By Ruth A. Ringelstetter
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Joann and I didn’t start our true shunpiking journey until about 20 years after we left the farm. And even then, we didn’t think to start our explorations around the East Bristol and Lake Mills areas where we grew up.
We started with mills and barns around Wisconsin from books by Wisconsin author Jerry Apps, and the list of mills was small, and some of those already gone. Even after joining the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills (SPOOM), we knew there had to be more mills in Wisconsin than they included on their inventory.
One day I stumbled on a picture of an old mill along the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad tracks in Jefferson County, with the faded Farmers Milling & Elevator Co., mill name on the side. I sent the picture to Joann, as I often do, to get her excited to go and hunt it up. And still, it took years for us to get there.
Finally, one day in late July of 2013, when the forecast was for a “not too hot and humid” day, we took our list of Jefferson County locations and headed out. Even with stopping for other photo opportunities along the way, we were in front of the mill before 7:00 A.M.
This was a rye mill built in 1913 for $14,000. By the end of 1914, it was producing 100 barrels of rye daily, along with buckwheat, whole wheat, and graham flour, along with corn meal. In the early 1900’s rye was a common crop in southern Wisconsin. It is still grown in small amounts in Wisconsin and is being more widely used as an overwinter cover crop. Unfortunately, I don’t think we would recognize it, because we didn’t grow rye on our farm and we’ve never really researched this crop.
At some point, this mill became a feed mill and elevator, where farmers had their grain stored, ground, and mixed with other nutrients. On the side of the mill facing the railroad tracks is a large Purina Chows sign. The Purina Chows product line (pet food) has been in existence since the very late 1800’s.
Whenever we visit old mills, we’re reminded of the times we went along to the feed mill with our father. There were sacks of grain everywhere, and everything was covered in a layer of grain dust. After we moved from East Bristol to Lake Mills, the mill services came to us. A big mill truck picked up the crops and brought back the ground grain which was loaded into the granary above the front of the barn.
At the end of January of 2017, we made another trip to Jefferson County, this time to check out a few places we remembered from our time spent living in the area.
Near the end of the day, we had one more place to check out before we lost daylight when we suddenly remembered this old mill. Geez! We almost left town without checking on it. We had already crossed the railroad tracks where it sat off to the left, with Joann looking at the road ahead and me looking down at the map.
We made another of our many turn-arounds and drove back a couple of blocks, and sure enough, right at the railroad tracks we had just crossed, sat the mill.
We were on the other side of the mill from our prior visit and in winter with a little snow on the ground and different lighting conditions, the colors of the mill looked a little different. Even a small amount of snow on the roof made the mill name and Purina Chows lettering stand out a little more.
Knowing how long it took us to finally get here, and how finicky Wisconsin winters have been in recent years, Joann worked the mill over taking every angle. Since it is no longer a functioning mill, we never know when we’ll visit the area and find that nothing but the tracks remain.
When we finished at the mill, we had precious little daylight left to make it to our last stop - a “quilt barn.” Rather than the normal single quilt block, this one has a mural with a clothesline full of quilts.
By the time we finished, it was too late for any additional stops, so all we could do was drive straight home (in the dark), which is a typical end to our photographing days.
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