Florence Mill a story of structural resilience

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The Florence Mill has stood the test of time.

Covered wagons, Model-Ts and 18-wheelers have driven past.

But how old is the mill, really? Are there parts that date to Winter Quarters, the 1846-47 settlement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints?

Stu Pospisil

Linda Meigs is the reason the structures at 30th Street and Dick Collins Road in the Florence neighborhood are still here and have us wondering about their origins. The Omaha artist and her husband, John, purchased them for $61,000 in 1998. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, they stand as a history museum that hosts an art gallery and offers a farmers market in season.

Her website states that the mill “was deconstructed, rebuilt, moved, abandoned and rebuilt under several owners” since Mormon pioneers “first built the mill in 1846.”

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True. But saying it’s “the mill” is too definitive. “A mill” is more like it, based on research for this column that meant putting the nose to the grindstone.

The Mormons built a mill. Then abandoned their settlement. A new mill took its place, which could have used the footings or whatever was left after six years of decay before Florence was settled in the mid-1850s. That mill was added to and modernized by the Weber family who operated it for 104 years.

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In 1939, because of flooding, the Weber mill was relocated a half-block north. The oldest part — said at the time to be what was left of the 1846 mill — was reportedly demolished.

From a compilation of Mormon journals and papers by author David R. Crockett, a mill was on the mind of Brigham Young just days after the Mormons crossed the Missouri River and established Cold Spring Camp near present-day 60th and L Streets, Newton K. Whitney was sent back to St. Louis to get grist milling equipment among other necessities.

Meanwhile, the Mormons moved their settlement to Cutler’s Park, northwest of what is now Forest Lawn Cemetery, and then to Winter Quarters. Their Municipal High Council decided to build a mill and appointed Young as superintendent. A suitable site for a mill was found on what was Turkey Creek, later renamed Mill Creek, at the north end of Winter Quarters. The stream still is visible south of McKinley Street west of 30th Street.

A dam was built to create the mill race. Permission was asked to use the government mill at Sarpy’s Point to saw lumber to build the mill. Oops. The Bureau of Indian Affairs now knew the Mormons were on indigenous lands without proper authority. Young countered that the government had called into military service more than 500 Mormon men for the Mexican War and thus delayed the migration west.

Young underwrote the mill’s construction. The week before Christmas, the mill’s first floor was completed, and he let water into the mill race (561 days labor was donated to build it) for the first time. Soon the creek froze, but two men figured out a way to grind corn. One walked on the wheel, the other fed the hopper.

On March 20, 1847, the water-powered grist mill was put into operation. It ground 11 bushels of corn per hour. The timing was good. Four days later, Young sold the mill for $2,600 to an experienced miller, John Neff. The frequent dam breaks became Neff’s responsibility.

Neff joined the trek to the Great Salt Lake that summer. He left the mill with his son, Frank, who took his family — and the millstones and machinery — to Utah the following year as father and son started another grist mill. In 1936, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, a portion of the original Winter Quarters millstone was incorporated into a monument marking the site of their Utah mill.

If only the rest of the history of a mill in Florence was as indisputable.

The Mormons left Winter Quarters behind in 1848. Nebraska Territory and authorized settlement came in 1854. In between, author and artist Frederick Piercy was in the area in 1853 and said a cabin, the last remnant of Winter Quarters, was being burned when he arrived. Could there have been pilings, unburned beams, left from the old mill? Perhaps.

A Federal Writers’ Project book from the late 1930s, “Omaha, A Guide to The City and Its Environs,” includes the following in its preface:

Much of the information contained in Omaha histories and news files was found to be erroneous. For instance, the case of the old Weber Mill in Florence might be cited. Although there is a marker at the mill stating that it was built by the Mormons in 1846, evidence unearthed by the project workers showed that the mill was built by a company organized to promote the industrial growth of Florence some six or seven years after the Mormons abandoned the site.

The book’s authors wrote that the mill-building company, which gained water rights to the creek, was headed by James C. Mitchell — he named the fledging village for his niece, Florence Kilbourn — and B.P. Pegram. The new mill probably was operating in 1855.

The late Harold W. Becker, who called himself an Omahalogist, in 1967 wrote that the Mormon and Weber Mills “had nothing in common except the site. The Mormon mill ran on water power from March to June in 1847, when the dam went out. Later it operated with ox power. No part of the Weber mill antedated 1854.”

Alexander Hunter acquired possession of the mill in 1856. It had been built of oak and walnut in the basement and cottonwood above the first floor. The huge foot-square beams were morticed at the joints. The marks of workmen’s chisels were visible. Many years later, it was said wooden pegs looked like those used in construction of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

Jacob Weber Sr. and his family came to Florence in 1857. He had poor timing opening a bakery — it was the year of the Great Panic — and it closed soon after. He went to work for Hunter. So did Weber’s friend, George Haag. Those three men in 1859 got gold fever, started for Colorado with a “Pike’s Peak or Bust” sign, made it as far as the Kearney area, turned around and flipped the sign to “Busted, by Gosh.”

Some accounts have Weber and Haag buying out Hunter in 1860. But December 1865 is the date shown in the Douglas County Register of Deeds for a $950 transaction on the lot. Hunter went on to be a founder of Superior, Nebraska, in 1875.

The Omaha Republican newspaper in 1876 claimed Weber and Haag replaced the Mitchell and Co. mill in 1871 with a two-run flour and grist mill, with a sawmill attached. A 1924 World-Herald feature said the Weber Mill, by then almost hidden by a screen of stately maple trees, dated to 1863. That date was used five years later in another World-Herald story.

Waterpower for the Weber mill gave way to steam in the late 1880s with an engine bought from the Krug brewery. Electricity became the power source in 1923. The old water wheel was buried 16 feet beneath the level of the lower floor of the mill. The elevator, which his son wanted against Weber’s wishes, was added in 1915 when the roller system flour mill became a feed mill. Local farmers were losing money growing wheat.

Weather started taking a toll on the original structure, however old it was. A flood in 1932, a hailstorm in 1937. In 1938, the Bridge Street was built a block north of the mill, an earthen dam was built on Mill Creek west of the mill and MUD filled in the culvert east of 30th Street. The dam washed out in a cloudburst in August 1938, flooding the mill to its second floor. The City Council agreed in April 1939 to pay $8,000 to relocate the mill. The oldest parts of the mill were reportedly demolished weeks later.

Again, like in the 1850s, was anything salvaged? A timeline that appeared in The World-Herald in 1946, commemorating the three generations of Webers in charge of the mill and the centennial of the Mormons’ mill, suggested that some of the old timbers made it to the rebuilt mill in 1939.

Lyman Weber, the last of his family to run it, sold the mill in 1964 to Ernest and Ruthie Harpster, who owned the Kenwood Feed Store near 30th Street and Ames Avenue. The mill, painted pink at the time, avoided the wrecking ball when Interstate 680 linked up with the Mormon Bridge.

When the Harpsters put the mill on the market in January 1998, they sought out their LDS church headquarters in Salt Lake City and local historical groups as potential buyers. None could afford it.

Linda Meigs saved the Florence Mill from being torn down.

“It’s not beautiful, but it’s historic,” Meigs said in 1998. “Anybody who would buy that building has to be interested in history and has to be an optimist.”

An optimist. Just like Brigham Young, the founders of Florence and the Weber family were.

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