Paoli Mill Terrace & Park

Photo by Paoli Mill Terrace & Park

Bill Hastings was looking for an old building to house his advertising agency, the Hastings Group, and its six employees. While perusing a family photo album, he came upon a picture of his great-grandfather in front of a gristmill (grain mill). It turned out the mill was in Paoli, only a few miles from the Westmorland neighborhood in Madison, where Bill had grown up. His great-grandfather managed the mill for a short time in the early 1900s. Bill bought the mill for $29,700 at an auction 36 years ago, when the only other businesses in Paoli were a clay company and a tavern. Bill beat out a scrap dealer who planned to put a car crusher on the site.

Bill credits his father for his interest in history and historic buildings. After winning a Coleman stove and a tent in a contest, Bills dad packed up the family and began the station wagon summer camping adventures that took the family to historic sites all over the country.

Today, Bill has retired his advertising business, but the complex of four buildings that make up Paoli Mill Terrace & Park are home to seven other businesses. The first floor of the mill has Cottage Goddess, a retail vintage gift shop run by Lori McGowan for the past 13 years. McGowan Architecture, managed by Patrick McGowan, has been in the mill for three years. One can pick up breads, pastries, soups, sandwiches, and University of WisconsinMadison Babcock Ice Cream at the Bread & Brat Haus, operated by Cherri Bell for six years. The Bread & Brat Haus is in the original flour house where mill customers picked up the flour that was ground from the grain they brought to the mill.

Photograph courtesy of Paoli Mill Terrace & Park

Housed in another building is the Paoli Secret Garden, featuring handmade hammocks and botanical gifts. Realtor Tyler Sweeney with ReMax Real Estate and Bumblebee Photography are in the scale house that was a cheese shop until the fall of 2015. Hop Garden Taproom, operated by Belleville hop farmer Rich Joseph, is a newer business located on the back side of the mill.

The Paoli Mill Terrace & Park operates as an event venue from mid-May through mid-October and is especially picturesque for weddings14 were held there in the summer of 2016. A ground-level gathering room in the mill, with an indoor bar and catering area, was completed recently. Another renovation, in the area below the Bread & Brat Haus, is used as a brides dressing room. Staff at the mill are ready to book weddings for 2018.

With room enough for 300, the natural outdoor setting along the Sugar River makes the Paoli Mill Terrace & Park an idyllic place for private parties, corporate events and meetings, conferences, retreats, and stage performances. Last year a flea market and an art fair were held at the facility.

The hamlet of Paoli owes its existence to the location of the mill and the plans laid out in 1848 by Peter Matts, then sheriff of Dane County. Peter bought land on the Sugar River and a year later constructed a dam; a race, a channel diverting water from the river to the mills water wheel; and a sawmill. Paoli grew up around his mill during the next 15 years. Newcomers to the area bought land from Peter and constructed their buildings with lumber from his sawmill.

Photograph courtesy of Paoli Mill Terrace & Park

Bernhard and Francis Minch took over mill operations in the 1860s and purchased the site and mill privileges. By the end of the decade, the brothers had constructed the three-story stone gristmill. Both the gristmill and the sawmill were going concerns until 1877, when the sawmill closed. Cheaper pine lumber from the north that could be transported via railroad beat out the more costly southern hardwoods.

The Minch Brothers were able to keep the gristmill operational well into the 20th century by providing customized milling for their customers even though wheat production in the state had declined by the end of the 19th century and dairy was taking its place. In 1938, Paul Fetherston bought the mill from a Minch descendant and ran it through the end of the Second World War. The Paoli Mill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

When it was built, the mill was considered to be a modern structure. Its a sturdy building with three-and-a-half-foot-thick yellow limestone walls in the basement that taper to one foot thick on the third floor. Interior structural framing is massive to support heavy milling machinery. Some of the interior pillars are whole tree trunks that have been hand hewn. The mill is also a steadfast building, holding on to its roof through two tornadoes in years past.

When Bill went to work restoring the mill, the first project he tackled was the roof, replacing its cedar shingles. He also removed a number of additions that had been built onto the mill over the years.

Photograph courtesy of Paoli Mill Terrace & Park

Bill has found a number of challenges to owning a historic building. For example, Renters want to festive up the buildings. But Bill asks, Are flower boxes historically accurate?

Even though he has much renovating experience, Bill learns by doing. When you renovate a historic building, you never know what to expect. His other restoration projects include log homes and two other buildings in Paoli: the Paoli House Inn and the Paoli Schoolhouse. Farmers who dropped off their grain at the mill in the past stayed overnight at Paoli House and picked up their finished milled flour the next day. Today it operates as a bed and breakfast.

Finally, bringing a building up to code and accessibility requirements can be challenging. But by working with the various agencies involved with codes and accessibility, Bill has successfully saved a structure where businesses are thriving. As a result, the whole town has benefited. Today Paoli is a destination and not merely a crossroads in the countryside.

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.