A fourth-generation Millstadt couple has begun work to save a mill and grain elevator that has stood in the town since before it was incorporated in 1878.
Jim and Melissa Helfrich bought the mill in 2017 because it was in danger of being demolished.
“We bought it to stop them from tearing it down, just to say ‘wait a minute, it might need to be torn down but let’s pause and see what’s here first,’” Melissa said. “That’s our angle with it. We don’t necessarily want to be in the grain business.”
Christian Stern and Fred “Fritz” Backer built the mill, called Backer and Stern Mill, in 1857 as a flour mill, adding the 70-feet-tall stacked wood grain elevator in 1880.
The elevator, perhaps the oldest in the state, was impressive for its time, as its eight bins could hold 50,000 bushels. That is double the standard amount.
Throughout the mill’s 162 years, much of the equipment, which dates back to around or before the turn of the 19th century, remained the same.
Additionally, sometime in the 1960s, a civil defense fallout shelter was established 12 feet below the mill and stocked with provisions.
Since Backer and Stern built the mill – the oldest continually running business in Millstadt and one of the oldest in the state – it has gone through numerous owners and names.
Most recently, Gerry Paule and Robert Quirin operated it under the name Handy Feed and Grain.
When the Helfrichs bought it in September 2017, the business had been losing money for decades and was in bankruptcy, despite it having 600 customers. At least part of it still operates on most days.
So, the couple worked to see if the historic business was still viable.
They redesigned business practices, repaired equipment and the building itself and cleaned extensively.
“Now the business itself is viable,” Melissa said at a presentation to the Millstadt Village Board. “Jobs were saved, customers thank us every day and everyone is thrilled with our progress.”
The adversity was not done, however, as the couple received a notice last year from the village stating they needed to repair the exterior of the building, including the roof, windows, siding, masonry and loading docks because it did not comply with zoning codes.
The village gave the business owners 30 days to complete repairs or it would take them to court because it considered the property a “public nuisance.”
Melissa, who is an optometrist in Belleville, helped convince village officials otherwise by arguing the building is historically valuable.
“You may rush to condemn it because you haven’t actually studied its history or seen firsthand the strength and amazing construction of this building,” she explained. “You may think it just needs a coat of paint and the siding and windows replaced to make it look better, when in fact it would actually take away from the historical aesthetics of the building that need to be celebrated.”
For their part, the village said their concern was safety.
“We are just making sure the property is safe for the community,” Millstadt Mayor Michael Todd said. “We just want to make sure something’s moving forward and not just sitting with nothing being done. We just want there to be progress.”
The village gave the Helfrichs six months to do more research on the building’s historical significance and develop a plan to restore the business.
This is not the first time the couple has done this, as they have also converted two other old business in town to new ones and refurbished a house that was built in 1880.
One of those businesses is Urban Oasis Spa, which Jim helps run.
“This is 10 times bigger than anything we’ve ever done,” Melissa noted.
The couple has been hard at work since that six-month deadline was put in place. Those efforts have included researching the mill’s history, investigating ways to increase its viability, cleaning and brainstorming ideas for repurposing it.
The couple has hired several companies to help with those steps, but they need more assistance.
They may get more because Landmark Illinois recently added the building to its list of the 2019 Most Endangered Places in Illinois.
That came after village residents nominated the structure.
“We are hoping we can get people who know more about historical preservation than we do – people who know about the history, people who know about funding opportunities,” Melissa said. “We obviously can’t personally fund the whole renovation on this, as much as we’d like to and as much as we’ve done already. We’d really like to see the whole town get behind us on this rather than work against us.”
The Helfrichs will present their plan for the building next month.
In the meantime they are looking for people with expertise in any of the aforementioned areas, who want to clean or who have a proposal for the structure.