By Rob Peterson
Progress on refurbishing The Mill at Vicksburg was ongoing in the fall and winter. Then the coronavirus struck and work came to a screeching halt. In the last few weeks of May, activity has resumed and Jackie Koney , chief operating officer, shared the progress with the Vicksburg Village Council at its May Zoom meeting.
The exterior brick work was on track until late March, but the Frederick Construction team is confident that it will still be able to complete the work by the spring of 2021. The brickwork is being done by masonry experts, each of whom has at least 15 years of experience. It has not been easy to find experienced tradespeople locally, but five of the current 10 brick layers were hired from the area, Koney reported.
“They are basically touching every inch of that building and it’s a very big building,” said Koney. “That takes a very long time and their attention to detail, their care and their craftsmanship is just astounding.”
To replace damaged areas, they have salvaged 80,000 bricks from a demolished Chicago racetrack, which has so far kept them from having to recreate bricks from new material. Original bricks that are in good shape but not good enough to use in the reconstruction process, are being gifted to former mill employees. They have also sold some of those bricks, with proceeds going to local charities.
Not every building is being saved, however. Some of the structures are unneeded or irrelevant to the historic preservation efforts and are being demolished. The remnants of one building in the east wing that was damaged by an arsonist, for example, were removed and will become an outdoor beer garden. The remaining part of that building will likely be an indoor taproom that opens to the beer garden in good weather.
Removing buildings does not mean that materials are going to the landfill, according to the Mill team. Rubble from the site, including concrete and unusable bricks, will be ground and used for roads and retaining walls onsite.
They have also been creatively repurposing portions of the Mill that don’t fit into the overall plan. Parts of the pole buildings along Highway Street were given to an Amish family to be relocated to a farm near Coldwater, and beaters from the pulp vats will be displayed as artifacts from the property’s original use as a paper mill.
Inside, the environmental remediation process continues. While much of the work was completed by the county before developer Chris Moore purchased the property, lead-based paint remained. Instead of undertaking the expense of testing every painted portion of the building, they are assuming all the paint contains lead and removing it all throughout the building.
“The upper levels of the east wing are as stunning as I expected,” said Koney, “but what surprised me is the finishing room. I just never thought of it as a pretty building, but now that the brick is exposed and the ceiling is natural wood and the steel beams are exposed, it’s just gorgeous.”
“The walls and beams and ceilings have been painted for a very long time,” continues Koney. “I’m eager for mill employees to see it in its new/old state.”
The Mill is several years away from being complete; the goal is to open the first part of the building to the public in late 2022. Before then, however, former mill employees may have the chance to preview the work at what has become the Mill Family Reunion, Koney said.
The Mill at Vicksburg will include a number of sustainable features on the outside as well. They are intended to create an enduring place for residents and visitors to enjoy when it is complete.
Outside, the team from the Mill has worked with Dr. Noni Heikes… to create an “edible forest” that so far includes apple, cherry, and pear trees. The fruit from these trees will be available for visitors to pick and enjoy, and the hope is that they will be able to donate fruit to local food service programs.
They intend to continue planting nut trees, fruit trees, and berry bushes, as well as companion plants to attract pollinators and repel pests. “This is an ongoing legacy project meant to be a lasting gift to the community,” said Heikes. “It’s also a great applied learning experience for students.”
To complement the trees, Heikes’ class received a grant from Midwest Energy to start a beekeeping operation that will make use of the 16 acres of pollinator habitat at the property. “The hive will have a plexiglass observation panel” said Heikes, “and the collection system will allow us to collect honey without opening the hive.”
In keeping with the goal of being a good steward of the environment, the Mill team has kept the pollinator habitat pesticide-free for the past three years.