For more than a decade, the rich history of Tempe’s Hayden Flour Mill has been overshadowed by its deteriorating state and a fence that kept the public at bay.
Even the city’s effort to reuse the mill is a story of its own, stretching back to before the mill closed in 1998.
But a modest renovation has finally transformed the eyesore into an inviting landmark that opened Tuesday.
The public has been eager to have some access to the mill for years because of its history, said Nancy Hormann, executive director of the Downtown Tempe Community. She’s glad it is taking its rightful place as one of downtown’s prime attractions.
“We’re very excited about it because it was our gateway and it is the first thing you see when you come across the bridge, so now having it a historical destination as well as an entertainment venue really personifies what Mill Avenue is,” Hormann said. “People are so excited about the mill.”
The $350,000 project is mostly done but some work will continue until a Sept. 20 dedication party. The most significant unfinished project is the mill’s peeling paint and a faded mural depicting a sack of flour. Some businesses want to refresh the building with paint, while historic advocates called for leaving the building alone because the peeling paint has revealed older signs underneath. The City Council is expected to decide the issue this summer.
Opinions are mixed, Hormann said.
“People are just excited to have the fences come down so you can actually see it and have a place that’s a community gathering spot, so I don’t think It matters one way or another whether it’s painted or not painted,” Hormann said.
When fall arrives, the DTC will program the space with date night movies, yoga, events for moms and their young children, weddings and more.
A grass plaza north of the mill features a small stage and can host about 250 people. Visitors can peer through window openings on the building’s north side to see milling equipment, and adjacent signs depict the mill’s history dating to its founding in 1874 by Tempe founder Charles Trumbull Hayden. When the mill closed in 1998, it was the longest continually operating business in Arizona.
Tempe gained ownership of the mill after working with two developers who failed to meet deadlines to restore the mill while adding new buildings around it. The city anticipates it will work with another developer on a more thorough restoration when the economy improves.
The city won’t offer tours because of liability issues. But former mill employee Bill Mitchell led media tours Tuesday to share his memories of the once-thriving industrial facility. Mitchell said the mill once offered more than 1,000 products for commercial clients and for on-sale retail, ranging from one-ounce sprinkles to 100-lbs flour bags.
Mitchell started sweeping the floor in 1961 and left in 1982 as superintendant to work at an Illinois mill. He recalled the milling equipment was so deafening that workers didn’t listen to discover when machinery needed attention.
“A good miller could sit on the concrete floor and tell what was wrong just by the feel of it,” Mitchell said.
He knew the mill so well that when archeologists were searching several years ago for a stone arch thought to have been destroyed, Mitchell informed them it was buried 17 feet below a certain spot. He also came to know members of the Hayden family and met former President Lyndon Johnson at the funeral of former U.S. Sen. Carl Hayden. Mitchell said his association with the mill wasn’t intended.
“It was a temporary job when I got out of the Navy,” he said. “I got to looking at it and thought, damn this is cool. And 40 years later, I retired.”
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