Thursday, June 6, 2013

Michigan wheat - A miller's tale

Pears Mill
Pears Mill, Buchanan, Michigan, photo from

Late in the wet and drear October of 1822, the Reverend Isaac McCoy and a small group of settlers arrived at the Carey Mission on a small creek in the southwest corner of Michigan.  In their ox-drawn wagons they brought the essentials -- flour, seeds, seed potatoes, corn, dried fruit, and clothing. They drove and dragged their sheep and oxen, ferrying them across rivers in canoes built as they slogged along. Norma Stevens, in The Real McCoy, told of their arrival and settlement, and more of the story of the town's history.

From the inauspicious beginning on the Potawatomie land around the village of Chief Moccasin grew the town of McCoy's Creek (when the railroad came through, it assumed the "more dignified" name of Buchanan). The Reverend McCoy built the first grist mill, powered by horses, in 1825. Dr. Charles Wallin came from New York state in  1834, and converted an existing sawmill near the mouth of the creek to the first water-turned grist mill.

Pears Mill itself wasn't built until 1853 ( some sources say 1857) when the town had grown to 1,282 citizens. It was known around the area for automation so advanced that the owner, William Bainton, could set the wheels turning and go off to fish. In its early years, the Rural Milling Company took in 500 bushels of wheat daily, and ground out one hundred barrels of flour (weighing 196 pounds each). This "Diadem" flour was all shipped to Bainton's home town of Walton Abbey, Yorkshire in England.

Remarkably, the Bainton (and later Pears) Mill escaped the great fire of 1862, Even though the fire started in a cabinet shop right next to the mill, it was one of the few buildings still standing in the downtown after the townspeople quenched the flames. The merchants and businessmen rebuilt all along Front Street, Main Street, and Days Avenue, better brick structures some of which remain in 2013.

By the 1870s, a businessman from Chicago who was visiting Buchanan could say of Pears Mill that "150,000 bushels of grain were ground [in these mills; the main Pears mill and a rural one owned by him] in the past year, mostly for the local trade, where the flour of this firm finds a ready market on account of its superior quality." He went on to say that "for miles in either direction the farms are fine and the farmers are, many of them opulent. . . . [T] country about Buchanan has almost an air of romance, especially the scenery along the St. Joseph River to the north of the village."

The mill ran until 1983, but only turned out animal feed after 1933. The restoration to its 19th century prime began in 1984, and it reopened for business in 1988.

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Michigan winter wheat, May 25, 2013 [Photo, Micki Glueckert]

The town itself thrived until the 1880s because of its location near the St. Joseph River and Lake Michigan. It was surrounded by thick stands of walnut, maple and oak trees, considered by some to be the best in the United States. The McCoy's Creek water, part of it directed through the Mill Race, powered sawmills and enabled furniture factories to spring up. In its hey-day, people described Buchanan as 'the wickedest town in the state," "the horse-race and gambling center of the mid-west," and alternatively as "the town with more churches than saloons." More productive lands further west set Buchanan on the road to becoming a ghost town, but with the St. Joseph River dammed to create bigger and better hydropower and enabling the use of electricity, the town rose again as a center for manufacturing  machinery and  truck and auto parts.

Today, farmers around Buchanan plant wheat mainly to feed to their animals. Better wheat lands that are drier and sunnier lie to the west. Pears Mill, however, grinds corn and wheat flours for sale in its gift shop, using the same type of stones that gave William Bainton such a pleasant life in the  1860s.

Pears Mill
The Pears Mill in Buchanan, Michigan. 

If you go:

Pears Mill is open during limited hours all summer, but for much of the day on Saturday. Contact them at (269) 695-3844 for hours and special events.

121 South Oak Street
Buchanan, MI 49107
Buchanan is my hometown, and I have to add: don't miss the Union Coffee House at the corner of Front and Main Street, or the Buchanan Sweet Shop at 205 East Front Street. The Union Coffee Shop has excellent breakfasts and lunches, plus great coffee and music. It's housed in the former bank where I had my Christmas Club account in the 1950s, but it's entirely in the twenty-first century in the quality of its food, coffee and music. The Sweet Shop has its original 1947 soda fountain and booths, and some of the best homemade ice cream anywhere. We hung out there in the 1950s and 60s, drinking Green Rivers eating hot fudge sundaes. Our kids love it still. Prices throughout the area are exceptionally reasonable.

Sources include Norma Stevens, The Real McCoy; William C. Hawes, Tales of an Old Town and The Story of Buchanan; the Pears Mills section of the Buchanan website; and articles in the Berrien County Record.

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