Mill renovation carries on into 2023

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe 

Many readers and community members have inquired about the recent progress of the Mill project. I have heard all kinds of rumors and speculation, natural when the site has looked quiet from the street for several months. To bring us all up to date, I sat down over dinner at Jaspare’s Pizza with Jackie Koney, chief operating officer of Paper City Development and John Kern, director of the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency. During our evening together, they provided a summary of progress and several projections for the next phase of the projects. This information is organized by topic.  

Tours of the Mill  

Tours have been popular and well-attended and will continue indefinitely. Interested people can schedule a tour by registering at vicksburgmill.com (click on the Events tab). The hour-long tours are led by Mill staff and usually are held three times a month. Attendees see portions of the interior of the property, improvements that have been made and future plans. Mill staff also answer questions and provide history of various parts of the property.  

Mackenzies and the adjacent Prairie Ronde Artist Gallery 

A point of pride for Koney and Kern is the April 15, 2022 opening of Mackenzies Bakery at 103 East Prairie Street and the Prairie Ronde Artist Gallery space next door. This was a major undertaking in the Mackenzies’ space which included lead abatement, major utility work, and careful design to honor the past. Koney and Kern are pleased with the spaces and their use by the community. Mackenzies has been well-received by the South County area, and the bakers continue to bake traditional favorites, while offering a different specialty bread each day. Mackenzies also offers some after-school specials for students, who are encouraged to gather at the tables in the bakery and gallery. The gallery space is open to the public when Mackenzies is open and features rotating exhibits by Prairie Ronde artists. 
For specifics about Mackenzies, visit its website: mackenziesbakery.com. 

Prairie Ronde Artist Residency continues
 
The residency which now has hosted nearly 100 artists is continuing to gather momentum. Kern indicates that feedback from artists has been positive and that many of the participants immerse themselves in the community, which supports the local economy. The program continues to grow and holds more and more gallery events. Kern has also created several “pop-up” music events, which currently are limited to special invite. Eventually, when 107 S Main has been renovated, this will change, and the events will be open to the public. Looking forward, Kern envisions a second residency program which focuses on musicians. Kern shares that the residency program is highly competitive—with a 5% acceptance rate among applicants–and is recognized internationally. 

Outdoor and educational projects 

Several ongoing programs involve area schools and students.  

Vicksburg High School agriscience teacher, Dr. Noreen Heikes, led her horticulture classes in the development of a commercial bee-keeping operation, housed on Mill property. This project began two years ago and involved a grant and student study of sustainability and pollinators. This fall, 30 pounds of honey were harvested. Also, an edible forest has been created with several of Dr. Heikes’ classes over the span of the last six years. 

As has been the case for the past seven years, hydrogeology students from WMU conducted field studies at the Mill through their Hydrogeology Field Program this past summer. As a part of the variety of activities undertaken while on site, students hand drilled a test well to study water clarity.  

Koney and Kern are proud that the Mill supports experiential learning for students of all ages.
 
Cone Top Brewery Museum and Mill Visitor Center open

Cone Top Brewery Museum is located at 108 South Main Street. The museum hosts rotating exhibits and is open several times a year during community events. Eventually the museum will be housed at the Mill.

Phase 1 of the new Mill Visitor Center is at 106 South Main Street. During the holidays it held a pop-up store featuring Mill items for sale, various historical displays, and future plans. The Visitor Center will be open to the public on Tuesdays from 3-6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. through January.  Additional exhibits will be added in February, in time for the IceBurg Festival on February 11. 

Mill Family Reunion and Food Truck Rallies  

In early October, the Mill held its fourth family reunion for mill employees and their families. Approximately 200 people attended the popular gathering. This will be an annual event. Historical artifacts and materials for self-guided tours have been incorporated.

Paper City has also worked with the village and Kalamazoo Experiential Learning Center to support the area food truck rallies by not only hosting a number of events on site, but by also supplying bands for the entertainment.

The Mill and parts of Vicksburg are now historic districts 

Cheri Szcodronski of Firefly Preservation Consulting, LLC, conducted research, wrote a formal nomination, and conducted presentations of her findings regarding the creation of the Vicksburg Historic District. Paper City Development provided the funding for this lengthy process. Both the Mill and Vicksburg Historical District are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One advantage of being listed is the funding that is available for rehabilitation at the state and national levels. At this time, the funding for homeowners is limited to a state tax credit program through the MEDC. But for businesses involved in historical repurposing, there are federal tax credits available to help with the projects. A listing is also a point of pride for communities.  

The Mill property status 

The building is now stable. In 2019 the first masons began work on the exterior bricks and as of October 2022, the brick repair and restoration is substantially complete on the exterior of the 420,000-square-foot building. Roof replacement (17 acres of it!) is 90% complete and all 650 windows have new frames. The lead abatement is complete, and some site cleanup has been done. “Mt. Vicksburg,” the pile of contaminated soil at the south side of the building, was removed in July. This was costly and exhaustive work, but essential and important, not only for the project but for the health of the community.  

Now the team is conducting research to make decisions that will lead this project to sustainability and a position to begin generating revenue. This is a careful process that will determine the best use of the former paper mill. Koney describes 2023 as “a big decision-making year.” Koney’s hope is that the project will be nearing completion at the end of 2026.

Vicksburg Foundation’s 2022 support

By David Schriemer

The Vicksburg Foundation was started by the Lee Paper Company in 1943. Its mission is “…to stimulate and support community efforts to enhance the quality of life in South Kalamazoo County by providing financial resources for programs and facilities which might not otherwise be available to the community.”

Since 1943, the Foundation has grown and in 2022 approved grants totaling $296,794. These grants have supported the following organizations and projects:

  • Vicksburg Community Schools Foundation: support of grants to teachers and students for innovative projects and scholarships for graduating students.
  • Village of Vicksburg: support of the Oswalt Park project, golf cart enhancements at Angels Crossing and the downtown Vicksburg business facade improvement program.
  • Junior Achievement: support for the Titan program (business education) at Vicksburg High School.
  • First Day Shoe Fund: support for providing shoes to school-aged children in South County.
  • Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center: support for Tournament of Writers, operational expenses and fundraising matching funds.
  • Pride of Scotts: support for new flooring in the community building.
  • Miracle Field: support for operational expenses and handicapped-accessible playground next to the ball field.
  • South County Community Services: support for operational expenses and the Wednesday Winners program for adults with disabilities.
  • Vicksburg Lion’s Club: support of establishment of an endowment fund.
  • Bike Friendly Kalamazoo: support of the “All Kids Bike” kindergarten bike riding program in local schools.

Dick and Freddie Coppes, long-time Vicksburg residents, directed their estate to make a large contribution to the Vicksburg Foundation, so that the community they loved would benefit.

Their generosity has helped fund many projects, including in 2022:

  • Vicksburg Historical Society: support for a new sign in front of the Depot Museum to welcome people as they enter the village and copies of “In Support of Community: the History of the Vicksburg Foundation 1943-2021” to be sold at the Depot Museum.
  • Our community is greatly blessed to have so many people and organizations that make South County a better place. The Vicksburg Foundation is delighted to support them.

Scotts home design showcases pipe organ

William Mollema with his home pipe organ.

By Jef Rietsma

A Vicksburg-area man has successfully managed to intertwine his love for architecture with his affinity for the pipe organ.

The result is William Mollema’s 29th Street house, which easily falls into the you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it category.

When Mollema bought the 20-acre property in the 1970s, every aspect of what would be the house sitting there today – a house he built himself – was designed to accommodate a theater organ and its 5,000 individual pipes.

Obviously, there’s a backstory as intriguing as the house itself. It starts with Mollema’s introduction into the world of music.

“I studied piano and organ with a fellow who also happened to be an organ technician and tuner, and he owned a music store where I worked through high school,” said Mollema, a native of Owosso. “Fast forward to 1961 and I was a freshman at Kalamazoo College, where part of my working scholarship was taking care of musical instruments, particularly (the organ) at Stetson Chapel.”

Mollema, who has been playing keyboards since he was 4 years old, explains how his fascination with a pipe organ housed at his church in Owosso would contribute to a career centering on the instrument.

“My interest in it had been piqued in the Rube-Goldberg nature mechanically, not so much musically,” the 79-year-old Mollema said. “I came to eventually play the organ through working with my mentor, the fellow who had the music store. He was also a technician, so I learned to tune and maintain pipe organs from him. Then I continued that while I was at college through a working grant as part of a scholarship.”

He would go on to complete a fruitful 30-year career as an organ salesman/installer/repairman/tuner for Chicago-based Wicks Organ Company.

The story behind the house begins with a double-A-frame church in Grand Rapids in which Mollema installed an organ in the early 1970s. When Mollema bought the 29th Street property, the compelling look of that Grand Rapids church stuck in his mind as he drafted blueprints. In short, Mollema designed the house with acoustics in mind and accommodations for the subsequent installation of the pipes.

He started construction in spring 1976, moving in two years later. Meanwhile, after collecting pipes and other organ pieces beginning during his high school years, Mollema in the mid-1990s finally completed the meticulous task of installing the pipes and other components and hooking it all up to the massive theater organ console, centrally positioned in his open-air family room.

The tallest pipes, incidentally, are 16 feet in height; the smallest about the size of a pencil. Mollema’s home organ requires the boost of a 50-horsepower motor housed in his basement.

“Everybody in the neighborhood knows when I start it up because the lights all go dim momentarily throughout the neighborhood,” he joked. “Kidding aside, you can’t hear it outside very much, believe it or not, though you’d be more likely to hear the bass end than you would the treble end, of course.”

A lifelong bachelor, Mollema is a member of the American Theater Organ Society. He said his favorite genre to play is what movie patrons would have heard accompanying a silent picture show back in the 1920s, for example.

Regarding the “Scotts Fox” sign embedded in his front yard, Mollema provided an explanation.

“It’s a nickname and the reason for it is when I started building this house, all my friends knew that I was going to have a theater organ in it, so the Fox reference was a tribute to the Fox Theater organ (in Detroit),” he said. “Despite how close I live to Vicksburg, I have a Scotts mailing address so that’s the story behind Scotts Fox.”

The sign’s letters, incidentally, are actual theater marquee letters from Chicago.

On the web: theaterorgans.com/mi/scotts