The Red Mill... But Why?
By Charles Leik, September 1999

Ed and I got this reaction from a number of Portland residents, both orally and in a quizzical look when we offered last year to renovate the old Co-Op elevator.

I have to admit the building isn't of particular architectural or historical merit, and George Washington never slept there; instead it represents the last remnant of what was once the transportation and farm supply hub of the Portland area.

North view of the derelict Portland Farmers' Co-Op building. — Spring 1998

Some of our immigrant ancestors first arrived in Portland at the train depot and others departed for such far off destinations as the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Other Portland residents even took the train for visits to Ionia and Lansing!

Our father George could remember when the newspapers arrived at the depot the evening of April 15, 1912 with headlines of the Titanic disaster, or the excitement when his sister Helen's new piano arrived from Chicago via Railway Express. The trains arriving on Water Street in those pre-auto, pre-hard surfaced road times were Portland's window to the world. The telegraph at the depot was the only means of rapid communication.

After WWII the passenger trains were gone, little general freight arrived by rail (an exception was several carloads of Kendall oil in drums that George and Henry Leik had shipped from Bradford, PA for sale at their Dodge-Plymouth agency), and the phone, radio and television had made the telegraph obsolete.

In the 50s and 60s Water Street still retained its role as the center of farm-related activity . It was also the roughest, most pot-holed road in Portland, which I suppose is some measure of the area's activity.

Most of Portland heated with coal that was stored on the west side of Water Street below the Pleasant Street hill. As heating oil replaced coal, it was delivered by the Co-Op or Jack Haley, both of whom were located on Water Street. Area farmers had a weekly ritual of grinding livestock rations at the Co-Op. Syd Brown's Michigan Livestock Exchange shipped local livestock to Detroit and Battle Creek and brought in carloads of western feeder calves for Portland area farmers. .

South view showing the lean-to over the grain dump pit. The silos, grain dryer, etc. formerly in the foreground, have been razed. — Fall 1998

In the 1950s the most exciting event of the year at the Co-Op was the wheat harvest. The advent of the combine and bulk handling concentrated the harvest over a short period and more of the wheat was coming directly to town for shipment. There was competition to see who harvested the first of the new crop and usually it was Pete Pohl from Frost Corners.

Long lines of tractors and small trucks full of the day's harvest would assemble on Water Street on a hot July evening. Throughout the night the line snaked towards the discharge pit. One by one the vehicles were chained to the platform, Leo Gilbert raised the hydraulics and the grain flowed by gravity into the pit.

It was morning before the line was cleared since the choke point of the process wasn't the discharging but the need to clean and weigh each farmer's grain before another could be dumped. Usually there was a boxcar on the siding back of the mill and an amazing 2000 bushels of wheat were blown into the car. When a train arrived, youngsters placed pennies on the rail and retrieved the flattened coin with Lincoln's distorted figure.

The best part of wheat harvest was the free Coke dispensed from a row of canisters connected by plastic tubes and a nearby stack of 6 oz. Dixie cups. The second best part was that parents might waive curfew and you could spend an entire warm summer night with your friends. Of course, you were there to keep moving the tractor forward but there might be time to unhitch the tractor and go for a nocturnal ride. But since those friends now have impressionable grandchildren, I can't give any more details!

East view where the railroad tracks were formerly located. — Fall 1998

In the early 60s field shelling of corn became the norm and the Co-Op built more silos, a new dryer and a large steel flat storage building to handle all the wet corn. Homeowners on Pleasant Street will remember the dryer running day and night during the corn harvest season. Bert Moran was manager during this period of expansion.

The decline of the Co-Op was swift. In rapid order the railroad was abandoned, the larger farmers dried and stored grain on their farms, semi-trucks allowed hauling grain to more distant markets and fewer homes heated with coal, or even oil. Finally the farmer-owned Co-Op was sold to Countrymark and by the 1990s the mill was uneconomic. The Red Mill closed after almost 100 years of service to the Community. Clay Martz was the last manager and Rosemary Sochor the last office manager. She recalls that operations ceased in September 1991 and she continued to work until the end of December to wind up the business.

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