HISTORY OF THE OLD MILL
THE OLD MILL...A CENTURY OF FASCINATING HISTORY
If you are a history buff, you will have an interest in reading about the Old Mill because of it's significant and interesting history.
In the early 1920’s, a group of investors planned to build The San Marcos Cotton Mill, which was to be a three-story building with over 90,000 square feet of floor space. At that time, San Marcos was a small farm town with virtually no manufacturing of any kind. Cotton was the principle farm crop however, it was sent elsewhere for processing.
The proposed cotton mill would be built using a new method of construction and would be by far the largest commercial building ever built in the area. The proposed site was chosen because unlimited water could be drawn from the aquifer just north of the area that later became known as Aquarena Springs.
Construction actually began in 1924. There were many special characteristics about the building including a full basement which was highly unusual for any structure in central Texas. Donkeys pulled plows that scooped up the dirt to form the basement. The most distinguishing characteristic was the actual method of construction. The Mill was the first ‘poured in place reinforced concrete’ structure built in central Texas. The walls, floor and the support columns are all solid concrete. Since this method of construction was so new, to ensure they did it right, the structure was made many times stronger than what would be done today. This has amazed many structural engineers who examined the building as we began restoration.
Construction on the site proceeded until a severe drought destroyed the area’s entire cotton crop in 1925. With the loss of the cotton crop, funding for the continuation of construction on the cotton mill disappeared. Only the basement was complete when work stopped. The project then sat dormant until 1928 when the rains returned and when more local investors became involved, soliciting funding from community members. Construction resumed but the building was redesigned, reducing the planned three-story building to a two-story structure.
By 1929, the mill building was essentially complete, the cotton mill equipment was on order, but an even more severe drought completely destroyed the cotton crop for most of Texas. Once again funding disappeared, equipment orders were canceled, and San Marcos was left with an empty building.
1930's View of The Mill
Local farmers gave up on cotton as a prime local crop. 1929 was also the beginning of the great depression which insured that nothing of consequence would occupy the building for years.
During the next ten years, the huge concrete building did get put to some use. Big name Texas bands regularly played for dances that were held on the first level. The dances attracted people from all over Central Texas. Those who could not afford to pay admission sat on the hillside around the outside of the building to listen to the music and watch the dancers. Several expositions were also held in the building and various products were stored on the upper level, including new automobiles.
Farmers in the area turned from growing cotton to raising sheep for wool. At that time, wool was sheared and shipped back East for processing. It was in 1938 that two brothers from North Texas had the idea of turning the San Marcos Cotton Mill into the San Marcos Wool Mill. This mill would fully process locally grown wool and then send the clean wool to the weavers in the East. In 1939, the first wool came off the giant 165-foot-long washing machines that were located on the first floor. The plant, which had been dedicated by the Governor of Texas, was a major success and was in fact the largest wool processing plant west of the Mississippi river. Raw wool from all over Texas and beyond was shipped in and out of San Marcos by rail. Industrial grade lanolin was also produced at the mill and it quickly became one of the largest suppliers in the West.
In 1941, management of the wool mill installed weaving equipment to turn the freshly cleaned wool into blankets. To accommodate the additional equipment, a large addition was added at the rear of the first floor. Tens of thousands of blankets made at the facility were used to keep WWII soldiers warm. After the war, Blue Bonnet Blankets with the label “Made In Beautiful San Marcos Texas” were sold nationwide by stores like J.C. Penny Co. This facility was unique because raw wool was brought in, processed, and fabricated into a completely finished product, all under one roof.
Raw Wool Being Prepared For Scouring
The Bollman Wool Mill was a major employer for San Marcos, often operating 24/7 with as many as one hundred employees but it also was a very difficult place to work because the wool grease smelled so bad, especially in the summer heat. Most of the few homes in the area were occupied by workers for the mill. On calm summer nights the smell could spread out for a considerable distance. Restoration totally eliminated the smell. The area around the Mill is still known today as Millview West and Millview East.
After nearly fifty years of success, the wool industry began to decline due to the use of new synthetic fabrics and therefore business at the Bollman Wool Mill also declined until the facility was closed in 1985 and the equipment was moved to San Angelo.
When we found the buildings in 1988, they were in poor condition. More than 600 windows in the main building had been broken. The other buildings had been boarded up for years. Itinerants traveling the rails slept in the main building. When it rained, the roof leaked in many places and the basement walls leaked like dozens of mini water fountains. The entire facility still smelled from decaying wool grease.
The Old Mill (1988)
As bad as the building looked, it was still structurally sound due to the solid concrete construction. EPS Photographic, a local company, was looking for expansion space to manufacture its products for the professional photographic industry. Although the mill included much more space than what was needed, the buildings were purchased with the intent to house the company and possibly lease the rest for community use. The restoration process for The Old Mill began in the spring of 1989 and upgrades continue to this day.
The Old Mill consists of six buildings on a 12-acre tract. The main building (101) housed the wool mill with the washing, drying and bundling machines. The small metal building located on the east side of the main building (201) originally housed a massive gas-fired boiler that brought as much as 25,000 gallons of water to boiling every day to wash the wool. The small white house which we today call “The Cottage”, was occupied by various plant employees who also served as guards for the property. The large metal warehouses at the rear of the property (103, 105, 107) were used primarily for bundling and storing wool. The stucco building next to the main building (251 Uhland) was originally built by Bollman to be a wool hat factory. Hundreds of thousands of brightly colored felt hats were made there. The stucco building furthest to the East (631 Mill Street) stored thousands of bails of processed wool. The bails were piled from the floor to the ceiling. This building was first remodeled into offices for the San Marcos Independent School District and then became the administration building for Pixel Magic Imaging, a San Marcos company that became a world leader in developing digital image processing systems. Today it is the administration building for the SMCISD and Cedar Creek psychological services.
The property also includes two water towers. The taller water tower was designed to hold 55,000 gallons of water. That tower is still in use today and has been refurbished. In addition to holding water, it is also a tower for cellular communication. The lower water tower could hold 25,000 gallons. This is the tank that was filled every day from the San Marcos springs located about a half mile from the Old Mill and just above the former Aquarena Springs facility. This water was used directly in the processing of the wool. This tower is no longer in use.
The monument in front of the building displays a modified forklift that was used for many years to move the bales of wool. The piston pump was located at the springs to pump water to the plant. The scale weighed the bales of wool. The historic train cars that occupy the original railroad siding include a club car and two sleeping cars. They have been used for a variety of purposes including meetings, parties, and even a wedding. Of special interest is the 1930’s caboose. The three box cars are used for storage and are available for lease, along with several air conditioned stainless steel containers.
In conducting the restoration, every reasonable attempt was made to maintain as much of the original look of the buildings as possible.
The Old Mill is alive today with more activity than ever before. It is home to a wide variety of businesses and hundreds of people use the facilities on a typical day. The latest development is the construction of a new shopping center, Mill Street Crossing, which was built on excess Old Mill acreage. The anchor store, Mill Street Market, is a neighborhood grocery store, deli, and gas station.
It has always been our goal to provide local businesses and organizations with an exceptional facility at very competitive lease rates.
We were pleased to have The Old Mill listed in the prestigious National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior. The Old Mill was chosen for this award because of it’s unique construction as well as the importance of the activities that took place in this building since it was built. A bronze plaque is mounted near the front and back doors.
In 2023 the main Old Mill building will celebrate its 100th birthday!