Author: Grace Shackman
The landmark that shaped the village
Perched on the edge of the bridge in the center of Manchester, the Manchester Mill visually defines the town. Historically, the mill is the reason for the village's existence.
In 1826, John Gilbert bought the land that would later become Manchester. He contracted with Emanuel Case and Harry Gilbert to build a mill on the River Raisin in 1832. Since then, there has always been a mill on that site—although the building has burned down twice and the dam has been rebuilt twice.
According to Chapman's 1881 History of Washtenaw County, Case built a gristmill and a sawmill. Those mills, plus one on the east side of town (now the site of a Johnson Controls factory), furnished the power that made Manchester a leading nineteenth-century industrial town, served by two railroad lines. Case also built the first hotel in Manchester and was the village's first justice of the peace, office in his hotel.
Out of the three mills, the grist the only one that has survived—and it has had to be rebuilt repeated mill burned for the first time in 1853.
Though an exact cause was never determined, fires were common in mills because of the high flammability of grain dust. With wooden buildings and low-tech volunteer fire departments, they would spread quickly. The 1853 fire swept half of the downtown, destroying fourteen businesses and one dwelling before being brought under control.
In 1875 and again in 1908. the River Raisin flooded and washed out the dam. After the second flood, a temporary dam washed out again just two months later. It was replaced with sixty-foot-wide poured-cement structure, which has lasted to this day. Don Limpert, present owner of the Manchester Mill, believes the dam one of the oldest poured-cement structures in the state.
The mill burned for the second time in
By the time the night watchman
red the fire and sounded the alarm,
were shooting through the sides of
ding. The mill was rebuilt again,
it opened for business in January of 1926, it no longer ground flour, just feed for livestock.
Although Henry Ford bought most of the mills in the area, including the one on the east side of town and mills in Saline and Dexter, he decided the Manchester Mill, at a price of $6,000, cost too much. The high price probably reflected the fact that the mill was still in use, unlike the abandoned mills he usually purchased.
E. G. Mann and his two sons, Willard and Earl, bought the mill in 1940. E. G. had been in the mill business since 1927, when he bought a feed mill in Bridgewater, which is still run by his descendants. In 1976, Willard's son, Ron Mann, who had been working at the Manchester Mill, took over. Ron remembers that in the 1960s, the mill was open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and that the workers were grinding all day. But by the time he became the owner, grinding was only about five percent of the business, and more of a service than a moneymaker. The surrounding farmland was being steadily sold off until there were hardly any livestock farmers left. (Today there is only one full-time livestock farmer in Manchester Township.)
In 1981, Mann decided to end the milling part of his business; at the time, it was the oldest operating mill in continuous use on me same site in the entire state. By then, he had expanded into lawn and garden supplies and premixed animal food. He moved this part of the business to the west side of town, where it is still running, under a new owner.
After Don Limpert bought the old building from Mann, he removed the mill equipment, some of which had to be taken out through the roof by a crane. Limpert, who has restored numerous other buildings in Manchester, divided the mill into smaller spaces, starting with an apartment at the top that he calls "Manchester's high-rise." (Bill Farmer, a former member of the Raisin Pickers string band, lives there.) The remainder of the space is rented by stores and businesses. One of the turbines is still in place and could be used to generate electricity if ever needed.
A feeling of the old use still pervades the mill. One of the turbines is used for a coffee table in the Red Mill Cafe, and an original corn-shucking bin empties into the office of the Manchester Chronicle, where editor Kathy Kueffner looks out at the River Raisin while she writes her copy.
Photo Caption: Through fire and flood, Manchester's mill ground grain from 1832 to 1981.