Kent residents and business owners reminisce about historic mill following fire, look to future
The future of the historic flour mill in downtown Kent is still unknown following a massive fire on Friday. Residents and business owners are reminiscing about the history of the mill and are hopeful for its future.
Destin Cashdollar is a barista at Scribbles Coffee Company, which sits across the street from the former Star of the West Mill. She witnessed the beginning of the fire and the explosion before evacuating the area. Her view from work has changed significantly.
“It’s eerie. It’s weird," Cashdollar said. "It’s like a whole piece of our little skyline is missing.”
Although the extent of the damage to the complex is still unknown, the tall, white silos are still standing, and Sandy Halem with the Kent Historical Society thinks it will stay that way.
“I can’t see anybody taking those silos down," Halem said. "I just don’t see it as a possibility.”
Jeff Crowe is the owner of Erie Street Kitchen, a restaurant down the street from the former mill. He’s not worried about the fire slowing down development in downtown. If anything, the fire brought the community closer together, he said.
“If you watch social media from all my friends in town and merchants in the area, all the film and the way the fire departments all came in and supported each other, it was kind of a coming together moment for the town too, and a lot of positivity came out of it," Crowe said.
Local business owners originally feared the fire would spread or debris would damage their buildings, due to the proximity of the mill to other businesses downtown. Historically that would have been what happened, Halem said.
"When a building burned, it also caught generally the building next to it and maybe the building next to that, so I think first of all really grateful that it didn't catch," Halem said. "They were able to contain it, and it didn't go over to the next block."
Residents praised firefighters for their quick action attending to the fire. Tamera Hunter is the CEO of Townhall II, which provides emergency mental health services to the area and is located down the street from the mill.
"They were able to get our organization, who runs emergency mental health services for 988, back in our building for second shift, so we could respond to emergency mental health," Hunter said.
Until they were able to reenter their building, the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County allowed Townhall II staff to work out of their building, also located downtown.
The mill was purchased by a local developer in 2019 after it ceased production in 2016. It’s unknown what future development plans for the property will look like, though Jeff Crowe of Erie Street Kitchen thinks the developers won’t let the fire stop them from continuing the project.
"You know that building was set to be redone anyway, so is it going to rise like a phoenix from the ashes? Probably," Crowe said.
The mill was built in 1879 by the Williams Brothers and was operated by the family until 1999 when it was sold to Star of the West Milling Co. It was the longest running business in downtown Kent when it shut its doors and made Kent a thriving industrial city. Although the skyline-defining silos are beloved by many, Halem doesn't think most people know about the history of the mill and the flour it produced.
"It was used by the Archway Cookies, and at one time, it was used by also - I don't know if it still is - by Pepperidge Farm, because it was a really good quality of wheat," Halem said.
The wheat was grown locally and processed using innovative techniques in the mill that put Kent's original flour mill out of business.
"At one point people could go in and buy flour right from the mill," according to Sandy Halem with the Kent Historical Society.
The flour was so beloved, it to this day is the basis of Kent business Stahl's Bakery's menu.
"That woman [the baker] used to get her flour to bake all of her cakes and everything, cookies from the mill," Halem said, "and when they closed up, she actually would get - there was a fellow who lived in Kent and worked up at the where the Star of the West moved to, and he would bring her flour every week."
Despite recent talks of development, Halem doesn't think anything would have changed about the silos.
"Quite frankly, the part that is burned was never going to be used in any renovation that I can imagine," Halem said.
State and local authorities are still working to determine the cause of the fire.