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Industrial Revolution

Meese building has
storied past as a Cotton Mill

Recent sale, planned renovation
to restore life to structure

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(August 2007) – Too bad walls can’t talk. If they could, think of all the stories the walls of the Meese building could tell and the people they could recall. For more than 120 years, names such as Stick McDanials, Albert Winters or Harvey Hamilton echoed through the corridors of a once-bustling nearly 90,000-square-foot building located on Vaughn Drive and St. Michael’s Avenue along Madison, Ind.’s riverfront.

August 2007 Madison Cover

August 2007 Madison
Edition Cover

Known in its early days as the Eagle Cotton Mill and later as the Meese Inc. building, the massive structure that now sits forlornly awaiting for a new life once played a prominent role in the history of historic Madison.
The building, considered the largest single structure in the downtown area, will get that chance for a new beginning. Two Chicago-area preservationists, Bob Przewlocki and David Landau, bought the historic building on June 29 and plan to turn the massive structure into a mixed-use development. The plan, to be conducted in two phases, will feature retail and restaurant space on the first floor and up to 40 condominiums upstairs.
Their plans include green space, educational classrooms for promoting historic preservation and a mini-conference center for hosting groups and events.
“We are thrilled with the sale of the building,” said Madison Mayor Al Huntington. “It has great potential for investors and our community.”
For more than two decades recently, the building sat quietly empty while time and the occasional vandals took their toll on it. However, thousands of workers throughout its century-old history trudged through its doors to begin their work day and perhaps visit with long-time friends and fellow employees.
It all started in 1882, when the articles of incorporation for Eagle Cotton Mills of Madison were filed with the Indiana Secretary of State. At that time, the directors of the company were Robert McKim, John Adams, Charles Cravens, James Hargan, Charles A. Korbly, Charles Alling and S.M. Strader.
Plans were for the new factory to be a 10,000 spindle mill capable of turning out 11,000 yards of muslin per day with additional machinery that would make 1,800 seamless sacks per day.

Meese Building

Photo by Don Ward

The towering Meese building has sat
idle for more than 20 years, overlooking
the Madison, Ind., riverfront.

Negotiations were then started with the Eagle Cotton Mills of Pittsburg and other mills to buy equipment, and in 1884, Madison’s Rankin and White were awarded a contract to build Eagle Cotton Mills for a bid of $55,310.
Work on the building was to begin immediately upon the closing of the contract, and the building was supposed to be completed in 90 days. The dimensions of the main building are 247x74 feet and four stories high. Three of the stories were to be built 12 feet high, with the fourth story constructed at 14 feet in height. It was estimated that the building would require 1.5 million bricks in its construction and, when completed, would employ 500 people.
On March 16, 1885, Eagle Cotton Mills was lighted by electricity. The factory was illuminated by 312 incandescent points and heated by steam. By May 1887, 240 looms were in operation and another 60 expected to be up and running within a few months. By 1892, new equipment was being added almost daily to the mill.
Just a short time after the mill was up and running, Richard Johnson, proprietor of the Riverside Starch Works, acquired the controlling interest in the factory.
For years, Johnson operated a large starch works on the river levee at the curve in the railroad tracks a short distance west of the foot of Cragmont Street.
During the heyday of the starch works, big steamboats would dock at the starch factory wharf to take on freight and unload raw materials. The Johnson starch factory building was a block long and two stories high. The brick building with a slate roof stood until it was destroyed by a fire.

Meese Building Historical Photo

Photo provided by the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum and researcher Ron Grimes.

Hundreds of workers once labored
at cotton mill machines during
the building’s operational heyday.

Johnson started a cordage mill in his former starch factory warehouse, a large brick building on west Second Street at Cragmont, which at one point housed the Tower Manufacturing Co. The cotton sheeting mill and the cordage unit were operated at capacity for years, and the two together provided employment for nearly 300 workers.
Just prior to World War I and after Johnson died, the machinery and equipment of the cordage mill were transferred to the Eagle Cotton Mill.
During a particularly harsh winter in 1917-1918, the Tower Manufacturing Plant caught fire and burned to the ground. The Johnson cordage mill building was acquired by the tack factory interests, and the factory was moved to the new site, the Eagle Cotton Mill.
For years those factories operated at the Eagle Cotton Mill, but business volume began to dwindle. The big mill was finally closed and the building stood idle until Meese Inc. moved its factory to the big building after a fire destroyed its building on the corner of Main and Vine streets during the late 1930s.

Betsey Vonderheide

Betsey Vonderheide

Betsey (Meese) Vonderheide, project coordinator for the mayor’s office in Madison, said her grandfather, Edwin Meese, started the original company during the 1920s with two Indianapolis brothers just about the time of the great stock market crash. She said that although Meese died shortly thereafter in the 1930s, the Ruddel brothers, who lived in Indianapolis, took over the operations but kept the Meese name for the company.
The Meese factory operated on the first and second floors of the building. Air Kushion Shoe Co. occupied the third and fourth floors.
One of the chief products manufactured at the Meese plant during the late 1930s and early 1940s was evaporators for commercial refrigerator units and for air conditioning. The factory also manufactured ice cream vending carts equipped with pneumatic tires, which were used by street vendors.

Meese building Modern Floor

Photo provided by the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum and researcher Ron Grimes.

The same floor photographed
above now sits empty.

In December 1939, Fold-Away Baskets began operating on the first floor of the Meese building. About 30 men and women were employed by the plant, which was owned by Walter A. Greiner. Roy B. Ahlmark, who became director of sales of the baskets at the Madison facility, invented the folding basket.
During World War II, the Meese facilities were turned to the production of war goods. Combat packs, water bags, bedding rolls, dispatch cases, and rucksacks were produced alongside Meese’s normal goods.
Vonderheide’s father, David Meese Sr., and her brother, David Meese Jr., both worked for the company in later years. Betsey did a two-week stint as a clerical worker in the offices but said she didn’t particularly care for the work. “Working for your dad is different than living with him,” she said.
She fondly remembers walking to the factory from Eggleston Elementary to wait for her father when she was a young girl.
“My brother and I would play down at the river for hours while we waited,” she said. “I will never forget the smell of the riverbank in those days; it always smelled like dead fish and coal.”

Al Huntington

Al Huntington

Meese eventually diversified and began producing many canvas products, including baskets and hampers. The company also developed insulated dry storage containers, frozen food shippers and insulated frozen food metal containers.
By October 1972, Meese was awarded a $750,000 U.S. Postal Department contract to manufacture 25,000 canvas mail carts. Dozens of new employees were hired.
At that point, the company had begun producing custom polyethylene containers, such as bins and trucks, and by 1977, Meese employed close to 100 workers. It had begun production of aluminum linen handling baskets for hospitals in 1976.
Huntington himself was once an employee of Meese Inc. when the company operated in the riverfront building. He worked as a laborer during the summer between his junior and senior year of college at Indiana University.

Eagle Cotten Mill

Photo provided by the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum and researcher Ron Grimes.

The Meese Building as it was
when it housed the Eagle Cotton Mill.

“Being the new college kid, some of the old timers loved to play tricks on me,” he said. “But I loved the entire experience, and I learned so much about people from it.”
One of Huntington’s jobs was to crawl into the smokestack when it was time to clean it and hand buckets of soot out to the other workers. Another of his duties was to take garbage to the dump once a week on the hilltop.
“Oh, we tried our best to stretch that job out all afternoon,” he laughed. “The work at the factory was hot and hard, but I made lots of friends. I still value the lessons I learned.”
Meese Inc. moved out of the Eagle Cotton Mills building by the early 1980s to its present hilltop location on Cragmont Street.
The building has stood vacant since, although ownership has changed hands several times and plans have been drawn up over the years by various interests to convert it into retail stores, a hotel and other businesses.
In April 2001 Jerry Fuhs, of French Lick, Ind., bought the Meese building from Buddy Waller soon after buying and renovating the Hillside Inn at a November 1999 bankruptcy auction.
Waller had used the building for storing equipment for his business, Waller’s Meter Inc. Fuhs had intended to renovate the building with a plan similar to the one now in motion, but put his plans on hold to concentrate on other projects closer to his home.
Huntington believes the latest plans for the historic building have come at a good time. “We are not going to get too many more chances to do something with the historic structure,” he said. “We certainly will do what we can to help the new owners.”

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