When the Ann Arbor Central Mills on First Street opened in 1882, the increased use of farm machinery, especially the thresher, made wheat growing so profitable that over a million bushels a year were being grown in Washtenaw County. This mill exported flour to New England, the Midwest, the South, and even abroad. It operated from 1882 to 1927, spanning some of Washtenaw County's best and worst years for agriculture.
The property, originally the site of a brewery, still has the basement tunnel vaults which were used to store and age the beer. G.F. Hauser's City Brewery first occupied the site, which was next to Allen's Creek, in 1860. By 1868 it was called John Reyer's City Brewery and in 1872, the Ekhardt Bros. Brewery. The brewery property was probably chosen as the mill site in 1882 because of its location beside the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks, which had been laid only four years earlier. Much flour was shipped by rail, and in later years Ann Arbor Implement, the building's present occupant, used the train to transport farm implements.
The Central Mills' principal owner, Robert Ailes, retired in 1884. He sold his interest to his two partners, G. Frank Allmendinger and Cottlieb Schneider. The 1884 Industrial Census records that the mill employed twelve men, who worked twelve hours a day each, except for one minor, who worked ten. By 1894 three more employees had been hired. The salaries ($1.25 to $1.87 a day) were enough for a working man to buy a house on.
Allmendinger was the partner with marketing and financial connections. A U-M graduate in engineering, he belonged to the big Allmendinger clan, descended from early (circa 1830) German pioneers to Ann Arbor. Organ manufacturer David F. Allmendinger was his cousin. A leader in many other organizations, ranging from the Farmers' and Mechanics' Bank and the Michigan Bean Jobbers' Association to the University School of Music and the First Congregational Church, Allmendinger was active in city and county Republican politics. He ran for mayor and lost by one vote, and he led a successful fight to prevent Felch Park (in front of the present-day Power Center) from being sold to private developers. Allmendinger's impressive home on South Main is now the American Legion hall. Nearby Pauline Street is named after his wife.
Schneider was the operations half of the Central Mills team. A German native, he had farmed and had worked in other mills. He lived just around the corner at 402 West Liberty, in the house next to The Moveable Feast. Edith Kempf, who grew up across the street, remembers that the neighbors called him Mr. "Miller" Schneider to differentiate him from Emanuel Schneider, a plumber who lived on the corner. In later years some of his customers thought his name really was Mr. Miller. Schneider dressed as his workers did, in one-piece washable denim overalls, which by day's end were covered with flour. Arthur Reiff remembers Schneider as a man uniformly good natured and always friendly to farmers. Reiff's farmer father used to bring wheat and grain to the mill. He would trade the wheat for flour, taking back the leftover middlings and bran to feed his livestock. The grain, mainly oats and corn, was also used as feed. It was ground in a device that was something like a big coffee grinder. In addition to regular flour the mill sold graham flour, rye flour, granulated meal, and buckwheat flour. It also had a cooperage that made flour barrels, usually for a hundred pounds of flour.
The 1896 Headlight magazine promoting Ann Arbor boasted that the Central Mills probably had Michigan's most complete milling equipment, including a steel roller system. Steam-powered steel rollers had been replacing water-driven millstones in the 1880's because they were more efficient and easier to control. The Central Mills had had rollers since 1884, if not earlier. No record of a water-driven millstone exists.
About 1900 the present brick building replaced the earlier wood structure. Actually, it appears the original wood frame was kept and brick walls were added. The vaulted basement tunnels were used to store vinegar and possibly wine from the Ann Arbor Fruit and Vinegar Company, another Allmendinger and Schneider business just across the tracks. In 1902 the company was consolidated with two other Ann Arbor mills to form the Michigan Milling Company. Allmendinger was secretary-treasurer and Schneider the plant supervisor.
As the years went by, Washtenaw's wheat became less competitive. Flour consumption decreased due to Americans' changed eating habits. Vast wheat fields opened on the Great Plains and grew hard wheat (preferred for bread) as well as the soft wheat grown in Michigan. By 1910 the county's wheat production was a third of what it had been in 1880. By the end of World War One the mill was operating at a loss. It kept going until 1927, but flour milling stopped soon after 1925, when Gottlieb Schneider died. Only feed was ground after that.
In 1929 Ernie Lohr, owner of a farm implement store on South Ashley, bought the building and continued using it as a feed store. He remodeled it in 1939 and moved in his implement business, now run by his son, Paul, and grandson, Fred. Big farm implements like tractors, combines, and milking machines have given way to lawn and garden supplies, chain saws, and the like.
Many reminders of the old mill survive. Painted exterior signs still advertise the firm's products. The vaults now house large lawn tractors and display the Lohrs' collection of antique farm implements, which visitors may see upon request. The original Central Mills safe may be seen next door at The Blind Pig cafe, which had been the old mill's office. Today the safe stores wine, not money.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Viewed from the railroad tracks, the back of the old mill buildings looks much as it did around the turn of the century.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Diagram (circa 1880) of a roller mill, showing the steel rollers that crush the grain as it falls from floor to floor. Steam-driven roller mills like these gradually replaced water-powered mills and their mill wheels.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Old flour bags from the Michigan Milling Company (which operated the First Street mills). "Every kernel sterilized " is the legend on MIMICO golden corn meal.