THE COTTON MILL 1849-1954 by Michael Rutherford


CANNELTON REPORTER, Saturday,  24 June 1854

Cotton Mill Sold

Indiana Cotton Mill sold all the Mill real estate to Strongwall Mills on 1 April 1946. On 27 March 1946 the Kentucky charter of 1928 was admitted into Indiana in order that the sale could legally be made. The new company was a subsidiary of Bemis Brothers Bag Company of Missouri and maintained offices in Indianapolis. On 1 December 1946 the TCM Board of Directors went through the formality of voting to liquidate the corporation; this was approved by the Indiana Secretary of State on 22 January 1947. During its life of 96 years, ICM had made goods for the automobile industry, clothing, shoes, mattresses, rubber tires, asbestos, and cloth bag companies.

The new owner was not interested in a variety of markets, a large contributing factor to the later closing of the Mill. However, for the first half dozen years indications were that there would be a need for increased production of cloth for feed bags. The main building and the weave shop were extended on the Adams Street end so that the operation of 520 looms could be sustained. The double-hung windows throughout were replaced with glass bricks in preparation for the installation of air-conditioning during 1947; that luxury did not materialize.

Ralph Forsaith, the plant manager, used the southwest end of the basement- of the Picker Building for experimenting with manufacturing methods of blends of different types of fibers with the help of a roving frame (slubber). One of successful results of these experiments was a blend of rayon and cotton which produced a cloth of highly absorbent quality. Unfortunately the market for cloth bags suddenly disappeared in favor of paper bags in the early 1950s. Bemis Brothers Inc. was not interested in expanding any "sideline" textile pursuits. After THE CANNELTON NEWS of 3 February 1954 announced that Strongwall Mills would close permanently, matters in that regard moved along very quickly.

Even before production stopped on 18 March 1954 arrangements were being made to sell the machinery by the first of March. Walters Machinery Co. of Douglasville, Ga., was commissioned to sell the equipment. Most of it was sold to mills in Cuba and South America. Shipment was begun before the end of April. A small newly organized company, Cannelton Associates, Inc., purchased a few pieces of equipment, primarily from the cloth room and shipping room. This firm was located in the former Union Hotel Stable/Garage on Taylor Street between the Union Hotel and the Flour Mill. The product was to be bags, wipers, towels and the like with no cloth manufacture.

The sale of the Mill was placed in the hands of Paul Starrett of Klein and Kuhn Realtors of Indianapolis. This was accomplished on 24 September 1956 when the Mill, the lot and reservoir on the hill were sold to Midwest Safe Company. Strongwall Mills had sold the Cotton Mill Blocks in the fall and winter of 1950-51. On 24 October 1950 the Taylor Street Block was sold to Henry Rudolph and the Fifth Street Block to John A. Huff. Five weeks later on 30 November 1950 the Fourth Street Block was sold to Evelyn Busam who had worked in the Mill office for more than 15 years. The smaller Washington Street Block was sold to William Thiery on 3 April 1951. All were maintained as apartment houses into the mid-1970s.

Almost before Midwest Safe Company had purchased the Mill arrangements were made to sell most of the lot surrounding the Mill. On 22 September 1956 plats were deeded. Gerber Oil Company purchased the corner at Fourth and Washington Streets and erected a Shell Service Station. Edward F. Clemens purchased a plat. Cannelton Sewer Pipe Company purchased 2 plats that day, 2 more on 20 July 1959 and one more on 17 September 1959; the weave shop and the bale warehouse were included in these plats. Another plat was sold to Cannelton Industries Inc., on 24 December 1956.

Midwest Safe Company operated from the lower floor of the main building until selling out to Schwab Safe company in February 1964. In the spring of 1967 Schwab Safe Co. relocated to new quarters upstream from the old Poor Farm.

On 1 April 1966 the Mill, with a few remaining square feet of yard to the rear, had been sold to Comer Realty Company headed by Cannelton native William E. Conner. This owner was not successful in finding a practical, permanent use or user for the structure. The only positive bit of progress was having the Mill added to the National Register of Historic Places on 23 August 1975. On 7 March 1976 Comer sold the building to Mark H. and Cathie Bruce. The Bruces gave the Mill to Historic Cannelton, Inc. on Friday, 15 June 1982. The Bruce family was to become owner of the former Cannelton Sewer Pipe Company/Can-Tex Industry in 1983, renaming it Can-Clay.

Historic Cannelton, Inc. has been constantly searching for a savior for this one-of-a-kind structure while providing the most basic preservative maintenance. (THE NEWS, 21 September 1987): "For nearly two years, HCI worked with a consultant- for out-of-state investors, who wanted to restore the mill.

"In a $10 million project, the investors proposed converting the mill into a fabulous attraction. Plans called for retail shops, two restaurants, a health spa and a minor convention center. The investors planned to hire local people on the five year project -- carpentry, window construction, plastering, and many more jobs.

"Plans called for tearing down the old weave shop building and making a tree-lined park between the river and the old mill entrance.

"But a few months ago the investors pulled out. 'Negotiations for development were taking too long and the investors put their money elsewhere, (Joseph) Hermam said. "

After Strongwall Mills ceased operation in March 1954 little maintenance was necessary for a long while. However, time, neglect and vandalism began taking their tolls after a score of years. In June 1987 tremors from an earthquake shook loose one of the cornice stones in the southeast tower. For 2 more years deterioration of the frame spire encouraged the fall of more cornice stones. Finally, in September 1989 C & R Construction Company of Huntingburg removed the spire, preserving whatever parts which could be re-used, and installed a temporary flat roof. Similar work will soon be required on the northwest tower.

The concealed stone gutters have been re-caulked, sealing damaging water leaks to the interior portion of the main wall. Roof repairs have also been made.

In 1984 William Morrow and co. published TURN HOMEWARD, HANNALEE, a book for children by Patricia Beatty. It was based on General Wm. T. Sherman's inhuman shipping of a trainload of women and children northward from Roswell, Ga., in late May and early June 1864 during his infamous March To The Sea.

The plot of the first 100 pages of t-he book is generally based on documented history. From page 101, Hannalee's arrival in Cannelton, the author admits that it is all fiction. So far as the action of the plot is concerned, that is well and good. However, a brief visit to Cannelton or a moderately attentive reading of available published writings on the town and the Mill would have prevented unnecessary and inaccurate side references made in the course of the working out of the plot. One of these provided Hawesville with a flood levee in 1864. However, the most glaring was a reference to the Mill as "a water mill." Operating the 5-story Mill on local water power would have overtaxed design engineers and financiers of any age or place.

Permission from William Morrow & Co. was obtained in mid-1988 to develop a play from the book. Performances would be limited to 10, high school students must present the play, and all proceeds would go to mill preservation. Such a play has not yet appeared (early 1990).

On 12 October 1987 David Frederick, Director of the Southern Regional office of Historic Landmarks, Inc., visited the Mill. In a short article in THE INDIANA PRESERVATIONIST, January-February 1989, "Cotton mill experiment unravels at Cannelton," he outlined the architectural and operational history of the Mill, calling it "a breathtaking behemoth on the Ohio River" and a "significant relic of the early history of Indiana industry." In this article he included the above drawing for a Historic American Engineering Record made by Mike Boles and Roland David Schaaf.

In the recent past the mill has been opened for flea markets and tours on Dogwood Tour Sundays in late April and on Perry County Day in mid-October. In 1988 and 1989 Cannelton High School students conducted very successful flaunted Houses in the basement and first floor for 3 and 4 days preceding Halloween. While such activities are laudable, this one-of-a-kind structure demands activity of a much grander scale.