In the early days heavy machinery was powered by a mill wheel, which required rapidly moving water. In Hillsdale County, the rather placid St. Joseph River led into and from Baw Beese Lake. To speed up the flow of water in the river, a dam was built across it, which increased its velocity. Below the dam, water was forced into a "race," which was a narrow channel leading to the mill. The water, hurtling along with great speed and power by then, arrived above a water wheel, fell into its paddles and turned them. A central axil from the water wheel extended into the mill and powered the machinery.
Perhaps the best-known factory that used water power in early Hillsdale was the flour mill on Bacon Street, first owned by John Cook and Chauncey Ferris. It had a succession of owners until 1869, when F.W. Stock purchased it and named it the Hillsdale City Mill. His successful business patented a flour that was sublime in its consistently smooth texture and was shipped across the country. If you go to Mrs. Stock's Park and walk along the western edge, you'll see the remains of the mill race built by F.W. Stock for his mill.
Water was the primary power source for factories that used heavy equipment. Any reduction at any point of the traverse of a river to or from Baw Beese Lake could slow or halt mill production and cause financial difficulty. That's why each mill owner counted it as his right to have adequate water power. This point is best illustrated by a 40-year dispute involving the flour mill on Bacon St. and the Jefferson Township Board.
The natural flow of water from the swamp in Jefferson Township—when it flowed at all—was into Baw Beese Lake. Most of the year, true to the nature of swamps, it just made for soggy land that couldn't be farmed. In 1893, after 40 years of dispute, the Jefferson Township officers, without consultation with any mill owners, had a ditch dug that drained the water from the swamp into Lake Pleasant on the east instead of allowing it to run into Baw Beese Lake on the west. It created hundreds of acres of land for farming … and a furious F.W. Stock. He fought against the Jefferson Township ditch up to the Michigan Supreme Court and finally won the right to have it filled in.
The effort to keep water from the swamp flowing to Baw Beese Lake, begun in 1853 by then Bacon Street mill owners, John Cook and Henry Waldron, came to nothing. The filled ditch slowly eroded, and the swamp permanently drained into Pleasant Lake.
F.W. Stock also had a gripe with the city of Hillsdale for getting their water from Baw Beese Lake and with the Toledo Ice & Coal Co., which took ice from the lake in the winter to act as cold storage during the warmer months. Both lowered the level of the lake, diminishing the flow to the water wheel at Stock's mill. The state Supreme Court agreed with Stock in his suit against Hillsdale, and he received a settlement of $7,500 from the city.
Although the City Mill owned by F.W. Stock is most remembered, there were many others. Flour mills included the Elliott Roller Mills, on the corner of Oak Street and Carleton Road and the Freed Bros. Flour Mill across Railroad Street (now Carleton Road) from the railway roundhouse. Wolf's Lumber Mill on west Bacon Street was extensive and Emery Mills was situated near Emery Park on State Street. Other mills were created to power machinery at factories, like the Hillsdale Screen Company.
Eventually steam and electricity replaced the dams, mill races and mill wheels that had been so essential. Today they are only a nostalgic memory of an earlier time.
JoAnne P. Miller
The Genesee Mills were built by John G. Gardner on the St. Joseph River, north of Jonesville. The Genesee was the first mill in Scipio Township.
The City Flour Mill was built in 1881 on the St. Joseph Mill Race by Beach and Cortright. The ornate Grosvenor House Hotel is on the left. It was built after the Waverly House burned in 1875. The hotel still stands today.
Initially begun in 1853, the Jonesville Woolen Mills was reorganized and sold to Ransom Gardner & Co. in 1860. The mill burned in early 1966, but was quickly rebuilt. Once the largest woolen mill in the state, by 1875 it had failed.
The Jonesville Cotton Manufacturing Co. was begun in 1871 for the purpose of manufacturing cotton cloth, with the brick mill building being completed in 1873. Within two years the business employed 50 workers, manufacturing 85,000 yards per month. Sadly, by the end of the decode they were out of business and the building empty. It later became the kraut factory.
North Adams Mill
The Williams Mill was built in 1879 on West Street in North Adams by the Pratt Brothers. It contained the first lighting plant in the village in the back of the building from 1903 to 1912.
The Steamburg saw and cider mill was owned by Orison Cleveland. This picture was reportedly taken by Wade Chestnut shortly after a windstorm took down the chimney.
During his lifetime in Camden, O.D. Chester owned and operated a bank, a flouring mill, a sawmill, a woodworking factory, a creamery and cheese factory, a lumber yard, and a dairy farm.
Osseo Mills: The L.L. Sloan saw mill and Sherm Cox’s saw mill.
Carol A. Lackey