Reminisce: Grinding it out at Spencerville’s Kolter Mill

For nearly a century, for as long as there had been a Spencerville, the mill stood at the heart of the village, grinding grain into flour and, being the tallest building in town, serving as a handy point of reference.

Around 1940, it was razed and, not long after that, the remnants of the canal lock, the reason the mill had been built there in the first place, were dynamited.

It was July 1942, not quite eight months after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and Americans were still getting accustomed to being citizens of a country at war — and were also still a little jumpy.

“Explosions heard in Spencerville Friday, were not bombs being dropped …, but were explosions from dynamite being used by a public works crew, in charge of John Sunderland, from St. Marys, blasting the old walls of the lock in the canal where the Kolter mill formerly stood,” the Spencerville Journal-News assured its readers on July 23, 1942.

In later decades, when residents remembered the way things were before the watershed of World War II, the old mill on the corner of Broadway and Second Streets and the Kolter family, who operated it for most of the century, often came to mind.

“William and Judith Tyler began the construction of the mill in the year 1843,” the Journal-News wrote in November 1929. “The mill passed through different hands as times rolled by, among the owners being A.G. Conover, T.J. McConnell, Levi Cotton, Joseph Mummua, Samuel Thomas and George E. Thomas. McConnell, Conover and Tyler were instrumental in having Spencerville platted as a town.”

The town, named after Col. William Spencer, of Newark, a member of the state board of public works and a major canal supporter, was platted in 1844. The first canal boat arrived in 1845. “This was a gala day for Spencerville, people coming for miles to witness the triumphant entry, towed by a beautiful team of horses decorated with plumes and highly decorated blankets,” the Journal-News wrote in an August 1942 story.

By the 1860s, the mill had become the property of Jonzey Keeth, described by the Journal-News as “the hub around which the commercial interests swung” in Spencerville. Keeth sold his interest in the mill to A.F. Myer in 1869. A decade later the mill was acquired by the Kolter family. Robert Kolter operated it from 1882 until his death in 1913, when the mill passed into the hands of his son, Charles A. Kolter.

When constructed in 1843, the mill eliminated the need for area residents to travel to Piqua to get grain ground into meal and flour. Two water wheels served the mill with power from the Miami and Erie Canal.

Writing in November 1929, Paul W. Cochrun, longtime editor of the Journal-News, called the mill “a superb monument to the honest construction work done in the days of yore.” The frame “built of heavy hewed timbers is intact, stable as the day the timbers were placed into position by the scores of men and oxen,” Cochrun wrote, adding, “The machinery in the mill is still operated by water power from the Miami & Erie canal, but electric power is also used.”

In its century of existence, the mill survived large fires twice. In 1894, the mill was threatened when the neighboring Kephart handle factory burned to the ground. Twenty-seven years later, in May 1921, lightning struck the cupola on top of the mill. “The lightning passed to the basement below following two elevator shafter and in a few minutes following the crash the entire cupola was ablaze as well as the two wood elevator shafts,” the Journal-News wrote. Fearing the fire would spread to the many nearby wooden buildings, Lima was asked for assistance but, before Lima firefighters arrived, “the fire was placed under control by the local company,” the newspaper noted.

In 1916, the mill, and the village, lost a beloved presence. “Caesar, the oldest and best known dog in the corporation is dead,” the Journal-News reported. “Owned by the Kolter Mill and Grain Company of Spencerville, for the thirteen past years, (Caesar) has been a conspicuous figure not only around the Kolter mill … but on the streets and at the Kolter home.” Caesar, renowned as a rat killer, “was the best known and best liked of any dog ever in this community.”

Charles A. Kolter, who operated the mill from 1913 until his death in 1936, was among the best-loved humans in the community, particularly among the children. Lewis Metzger, in an October 2001 article in the Journal-News, recalled how the kids in his neighborhood would watch for Kolter as he came to the mill. “Charlie lived behind Lewie’s home and always had sacks of candy (Lewie especially remembers licorice marshmallows) that he handed out to the kids.”

Corbett W. Coil, who grew up across the street from the mill recalled the mill’s operation in a May 1978 letter to the Journal-News. “The water came into a mill race about 200 feet south of the mill at the south end of the lock,” Coil wrote. “The channel was swift and I used to fish in their swift water for channel catfish.”

Dale Harruff remembered growing up along the canal in a December 1987 story in the Journal-News. “I remember the many happy hours as a kid fishing along its banks, and how I learned to swim in the floor bay that carried the water back to Kolter’s Mill,” he wrote.

Beginning in about 1922, the area south of the mill, known as Kolter Mill lot, became a popular site for outdoor entertainment like carnivals, vaudeville shows and fireworks. “It’s a great week for the kids,” the Journal-News wrote in July 1922. “Savings banks are being knocked down. Old rags and rubber are being sold. Dads and mothers are being touched. Any way to get a dime. C.E. Kilpatrick, manager of Ehring’s attractions has moved onto the Kolter mill lot, Spencerville, the merry-go-round is whistling tunes, the Ferris wheel is carrying the youngsters to the sky and the ‘whip’ is twisting their necks and backs…”

On June 27, 1936, Charles Kolter, the last member of his family, died. “Under his father he learned the trade of miller and when his father passed away he took over the management of the local mill, the only mill in Allen County using water power at the present time,” the Journal-News wrote.

The mill was auctioned off at a public sale in August 1937 on the steps of the Allen County courthouse. In March 1938, Philip Maurer was announced as the new operator of the mill, which was to be known as Ye Olde Mill.

Ye Olde Mill didn’t get to be very olde. It was demolished in the early 1940s. Today an American Legion Post occupies the site.





This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].