Preservation group looks to sell S.C. mill

Mike Bedenbaugh wtih the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, right, and preservation consultant Kyle Campbell inspect the interior of the blacksmith shop. Robert Behre/Staff

The Senn Grist Mill, Blacksmith Shop and Orange Crush Bottling Plant still look much like they did when Walter Senn closed their doors in December 1998.

Calendars and paper business licenses dot the walls, while scoops, scales and other equipment still lie near where they were last used.

Senn died of cancer the following year, and the small collection of wood-frame buildings has stood empty ever since.

This community showed its appreciation for the century-old site by placing a historical marker outside its Cantey Street door, just a few steps from Main Street. The property also was placed on the National Register of Historic Places around the same time because of its role in the town’s 20th-century commerce.

None of Senn’s three daughters were interested in following their ancestors into the mill business, but they have done what they can to try to keep their family’s legacy alive.

The mill, shop and plant, along with a nearby house, have been donated to the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, which hopes to find a buyer interested in cranking the mill back up.

“It’s a historical business model that we’re trying to revive,” says trust Director Mike Bedenbaugh. “We’re looking for someone who understands the importance of place and wants to make an impact.”

The first building here was a blacksmith shop built by John G. Senn in 1903, and he added a grist mill a few years later.

The complex grew partly because of his business skill — and partly because Clarendon County’s farmers found it profitable to grow corn on the rich land along the Santee River. Its success in turn helped the farms thrive.

While Senn was a big deal in this small town, his buildings were not.

“The shock is how tiny they are,” Bedenbaugh says as he shows visitors inside. “Because it was so small, they were able to stay. One guy could run the whole thing.’

In the 1920s, Senn allowed his brother-in-law, Frank Josey, to build an Orange Crush bottling plant next door, but its operations ceased when the state passed stricter regulations.

Walter B. Senn Jr. proved as successful as his grandfather and great-uncle, and he operated two hammer mills — one that produced cornmeal and grits for humans and another that produced animal feed.

His business is still missed.

“Usually when I’m here, an old pickup will pull up and someone will ask, ‘Are y’all opening this place back up? I need to feed my chickens.’ ”

Jenny Senn Blackman, one of Senn’s daughters, says she remembers going to the mill as a child to watch her father. She remembers some customers paid him sometimes — but not every time.

“It was a community thing. That’s what was so good about it,” she says.

Since her father’s death, the family has received offers for the building’s guts —its equipment — as well as offers from people interested in converting the property to a parking lot.

At a friend’s encouragement, she approached the Palmetto Trust and eventually agreed to donate the property in hopes of saving it.

“I’d rather keep the history and the legacy going than the money,” she says. “We would love to see someone come and try to run the mill and try to get some ornamental craftsman who would like to do blacksmithing in there.”

The buildings are dry inside but need assorted repairs and a general cleaning up. A new owner also would have to grapple with state regulators before firing the mill back up.

Bedenbaugh said the trust hopes to get about $20,000 for the mill property, and it also has Senn’s former Main Street home, which it hopes to sell for about $25,000.

This type of mill once was common across the state. In 1882, South Carolina had 720 grist mills, according to the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills.

“Every town had one,” Bedenbaugh says. “It tied into why the wealth of our communities was so much more at the turn of the century when all the money stayed local.”

Today, the society has only about 50 mill sites in the state, and most of those are either empty or the mill is in ruins. The society’s list has only five grist mills still operating.

If no one steps forward to restart the mill, the trust will seek people interested in putting the buildings to some other use.

“It could be used as something else,” he says. “The buildings are still good enough to be used as something else.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.