Dozens of Johnson City residents turned out for a walking history tour of the Model Mill property Sunday afternoon. (Photos by Max Hrenda/Johnson City Press)
Although the Model Mill property is slated for demolition to make way for an apartment complex, one group of citizens seized what could have been one of their last opportunities to discuss the mill’s history while they could still see it.
On Sunday afternoon, more than 60 people participated in a guided walking history tour of the Model Mill facility at 500 W. Walnut St.
On April 3, the Johnson City Commission voted 3-2 in favor of rezoning the property to allow the construction of residential units, paving the way for the North Carolina-based engineering firm Evolve Development to begin drafting plans and collecting permits to build a 216-unit apartment complex. If those plans attain fruition, the mill would be torn down to make way for the apartments.
For safety and privacy reasons, the tour did not lead through the facility itself, but its participants were provided with a brief history on the mill itself, and the surrounding area. Jose Castillo, who served as the tour’s guide, said he wanted to share some of the mill’s history — as well as the surrounding area — before it was forgotten.
“I grew up here, graduated from high school here, and I have a strong opinion about the love of the history of Johnson City,” Castillo said. “We’ve been fortunate to save a few things of our history and keep those stories alive. My hope today is that we can share stories with each other about the Model Mill, the Tree Streets, downtown Johnson City, and keep those stories alive.”
Even though he led the tour, Castillo, who owns Spark Plaza at 201 E. Main St. in downtown Johnson City, didn’t take sole credit for organizing the event.
“It was very loosely organized by me,” Castillo said. “We have a lot of talented people in the region, and organizations, that have done a lot more work than I have. I drew heavily upon the other people who have done this before me.”
The tour began outside the Firehouse Restaurant at 627 W. Walnut St., less than two blocks away from the mill. Firehouse owner Tom Seaton, who provided refreshments for the tour group, also showed the group a photo of the area taken in 1910.
“When Johnson City was first growing ... this (area) was out in the country,” Seaton said. “If you look at this photo ... you can see all the Tree Streets being laid out as dirt roads. It’s a very fascinating photograph.”
Castillo said part of the reason the firehouse ever existed was because of the presence of the Model Mill.
“This was the No. 2 firehouse built in the city of Johnson City,” Castillo said. “The reason was because they built the Model Mill and all the people started moving into the Tree Streets, so they had to have a firehouse.”
Also at the Firehouse, Ken Harrison, who operates the Historic Tree Streets website, treestreets.net, displayed a collection of memorabilia from the time when the mill was operational, including a car battery, iron and flour sack. In addition to providing tangible connections to the past, however, Harrison also offered an explanation on how the mill came by its name after it was founded by George Carter in 1901.
“The Model Mill Company — the model was for everybody else to follow,” Harrison said.
While conducting the tour, Castillo said, he received the bulk of his material from a column written by Johnson City Press columnist Bob Cox. When the walking tour reached the building’s south side, along West Walnut Street, Castillo discussed the amount of materials that were produced by the mill after it began production in 1909.
“The daily capacity of this mill was 1,000 barrels of flour, 3,000 bushels of meal, and 100,000 pounds of feed,” Castillo said. “This was actually, at the time, if not the top producer, one of the top producers in the U.S. for meal, flour, and grains. That put Johnson City on the map.”
When the tour reach the grain elevators, Castillo pointed out a maker’s mark for the MacDonald Engineering Company out of Chicago. In 1919, when the elevators were built, the company’s founder, James MacDonald, had patented a new masonry technique known as slip forming.
“They would create a form and fill it with concrete,” Castillo said. “As they started to go up, they would raise the form, and the concrete would dry underneath it. This was one of the first grain elevators to be built using that process.”
While Castillo was the tour’s primary director, he was not its only guide. Members of the gathering who had information on the mill were encouraged to share those stories with the group.
The tour continued unabated into the afternoon, save for one incident with a Johnson City Police Department officer, who had been called to the scene to respond to a protest being conducted at the mill. The officer did not stay long, however.
Even though Castillo said the tour was in response to the mill’s potential destruction, rather than protest, he wanted to encourage the community to learn as much as they could about one of the city’s landmarks.
“It’s in response to that, but my feeling and focus for this is a positive one,” Castillo said. “I understand that decisions have been made by the city for rezoning. But, ultimately, until the wrecking ball swings, the property still stands, and we have a duty to the city ... to let them know the stories of this.
“A lot of people don’t know the history behind it. My hope for today is that we can share more of those stories with each other.”
Follow Max Hrenda on Twitter @MaxLHrenda. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpresshrenda.