The Joseph Bullen Mill (Later the McNitt & Wilder Mill)

Soon after buying his Walker Township farm in 1845, Joseph Bullen began building a sawmill.  It is likely that he brought at least some of the metal parts for the mill with him from New York.  This was not the first mill to be built at this point on Indian Mill Creek (also known as Indian Creek).  In fact, Joseph made use of a mill pond that had powered an earlier mill.  Joseph Genia and William Quivillion had dammed the creek just north of what is now Four Mile Road in the 1830s and then built a crude mill near the dam.

Joseph built a new mill further south that was run by an overshot waterwheel, the water being conveyed from the pond near the residence of Solomon Wright in Alpine, a distance of nearly ninety rods.  There was at that time considerable pine along the banks of Indian Creek and the Bullen mill was one of six that were built in the early years of settlement.  By 1850 only three of the mills were still in operation and by 1870 the mill built by Joseph Bullen was the only one left.

In 1850, Joseph Bullen had $1000 in capital invested in the mill and was sawing 300,000 feet of lumber annually.  The mill had two employees who received an average total of $40 per month in wages.  By 1860, the amount of capital invested had increased to $3000, but the numbers for production and employees were unchanged.

Bullen also owned much land just across the county line in Ottawa County.  On February 14, 1850, he purchased from Ira Ford a small piece of land near what is today the town of Marne in Wright Township.  Along with the land he received the right to construct a gristmill and build the dams and machinery necessary to run it.  Census takers found 24 sawmills in Ottawa County in 1850, but no gristmills, so Joseph Bullen would be providing a needed service to farmers in that area.  He soon completed the Ottawa County mill and operated it for several years.

After Joseph turned sixty, he began to consider retiring from business.  He sold the Ottawa County gristmill on December 25, 1855 to Ira Cole and James C. Orvis.  He had originally paid $100 for the land, but after building the mill and machinery, he was able to sell it for $3,000.  Then on June 3, 1857, he sold his Kent County sawmill to his son Francis for $1,000.  Francis retained the mill for four years, but then sold it back to Joseph on August 17, 1861, for $500. 

By 1860, Joseph Bullen was one of the most successful men in Walker Township, if not Kent County, as he owned $13,000 worth of real estate.   Joseph ran the mill for a couple of years after regaining ownership, but then retired again and moved to a nearby farm in Alpine Township.  His oldest son Cyrus had died in August 1862, while serving in the Union army, and his other son Francis had enlisted at about the same time, so Joseph had no son available to take over the business.  

Instead, he leased the business to neighbors Amos and Asa Pattee on December 1, 1863, for a five year term.  The milling business seems to have deteriorated somewhat in these years.  By June 1864, the capital investment was down from $3,000 to $1,000 and the production was down from 330,000 feet of lumber to 150,000 feet.  One reason for this is probably the depletion of the supply of pine in the area, a fact which led to the closing of all other mills on Indian Mill Creek.  In an attempt to diversify the business, a run of stones was placed in the mill to make it a combination gristmill and sawmill.

During the time when the Pattees were leasing the mill, William McNitt, the husband of Joseph Bullen's niece/step-daughter Hannah Wilder, sublet it from them several times.  At the end of the Pattee lease, on December 1, 1868, he and his brother-in-law Joseph Wilder bought the milling business.  Since they were close family members, Bullen gave them an eight year mortgage for the entire purchase price of $4,000, allowing them to pay $500 per year with no interest charges over the first four years.  Included in this transaction was the mill, 52 acres of land, the mill pond located in Alpine Township, and the right to raise the dam eight inches above the existing high-water mark.

Although the new business venture was known as the McNitt and Wilder Mill, William McNitt was the primary miller and Joseph Wilder concentrated on farming while assisting in the mill as needed.  By 1870, they had doubled the amount of capital invested in the business from the $1,000 it had been in 1864.  In the same time span, the value of products of the mill increased from $450 to $3,446.  Between 1870 and 1874, McNitt and Wilder increased the capital of their business once again, from $2,000 to $5,000.  The value of mill products increased to $10,000, while the number of employees increased from 2 to 4.  By 1874, the 15 horsepower sawmill was cutting 200,000 feet of lumber annually.

It is evident that the new owners found this business quite profitable, as they began paying off their mortgage at a faster rate than the sales agreement required.  By December 1872, after four years of ownership, they had paid off $2,886 which left them a balance of only $1,114 during the years in which they had to pay interest.

On December 26, 1874, after six of the eight years of the mortgage had elapsed, Joseph Bullen died at age 79 in an accident along Walker Road.  He and Hannah were riding in a cutter drawn by a spirited young mare.  The horse pulled the cutter off the road and through some small trees, throwing Bullen violently out and breaking his neck.  Hannah was uninjured.  As part of the settlement of Joseph's estate, William McNitt was appointed guardian of Joseph's grandsons Joseph and Edward Bullen (sons of Cyrus Bullen, who had died in the Civil War).  Since the boys were 19 and 17 years old, the guardianship was probably of fairly short duration.

Hannah Bullen soon gave up her Alpine Township home and spent time living with either her daughter Hannah McNitt in Walker Township or her daughter Alma Moore in Plymouth, Vermont.  When her son-in-law William McNitt and her son Joseph Wilder made the final payment on the mortgage for the mill in December 1876, Hannah signed a certificate of payment in Plymouth and had it witnessed by her son-in-law Ephraim Moore and notarized by his neighbor John C. Coolidge, whose son Calvin eventually would become President of the United States.

As soon as the last payment on the mortgage was made, McNitt and Wilder dissolved their partnership.  Joseph Wilder received title to thirty-three and one third acres at the south end of the farm and $1,000, while William McNitt received a little less than twenty acres of land, the mill, and the mill pond.  Five years later Joseph sold his share of the farm and purchased a farm of seventy-one acres on section 34 of Alpine Township, adjacent to the mill pond.

In 1877, William McNitt was either renovating his home or having a new one built.  While this project was ongoing, a fire completely destroyed the McNitt mill.  According to family tradition, they had cut enough walnut wood to finish off the house, but it was stored in the mill and was lost in the blaze.

McNitt soon had the mill rebuilt as a combination sawmill and gristmill.  The new mill had facilities for sawing one million feet of lumber in a year, but the lumbering business in western Michigan had already passed its peak by this time.  The gristmill, with its two runs of millstones, had an annual trade of 1000 bushels, plus a considerable custom trade.

By 1884, William McNitt had $10,000 worth of real and personal property invested in his milling business, double the amount it had been before the 1877 fire.  The water from Indian Creek was now generating 23 horsepower, up from 15 before the fire.  The mill employed two laborers at an average wage of one dollar per ten hour day and the total of wages paid per year was $400.  In the previous year the gristmill had ground 3000 bushels of wheat, 1800 bushels of corn, and 2500 bushels of oats to produce 800 barrels of flour, 50 tons of meal, and 2 tons of bran.  The sawmill produced 125,000 feet of hardwood.

Later that year, William McNitt suddenly fell ill.  He died on July 5, 1884, two months short of his sixty-first birthday, and was buried in Brooklawn Cemetery, next to his farm.  That his death was quick and unexpected is shown by the fact that he left no will.  The family may have kept the mill running for a brief time, but it soon became obvious that neither of McNitt's two sons had an interest in taking over the business.  Little over a year after his death, on October 12, 1885, his heirs sold the mill, the four acres of land around it, and the mill pond to Caroline Coon of Lowell, Michigan, for $4,000, giving her a mortgage for $1643.26 at 7% interest payable annually.  If she intended to keep the milling business going, she must have lost interest quickly,  After holding it for nine months, she sold it to Apolonia Minderhout and Mary A. Temple for the same price she had paid.

These two women removed and sold all items of value in the mill over the next year and a half and then sold the land and mill building back to the McNitt heirs on December 6, 1887, for $100.  The mill building was eventually moved to the farm at the corner or Walker and Four Mile Roads owned by McNitt's son-in-law Dow Hankinson, where it served first as a carriage house and later as a barn before being destroyed by fire in the 1930s.

Leta Wilder, granddaughter of Joseph Wilder, with the old mill
building behind her, ca. 1903
Leta Wilder, granddaughter of Joseph Wilder, with the old mill building behind her, ca. 1903

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