The 2013 Fire

Early Thursday morning (3/28/13), fire consumed the historic Cheesebrough mill.  Previous to the fire, Cheesebrough was Michigan’s oldest continuously operating manufacturer, which was quite a title considering the identity of the state.  There are two other wooden rake makers.  One in Massachusetts, and one in Austria.  As far as research can find, Cheesebrough was the only wooden rake maker in the world that still had much of it’s original machinery and drive system intact.

The mill was a part of what is referred to historically as “Early American Industry” (EAI).  EAI is not well known, and little studied, due to the short time span it represents.  It was basically the evolution from hand crafting to the mechanization.
EAI launched our countries “Industrial Revolution”, and was then quickly abandoned due to the high labor demand.  These entrepreneurs lived in two worlds.  Trained as craftsmen, they used that training to build machinery to assist them in the more laborious parts of their craft.  Some of them, like Job (and all of their children) realized that machines offered a higher level of prosperity.

Over the years, the mill has been known locally as “The Handle Factory” and “The Rake Factory”.  Individuals beyond memory were employed at the mill, and it was a hub of activity for many in the community.  Local farmers sold logs to Cheesebrough, and worked in production during the winter.

Kids rode the old hard tire log truck to Lake Michigan over rutted dirt roads, standing up the entire trip.  In the days when few had automobiles, people borrowed the Cheesebrough car, filling it with groups to go to church meetings or apple picking. The carbide gas plant supplied lighting to the downtown businesses and churches, and the huge wood fired boiler steam heat for 3 square blocks around it.  The steam whistle blew at 7AM, noon, and 3:30PM, prompting people for miles around to glance at their clocks, or go home for lunch.

Job Cheesebrough was a millwright, trained in England. He immigrated to America, went to work for Konkle & Peck Wood Rakes, Butterbowls and Clothespins in Caledonia Station.  Job soon purchased the mill, and moved it to Freeport in 1876 to be in the center of the forest.  The saying at the time was that the trees grew so thick in Freeport that you never saw the sun.   Rueben Fish had walked an Indian trail from the Battle Creek area with his family around that time to settle just east of town, and was hired by Job to clear the trees and build the mill.  The Fish family have been involved in the mill since.

Job had two knick names, “The Grand Old Man” because of his benevolent nature, and the “Stubborn Englishman” due to his determination to make the mill prosper.  His first setback was when the railroad he had purchased the mill land from on their promise to haul his goods out to the civilized world went broke.  Job was stranded in the middle of the forest.  “A mill full of rakes and no one to buy them.” was his temporary lament. Job realize there would need to be a steady market for his innovative plan to mass produce harvest tools.  His massive failure with the rail system in this raw but developing country prompted him to find a way to get his products back to England, where he knew there was a reliable transport system. A few local people believed in his plan, and loaned Job the funds for a trip to Europe and Russia, where he picked up distributors.

He came back and took all of his products apart, packing them into boxes for overseas shipment.  He then built a fleet of freight wagons to get the products to Ionia where he loaded them on the train bound for ocean transportation.  The wagons were special built, with tall wheels and a “V” point bottom so the stumps of newly felled trees could slip between the wheel and the wagon bed on his overland trip.

Cheesebrough prospered, buying farms, land, and equipment.  He traveled around the US to find the latest technology, showed at the World’s Fair in Chicago, and brought his profits back to the village. Along with the new “American System” of production he developed over time in the mill, he set up a system of piecework pay so anyone could work for him either on site on off.  If you needed crates on the farm, Job would build them for you, or provide the parts and the tooling for you to take home and assemble yourself. If you need some cash, you could bring in a few trees from the farm lot.  If you needed lumber, but had no cash you could trade part of the lumber for the sawing fee.
If money was needed for Christmas, you could put your name on a wooden tag on any size container he had, and get paid in cash when the container was full of the parts he required. Anyone who has spent time at the mill and gotten to “know” Job through the workmanship of the equipment and products he built and the history of his life is a better person for it.

The mill is now a black hole in the ground, with the boiler smoldering, a steam engine looking very uncomfortable without the wooden pulleys and leather belts tying it to the old mill it served for so many generations. Both are surrounded by a tangled mass of pipes, tanks, gears, pulleys, and equipment they partnered with, and that mostly hidden by the tin roof sheeting that had kept them dry for the past century and a half.  I suppose only those who had turned the hissing valves and slipped flat belts on whirring drive pulleys can “see” the things the crumpled tin hides.

We intend to look at it for a while.  We set, trying to pick out the equipment, wondering how it ended up where it did, remembering the people, the fun things, the close calls.  We all knew it could happen some day.  In the past we had always been close at hand when a hot bearing ignited, or, when a piece of wood caught in a machine threw out billows of smoke, then burst into flames.  We talk about the personality of each machine.  Some of them sweet and smooth, a joy to run.  (We were not so disappointed to see the legs of a machine we nervously called the “widow maker” sticking out of the rubble.)   We remember the times they needed repair, as those were few and far between.  In our minds we are in the blacksmith shop, re-living repairing the bearing or bracket that had been made on that forge so many years before.  The younger men complain about having to pump the forge, but they remember how the tool was fixed.  Then Bud reminds them that he was the boy that pumped the forge when they made the tool.

We want to invite those who want to be a of part of the last chapter in the operation of the mill to be a part of preserving the memories.  The idea will be to clear the site, and try to locate as many historical items as possible, then plant some grass around a few of the things that will show where the mill stood.  Maybe let a wall or two frame the old boiler tank and some of the big pulleys that lay half buried. Buckley Steam club wants to be a part of that, in the hope something might be found that can be restored for their museum.  Other organizations have shown an interest in preserving the history.  Many folks with a family or working connection to the mills past have asked for a little something to have so they can keep their story alive in their family.

There will be a temporary office at Geiger Printers on main street in the village until the project is complete. (616-765-5321 will be working on Monday afternoon the 8th.)