Once a necessity, old mill meets ignominious end
A photo gallery of this Mystery Place is HERE
The cornerstone from the grist mill in Whitewater is currently located in Darien at the intersection of U.S. Highway 14 and Sharon Road. You can see not only the cornerstone but also a little of the stone and original mortar from the mill. It is located next to the store of the last owner of the former mill.
That mill has a very interesting history. Dr. James Trippe built the mill in 1839. Its story begins in November, 1838 at the first public meeting in Whitewater. A committee of W. B. Johnson, David J. Powers and Norman Pratt was appointed to resolve the mill issue. The original owner of the property was Daniel Butts.
Butts was given an ultimatum that he build a mill immediately or give up his claim on the property or sell it for a fair price or be driven off his claim. Butts did not have the money to build a mill, so he turned the land over to his brother-in-law, John Shaw, who promised to begin building a mill by the next week. Still no construction started and the committee determined that Shaw really had no intention of building the mill.
Shaw did not want to give up his claim but the committee finally purchased the land for $5,000. Then they had to look for someone to build the mill. They wanted someone who had the financial ability to build a mill and to do so within a year.
Enter James Trippe; he brought the first working mill to Whitewater and it served the area until 1963. Dr. Trippe came from New York and was headed for East Troy. On the boat he met Asaph Pratt, who mentioned that the closest mill sites for Whitewater settlers were Elgin, Ill., and Milwaukee.
Whitewater was looking for a mill; Trippe was looking for a mill site. By the end of the year a dam and grist mill were operating. He also operated a saw mill. This mill cut 300,000 feet of lumber in a year. He also had a mill at East Troy.
Benjamin Whitcomb was the boss carpenter and Mr. Cutting was the millwright. On June 27, 1939, the frame of the mill was raised. An outdoor feast and ball games followed this happy event and the festivities included settlers from the four surrounding towns ... Johnstown, Lima, La Grange and Fort Atkinson. The middle of that September saw the first operation of the mill with William Birge as the first customer.
By 1840 the community had a blacksmith shop. David J. and Joseph Powers began a tavern near the mill that same year. Along with the homes of the settlers, this was the beginnings of a village. One of those settlers was Dr. Trippe and his wife, who moved into a log house in 1840.
Mrs. Trippe was a woman of some wealth. One report indicated she brought $12,000 to the village, which was a considerable sum in those days. It was claimed that Mrs. Trippe felt she was superior to the other women in the community because she had a parlor in her home and none of the other women were so lucky.
Trippe was elected chairman at the first town of Whitewater meeting in April 1842. He also represented the area in the territorial legislature from 1842 to 1843. He died at the age of 49 on Sept. 4, 1844.
The mill site was the starting point of the first Whitewater survey done in 1840 by Prosper Cravath. That’s why the streets seem so strangely laid out today; they radiated out from the mill. The three radial streets are Main, Center and Whitewater; four curved streets are First through Fourth Streets.
Birge bought the mill from Mrs. Trippe. In 1856, he added a stone portion to the original wooden timber grist mill. The stone came from a Waukesha quarry. He died in 1860 and left behind many debts, partly because of the depression of 1857. His son, Julius, assumed and paid off all the debts. In 1863, Julius Birge overhauled and improved the flour mill.
According to Albert Beckwith’s “History of Walworth County,” the next owner was John Lean in 1866. Next listed were Byron Brown and Charles M. Brown (not related) around 1878. A.I. Dexter was listed for 1881, Albert F. and George S. Bridge in 1882, Thomas N. Sedgwick in 1894 and Edwin D. Coe in 1905. Beckwith indicates that some of these may have been part owners. They kept the mill running, doing custom work and producing graham flour.
In 1925, George Featherstone was the owner. Later he was joined by his son, Paul, and the Old Stone Mill became Featherstone and Son. In 1942, two other sons, Cecil and Wally, took over the operation. In 1957, the owners were Cecil’s widow, Dora, and her son, Wally. By 1960 it was turbine driven and in 1963, the mill closed.
The building was condemned in 1969. George Baskin owned the building and removed the wooden portion. One prospective buyer, Gerald Pelishek, came forward. He is an engineer, amateur historian and a developer. There also was talk of making it a historical site. It really was an integral part of the city’s history.
Pelishek planned to convert the dam so he could generate a little electricity. He planned to stabilize the building and have an upscale restaurant in the lower level. He was told he could not stabilize the building even though it was built on bed rock. In 1973, the stone portion was razed. He saved the cornerstone and the portion of original stone and mortar. This summer this historic nugget was dedicated in Darien.
If you are ever in the Darien area, stop to see the cornerstone and read the plaque telling a little of the mill’s history. If the store is open, step into the jewelry store. It also is a history museum and an art gallery.
Here is some more information about Dr. Trippe. He was born in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1795. He graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of Albany, N.Y., in 1817 and took up practice in Mobile, Ala., from 1817 to 1819. He then returned to New York. In 1837, he immigrated to East Troy and built his saw mill. In 1839, he moved to Whitewater. In December 1840, Trippe moved into a log house in Whitewater.
Although he was a medical doctor, he soon was busy taking care of his mill operations. He served as a medical consultant only on serious cases. In 1841, he was elected chairman of the board of supervisors and from 1842 to 1843, served in the state legislature. In spring 1842, he suggested a spot for the Oak Grove Cemetery and donated the land. He died Sept. 4, 1844.
Birge also was important to Whitewater history. He came to the area in July 1837 from Ithaca, N.Y. He married Mary Alvina Nobles on Jan. 9, 1839. Their son, Julius, was born Nov. 18, 1839, the first child born in Whitewater. William was an associate supervisor for the township in 1842 and 1843. The organizational meeting for the area Baptist church was held in his barn in the summer of 1842. In April 1844, his house burned and a 3-year-old child burned.
Julius was 20 when his father died. He worked to salvage his father’s flour mill. He eventually paid off all of the debts. Illness sent Julius west in 1865. In 1867, he arrived in St. Louis and became a dealer in agriculture equipment and maintained connections with a Whitewater wagon manufacturer. In 1877, he had one of the first privately owned telephones in the country installed in his St. Louis home.
Julius is the one who gave the fountain in front of the former library to the city of Whitewater. On Nov. 5, 1902, he wrote offering a fountain to the city. By then he was a successful St. Louis industrialist. It had to be in Flat Iron Park on the site of the little brick school where he learned to read and write. His offer was accepted and the fountain was dedicated on July 4, 1903.