The year is 1868. Aaron Konkle and Henry Brower establish Konkle and Peck, Wood Rakes, Butter Bowls, & Clothespins. They built their mill near “Caledonia Station”, a barren railway water stop in Michigan’s wilderness. English immigrant Job Cheesebrough hired on and in 1872 he partnered with Henry Brower to purchase Konkle and Peck.
“Job Cheesebrough – Wood Rakes & Specialties” was established in 1872 when Job bought out Henry and moved the mill 15 miles east to the area known as “Nec-O-Woods” and the village of Freeport where they say timber grew so tall and thick the sun rarely touched the ground. The “right-a-way” was being cleared for a new rail line and Job needed both the timber and the railway for his plan. He purchased land along the “right-a-way” and the water rights to the river nearby. Job shared the forest with Indian tribes that came North each spring to boil maple syrup. They had spent the warmer weather months in the area for generations, traveling back south for winter.
The railway failed and Job could not get his products to market. (Quote – “A mill full of rakes and no one to buy them!”) He purchased two teams of heavy draft horses and built his own overland freight company. The horses pulled tall wheeled wagons that could traverse the stump littered walking paths in the newly cleared land. He freighted 20 miles to the rail line where his products shipped to Europe and Russia until the railroad system throughout the U.S. was complete. The tracks were finally laid in 1887 and operated until the Great Depression. During those years, Job also built a factory to make deck chairs for Ocean Steamers and a grain mill on the property.
In 1917, Job passed on and son Tom took over, operating the mill until his death in 1929. With no children to pass it on to, Tom left the mill in the hands of a trust. The beneficiaries of that trust were a retirement home, his local church, and Huntington College in Indiana. The trust kept the books in the black for the next 40 years by selling the various holdings…. homes, land, farms, and equipment no longer required. The Trust had no interest in buying new equipment, so the mill stayed authentic. By the 1960’s it no longer showed profits so was put up for sale. Over the next 20 years 4 different owners tried to find a market for its old wooden goods.
The Ken Van Tol family* became involved in 1987 with a focus on preservation. The mill was still in operation with just 1 employee, Bud Fish. Bud had worked at the mill since the ‘20’s and the mill was still an authentic “Early American Industry” with few improvements other than having the steam engine that powered the line shafts replaced with an electric motor in the ‘40’s. Job could have gone right to work as the machines he built were still in use. Even the piping and fixtures for the gas lighting system were still on the walls.
After a few years of restoration, Van Tol set out to find a market for early American tools but found out that not many wanted them. There were a few golf courses around the states that still used wooden rakes, however, so in the late 1990’s.the decision was made to finance a booth at the Golf industry Show It was a lonely booth with few visitors, and most of them negative. (“What would we do with a wood rake?”… “Those things won’t last.”… “Yeah, cute.”… Etc..) A few older clubs liked the idea and Cheesebrough has attended since as we slowly improve our identity in the golf industry.
In the early spring of 2013, the mill was destroyed by fire*. Having just recovered from the 2008-9 recession, the books looked bleak and financial advisors recommended “closing shop”. Ken and his sons felt there was hope, so ignored them and the past 7 years have shown that a good decision.
Due to the uncertainty introduced by COVID, plans for a new facility in spring 2020 were delayed. They will be picked up when the economic impact of the pandemic is better understood. Until then, golf is being very supportive so the “Cheesebrough Group” will continue to follow the dream in their now much too small workshops.