrew its rural location. Mar-Vo Mineral produces Lucky Buck, and Wheeler needed more mixing bins to meet demand. The mill had the mixing bins, and Wheeler decided to purchase the mill and fix it up.
The lower floors now look like they once did, but Wheeler is not finished. After repainting the silos, he will repair the building’s elevators and continue landscaping around the mill. But in the upper two floors, the decades reassert their hold.
Today, Wheeler works from an office furnished with hardwood from his father’s barn. His office belies the mill’s shabby reputation, and doubles as advertising for his next business venture.
Ever since he took down his father’s barn three years ago, Wheeler has been eyeing the high-end furniture and hardwood flooring business. Hillsdale’s old barns might be impractical for modern farming equipment, but they are made with virgin timber — a very old, valuable wood.
“There are a lot of barns that are falling down. Most of them are going to slowly rot into the ground,” Wheeler said. “But their wood makes a really unique wood for furniture and flooring, and there is almost none of it available anywhere in the world unless you take it out of old structures. So rather than just let them rot, I’m going to try to recycle them.”
Wheeler is also recycling the mill’s spooky reputation. On October weekends, animals will haunt the mill. Wheeler has a whole room stuffed with taxidermied animals, including bears and wolves. Wheeler said he will also provide cider and donuts for the faint of heart.
Wheeler also hinted at ominous plans for the silos.
“We’re working feverishly at that right now,” Wheeler said. “The main part is going to be underneath the silos. There is a lot of wall that leaves a lot of nooks and crannies to jump out of. I think we will have undoubtedly the best venue for a haunt.”
The Haunted Mill is Wheeler’s current pet project — not that he doesn’t have other day-dreams for the mill. Some of his more fanciful pipe-dreams include what he calls a “zero-calorie meal” — a restaurant perched on top of the silos, where patrons could reward themselves for climbing up 80-feet of stairs with a beautiful vista and a hearty meal.
More practically, Wheeler is talking with local groups to fund painting the United States’ largest mural on the far side of the silos. He hopes to turn what was once described as an “eyesore” into a tourist attraction.
When remembering how Wheeler first walked into her office and asked to buy the mill, Director of Economic Development Mary Wolfram summed up her reaction as: “What? Someone could have found a use for that building? Thank you, God.”
“I think David Wheeler will be great for the mill. He is such an ambition, endeavouring entrepreneurial guy. He’s the best gift we could have gotten for it,” Wolfram said. “He has a lot of intention to fix it up so it’ll look nicer. Ultimately he would love to turn it into a place where people visit, so it brings in visitors, almost like a tourist attraction. That would be amazing.”