Chenango Valley Mills

The old mill on the Chenango River has been a historic landmark in Greene since 1838. Now it is gone, taken down carefully piece by piece and shipped to Texas.  A brief history of the mill is in order as it is an important part of the fabric of Greene, of what makes Greene special. Roger Allen and his nephew, Art Allen, were most generous in sharing their time and wealth of information on the mill.

The mill was built by Eli Haynes who also built several houses in Greene, one of them being the brick cottage on South Chenango Street where Carolina Mohawk lived.  The name Chenango Valley Mills was used early because it appears in the Chenango County Atlas of 1875.  You can see from the early drawing that there were two mills at one time: a grist mill and a plaster mill.  The plaster mill ground limestone used principally for land fertilizer. On an 1883 map there is no mention of the plaster mill so it must have been gone by then. In the 1870s, an extension was built onto the grist mill. Farmers would bring in their grains – oats, buckwheat, barley, corn, wheat, rye– to be ground for flour or for animal feed.  After the grains were ground, they were often mixed. One ad said: “Let us grind your oats, buckwheat and barley with Page’s seed corn, the best corn that money can buy, ground in your grist at no charge.”   Molasses and beet pulp were another addition.

The grist mill had a “run of five stone” which means that there were five pairs of millstones for grinding.  Through the interpretation of old photographs, we are sure there was at least one horizontal water wheel and there might have been as many as four . This was an early design for water wheels. We are more accustomed to see them working vertically.  These wheels, by way of vertical connecting shafts, would drive the grind stones and workings above. The top stone rotated while the bottom one was stationary. More than one pair of millstones could have been rotated by one water wheel. Because the wheels were horizontal, only four feet of water in the mill race, a fast-moving stream of water to drive the wheels, was required. The water power came from the dam across the Chenango River with a system of sluices and gates.

In 1929 the dam was rebuilt.  Roger says that the mill was often plagued by high water (there was a flood sale in 1942. “Our mill floor is now under water.”)  so it must have been in bad disrepair by this time.  We don’t know how much water power was used by 1929 but in 1931 it ceased being used at all. The village had been using electricity since 1903.
In 1932 a new attrition mill was installed with electric motors that doubled the grinding capacity.  An attrition mill is a machine that pulverizes material between two metal disks rotating in opposite directions.  In 1933 there was more new equipment – new elevators, electric motors, conveyors. It increased capacity three times.

There were several owners in the 1800s. James Chapman was an early owner who married  Esther Allen from Georgetown, NY. After the Chapmans had the mill, Esther’s nephew, Charles C. Allen, also from Georgetown, and his brother-in-law, O.E. Blanding, ran it in 1901. The Blandings went to Pasadena, California and then it was in the Allen family until 1963.

 Charles C. Allen married a local young woman, LaDusky Watrous, and in 1908 their son, Arthur Ralph, was born in the mill house at the end of the street.  Not only was Charles C. running the mill, but he had the first Ford Agency in Greene which he ran for several years.  The Model T’s and A’s would come in on the train partially assembled and Charles C. finished assembling them by putting on the hoods, fenders, etc. and sold them for $600 each.

In the early days, only grains and feeds were sold at the mill. In 1910 and 1920, more buildings were built that housed the store in later years.  Then beginning in the 1920s there were several years of depression and the mill suffered.  Art has a letter from the president of the Borden’s Company written to Arthur Ralph after the death of his father, Charles C. in 1947.  The president wanted Arthur to know what a great man his father had been in the dark days of the Depression. Roger Allen, Charles C.’s grandson, expresses it eloquently in this memory of his grandfather:

“Charlie was a man of his word. He was a hard worker, honest and through clever advertising and business “know-how”, the mill was a very successful feed business.  After the stock market crash, the mill was heavily in debt, business was very bad, and it almost failed.  But he survived and kept the mill going by borrowing money, selling stock in the business and worked with customers on a cash only basis.  Things got better slowly, jobs were still at the mill for 10 to 20 cents an hour.  All the debts were eventually paid, the operation expanded, and the mill showed a profit and was able to pay about a 7% dividend to its stockholders.  Charlie expected a day’s work for a day’s wages.  He was hard to do business with at times.  I remember my father saying that Charlie would not give any business to a salesman that walked into the place smoking or chewing.  He figured if he had money to waste on tobacco, he didn’t need the order.  He was, above all, a fair man and I believe all who knew him or did business with him trusted and respected him.  I was only 7 years old when he passed away in 1947 but can remember seeing him at the little house by the mill.”

An undated open letter to customers has both Charles C. and Arthur Ralph Allen on the letterhead and it appears to be around 1930. It says that the mill is restocked and ready for business again. All sorts of things were done to attract customers. The Allens were marketing geniuses. The color orange became their trademark; the mill, delivery trucks and cars, advertising brochures and booklets all were painted or printed in orange.  The cars were called “Orange Streaks” and the advertising booklets were “The Orange Flash”.  Besides prices of the products that C.V.M. sold, the booklet also listed the movie schedule in Greene, printed jokes, poems sent in by local clients, and sold advertising space. The booklet was sent to 1400 families within 35 miles of Greene.

In  March, 1933, the Allens invited customers and their wives to a turkey dinner with all the trimmings (apple pie and ice cream too) at the Sherwood Hotel.  They had so many acceptances that they had four dinners on four consecutive evenings and served 517 people! “That bunch Tuesday could eat!  Boy, it was a pleasure to watch them!” L.A. Najarian made the orange ribbon used as badges at the dinners.

Around this time, the mill was open 24/7 for a while and farmers were encouraged to come in late to buy their gas and motor oil. Delivery routes went far afield including Afton, Sanitaria Springs, Church Hollow and Itaska. It seems as if more and more products were sold. Hansmann’s Flours, lime, salt, rope and Dr. Naylor medicinal products for animals were in the C.V.M. quotations besides all the grains and feeds.

In 1933, C.V.M was selling Purina products and the front of the mill was painted as a checkerboard, the symbol of Purina. Some of the trucks had checkerboards on their sides. Also 40 to 50 pigs were given away to children under 15 if they brought in an order of at least a ton of Purina feeds.

This takes us up to 1940.  In the next article, Roger will reminisce what it was like to be a boy growing up around the mill. I will end this with a poem taken from the Orange Flash in April 1933, written by Walter W. Brown of Church Hollow. (Where is Church Hollow? I don’t know, but C.V.M. delivered there.)

Here is to the feed from the C.V.M
It makes your chicks healthy and full of vim.
It is also good for your shoats and sow
But it is best of all for your dairy cow. 
It makes her give milk and then some more
Until carrying it around makes her old back sore,
But when feeding it to her take my advice
For to my sorrow I have tried it twice.
Don’t milk out her front teats first by heck
Or she will tip over backwards and break her neck.