Before you read our article on the newly renovated Garver Feed Mill, we want to remind you of its history. We can’t do better than our 2013 article on the once-unknown fate of the old sugar beet processing plant.
Just north of the vibrant Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a stately building threatens to crumble under its own weight. Alternately looming, eerie, inviting, and grand—with over 100 years’ tenure on the spot—the Garver Feed Mill building has seen multiple industries come and go. Today, the untenanted Garver attracts both urban explorers and historians, graffiti artists and professional photographers. What will come of the site is a paradox too, for a building in decay—however historical—is not a site suitable for regular visitors. At heart, the building’s placement is part of its history: a problem that reveals why the Garver building has also been the biggest piece in a land-use puzzle spanning 15 years.
Beet Sugar Beginnings
Though commonly referred to as the Garver Feed Mill, this large agricultural complex wasn’t always used to house farm supplies and feed for livestock. In fact, the Romanesque Revival structure was a strategic addition to Madison’s east side.1
At the turn of the 20th century, Madison’s population was growing rapidly, spurring promotion of suburban development for both residential and industrial purposes. Hoping to spur and maintain the city’s growth, a civic group called The Forty Thousand Club was organized in 1901 with the goal of boosting Madison’s population from around 19,000 to 40,000 by 1910. Collaborating with a private real estate development firm, The Forty Thousand Club worked to bring the U.S. Sugar Company to Madison, establishing a factory on the east side. Their planning laid the groundwork for an east-west dichotomy in Madison’s land-use pattern that persists to this day. The west side was defined by its upper-middle-class residents, primarily a mixture of university faculty and professionals, while the east side took on an industrial, working-class feel.1
The impact on the area was significant. From 1906 to 1924, Madison’s U.S. Sugar factory contracted with thousands of beet farmers within a 100-mile radius. In peak season, 250 laborers worked all day long, processing up to 500 tons of beets per day.1 In 1923, company records showed a payroll of $200,000—a significant amount considering that in 1917, boys were paid just $1.25 per day to work thinning sugar beets.3 Though The Forty Thousand Club didn’t reach its goal, it did presage an explosive population growth in the area. Between 1910 and 1920, the population of the east side increased by 70 percent.3
Though Wisconsin once had a thriving beet sugar industry, its heyday didn’t last long. Changes in sugar cane tariff legislation lowered prices on that crop, making beet sugar less economically competitive than it previously had been in comparison to foreign-grown sugar.1 Faced with the drop in demand, U.S. Sugar scaled back its operations. The east side building was first sold off in February 1925, and eventually acquired by James Garver in May 1929.1
A Second Life in Farm & Feed
James R. Garver could be considered a man of progress. With a master’s degree in animal husbandry from the University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Agriculture, he worked several trades before beginning his own business in the old U.S. Sugar building in 1929.1 There he began the Wisconsin Sales and Storage Company, initially carrying dairy and poultry feeds in addition to providing general storage space. In the first three years he owned the warehouse, Garver converted it into a “state-of-the-art feed mill, a project that was completed early in 1931.”1 The building was renovated and altered significantly to fit Garver’s needs, including the demolition of the top two stories of the building.3
Garver built his business by crafting specialty mixed formulas to optimize the growth and health of various livestock. Understanding that different animals have different nutritional needs, his process demonstrates the growing impact of “scientific agriculture” at the time, which was promoted by agricultural colleges, extension services, and professional farm journals.1 During the 1940s, Garver’s company supplied dairy, swine, beef, and poultry feed to 200 dealers in the region.3
“The Garver Supply Company eventually supplied feed over a 40-county region in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. After James R. Garver died in 1973 at the age of 88, the business was run by employees under a trust arrangement.”3 It was sold in 1975 to Wayne Wendorf and James Hatch, who operated the business as Garver Feed and Supply Co., Inc. before selling it to Cargill, Inc. in 1997.3
No Clear Path Forward
Once sold, the Garver Feed and Supply business left behind the historic structure in which it was born. In 1997, the Olbrich Botanical Society (OBS) acquired the Garver building and the adjacent 5-acre property for $700,000. At the same time, the City Parks Division acquired 17.8 acres north to Fair Oaks Avenue. OBS quickly transferred ownership of its acquisitions to the city, along with a deed restriction that the property be used as parkland devoted primarily to botanical gardens.3
Since then, Garver’s fate has been anything but obvious. Though some concerted investigations have gone into determining what to do with the property, the size, age, and expense of rehabilitating the building itself has presented ongoing challenges to city officials, Olbrich administrators, and east side residents alike. Lou Host-Jablonski, an architect with Design Coalition and a longtime participant in planning around the Garver building, describes the unfortunate gridlock that’s resulted. “In the time that the city’s owned it, there’s been no maintenance. There’s been a fire, there’s been vandalism,” he says. Worse, the building is exacerbating its own deterioration. “The big damage that’s been happening is that it first developed leaks, then major leaks. Now the slope of the roof is delivering rainwater and snow directly into the walls of the building, which is death for a building. What happens is in cold weather the water freezes, expands, and just pops things apart. It’s just degrading from the top down. Bricks can fall on your head from any moment, so there are [safety] concerns—as cool a building as it is, there are people walking around wanting to see it, kids graffitiing, partying, whatever. From the manufacturing, there’s open pits and stuff all over. It’s a big, attractive nuisance as well as a problem compounded over the years because of the negligence of the building.”
Ideas for Renewal
The Garver Feed Mill captures the imaginations of many who visit, pass by, or live near it. Since 1997, the evocative nature of the site has sparked a variety of propositions, but none have yet taken shape. To help move these ideas forward, a Garver Redevelopment Committee formed in 2006, accepting land use proposals.
Of three semifinal proposals, the one given the go-ahead was that of Common Wealth Development, which put forth a concept for an arts incubator. With the intention of using Garver as a lively public space, Common Wealth proposed a comprehensive renovation to make room for studios, performance spaces, classrooms, and galleries.3 By 2011, though, the $15 million arts incubator project was deemed infeasible. Above all, Lou says, the venture was a casualty of the economic downturn. “All of us knew that it was going to be a challenging project. Just stabilizing the buildings so that it’s at a stasis point, no longer falling apart, was gonna be $1.3 million. For a small organization to start out with that sort of capital need before you even get to setting up offices and installing heating, etc., is a very big hurdle.”
As both an architect and a longtime resident of Madison’s east side, Lou has been part of many consultations, committees, and conversations about Garver over the years. In late 2011, Lou put forward a concept design for converting Garver Feed Mill into a ruins garden—a rehabilitation of the most usable parts of the building, with other parts of the structure stabilized but not repaired—that is, left to stand as ruins do. The idea has precedent around the world, from Mill City Museum in Minneapolis to Cinnamon Bay in the Caribbean. As a ruins garden, Garver could foster tourism by hosting historic tours, housing a museum, offering event rental space, or leasing space for a restaurant or gift shop.
“The highest and best use of that property is not to use it as a ruins garden,” Lou says. “But I wanted to do something to move the ball forward, keep the attention on Garver. I wanted to say that this is an idea, should there be no other possibilities. If it takes close to a million dollars just to demolish the thing, here’s an alternative.”
Roberta Sladky, director of Olbrich Botanical Gardens, has expressed eagerness in finding ways to open up more space in Olbrich’s main building. In July 2012, she acknowledged that Olbrich’s “current visitor facilities are inadequate.” Indeed, attendance has increased more than 300 percent since the Bolz Conservatory opened in 1991, jumping from 60,000 visitors its first year to approximately 250,000 in 2012.2 Observers believe this bodes strongly for the possibility that Olbrich and the Parks Division may utilize Garver as a garden support and storage facility. Unglamorous as it seems, this would at least ensure the strengthening of the building’s core until further uses are explored and plans developed.
What happens to Garver next will take shape in the coming months as the city works with Olbrich to gather and interpret structural engineering data and architectural consultations. Meanwhile, neighbors and visitors alike have the opportunity to continue voicing their interest in the decision. “The entry to preservation is often in the delight of old things—whatever might be your particular interest,” observes Lou. “You lose sight sometimes of how they got that way—how they got preserved, who valued what for them to get to the state in which they are when they have a plaque and you get to them. Here’s a building that hasn’t gotten to that stage yet, that hangs in the balance.
“At the core there needs to be champions for it. It needs to be one or more people who step up and say, ‘This thing is too important to let die. There’s too many possibilities, too much potential coolness, and even too much potential income for the Garden and the city to throw away.’ If that happens, everything else follows. Whether it’s very active use with lots of people or less so, as with the ruins garden, you’re still making use of it. It all starts with somebody championing the site and having a vision for it. It’s something that the neighborhood has tried, continues to this day. The neighborhood can bring energy and vision and a sense of urgency—but what the neighborhood doesn’t have, of course, is money. Those things all have to come together. Officially this is one of the last buildings of that era and that time in Madison where we have relatively few remnants of our industrial past.”
1 Haswell, Susan O., A. Kay, and K. Rankin, “Garver Feed Mill,” City of Madison Landmarks Commission - Landmarks and Landmark Sites Nomination Form (1994, January 20). cityofmadison.com/planning/landmark/nominations/117_3244AtwoodAve.pdf
2 Rath, J. (2012, July 5). A likely reprieve for Garver Feed Mill. The Isthmus. thedailypage.com
3 White, S. (2012, February 18). The fate of the ‘Sugar Castle’: looking forward, looking back. Provided upon request by the East Side History Club.
Erin Abler is a freelance writer.