The Mill Race Inn site is a brownfield, but no one wants to talk about it. Jabberwocky rules Geneva by stuff and nonsense.
Attendees of the City of Geneva Historic Preservation Commission meeting on Wednesday evening, January 18, 2023, were enlightened about a limited set of the controversies surrounding the ca1846 old rubblestone core of the Mill Race Inn, also known as the Alexander-Rystrom Blacksmith Shop.
The meeting started at 7 pm playing to a full house. The agenda had four items, with the public hearing over the Mill Race stone ruins at the top. Chairman Zellner, a dedicated volunteer to the cause of preservation, dutifully, if not eloquently, read the proforma ground rules. This recital took thirty minutes off the clock. Then we were told the hearing would end at 8:30. The “ground rule” that caused me to sigh (inaudibly, I hope) was Code, Section 10-6-10.A9: “the merit of any proposed replacement construction or improvement shall not be a standard of review for a demolition request.” The assembly gathered to weigh the destruction of a formally landmarked historical structure against an unknown. This felt akin to having the sheriff show up at my door to inform me that I had to decide whether to move out of my house by Tuesday next. However, any thought of where I would end up if I chose to leave is strictly prohibited and must not enter my mind.
Then, the congregation was informed that the HPC had already determined the question of landmarking based on historical significance affirmatively. So, tonight was not the night to drag history into the discussion. Here, verbatim, is the agenda item as it appears on the City’s website: “Demolition of a Historic Landmark and De- De-designation of the Property.” My first reaction when I read this was, “huh?” Was this a move to re-designate the entire site as a landmark (which should happen, IMHO)? Or was this a Freudian typo? First, demolish and then de-designate? Then I remembered my Alice:
‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’
‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.
‘I won’t!’ said Alice.
Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.
‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’
Mr. Patzelt, the Shodeen representative, spent most of the remaining allotted time shredding the Geneva professional staff’s work into confetti. (OK, I admit it, this brought a smile, if not a grin, to my face.) In summary, the meeting was somewhere between a hog-calling contest and a Masonic ritual.
Based on the complete lack of information about the development plan, I had planned to speak in favor of preserving the ruins. After all, the Sandborn Map of 1891 “designated” the structure with only the word “ruins.” Yet the “ruins” became Geneva’s most identifying structure for most of the following century. Anyone who ever dined in the Stone Room knows of what I speak. January 2011 was our last meal there. The Grecian chicken was superb (matched in Geneva only by Munchie P’s.) The first time I ate in the Stone Room was in 1953.
Plus, one of the contexts that determine historical significance is what happened at the site. In this case, the ruins mark the spot where a small gap between Big Woods and Little Woods coincides with an island refuge in the river and a natural limestone ford at the head of the island. Our national mammal, the American Bison, discovered that ford as early as 400,000 years ago, give or take. 15 Facts About Our National Mammal: The American Bison | U.S. Department of the Interior (doi.gov) The ford was the river crossing of an interstate highway, a buffalo trace, that took the buffalo “over the river and through the woods” on their way from the tall grass prairies of Illinois to the salt licks of Kentucky and back. As the American Bison went, so did America’s indigenous peoples.
Daniel Shaw Haight knew the Geneva site in Sandusky Precinct was valuable for precisely the same reasons that the Alexander brothers did. Haight sold out to Herrington because he found nearby an even more promising river and ford with hydropower. He founded Rockford. He and his legendary oxen built the first structures both here and there.
The MRI saga will air another episode on about the Ides of March. Stay tuned; maybe the band from Berwyn will play then.