“Another old Kankakee landmark is on its way down,” reported the Kankakee Daily Journal on August 22, 1950.
By early September, McGrew’s Mill, which had stood on the north bank of the Kankakee River at West Avenue for about 100 years, had disappeared. During a two-week period, the thick stone walls of the three-story building had been knocked down and trucked away, and the site surrounded by a tall fence. Today, the one-time mill site serves as a platform for local fishermen.
The mill initially was erected in 1841, after David Perry built a dam across the Kankakee River, 2 miles downstream from where Kankakee would be settled a decade later. In partnership with Philip Worcester and Thomas Van Meter, Perry built a grist mill and a sawmill by the dam to serve the needs of the area’s pioneer families.
When high water destroyed Perry’s dam in 1856, the wooden gristmill building was sold to the Kankakee firm of Durham, Dean and Dickson. The new owners moved the building to the West Avenue site, where a dam was being constructed just downstream from the Illinois Central Railroad bridge. The dam was completed in 1858, providing a reliable source of water power to operate the mill.
Business was good at the mill, allowing Durham, Dean and Dickson to erect a substantial two-story stone addition to the original wooden structure in 1865. Three years later, the owners (by then, James McGrew had purchased a share of the business; he later would become the sole owner) added a third story to the stone portion of the mill. They also constructed a three-story stone addition. The completed building, including the original wooden structure, covered an area of 160-feet-by-38-feet.
The millrace, a tunnel beneath the building, carried a strong flow of water from above the dam to power the mill’s grain-grinding machinery. In the 1870s, James McGrew also harnessed the power of moving water for use by a number of industries located to the north and west of the mill. Using a series of belts and pulleys connected to a waterwheel beneath the mill, McGrew furnished power to at least five factories. These included the Troup and McCullough Woolen Mill, the National Linseed Oil factory and the Crescent Button Co., all on West Avenue, as well as the Lohrman wagon factory and the Beaumont & Woodruff Foundry on Washington Avenue.
On the afternoon of June 25, 1890, a flour dust explosion set fire to McGrew’s Mill. “At 4:30 the long wailing notes of the paper mill whistle and the fierce clamor of the fire bell sent forth their cries of alarm,” reported the Kankakee Weekly Gazette. “The chief got the tip that the work of destruction was in the flouring mills, and ... that some of the most valuable property in the city in the midst of the manufacturing district was on fire. ... The department was in for the hottest fight it had had since the big May-day fire three years ago,” the newspaper report continued.
The fire had begun on the river side of the stone building’s third floor, making it difficult for the firemen to reach. It quickly spread to the building’s roof, then to the 50-year-old wooden section of the building. Aided by the fire department from the state hospital, Kankakee’s three volunteer fire companies battled the blaze for hours on the year’s hottest day (the temperature topped out at 101°F). By 9 p.m., the wooden section of the mill was “burned down to the basement, only a skeleton of trusses and bent shafting being left,” the newspaper noted. “The stone part was pronounced safe, though its roof was nearly burned off, and the third story pretty well burned out.”
The mill was rebuilt (this time all in stone), and continued to operate until 1907, when the property was sold to the Maltman Corp. of Chicago. It was converted from grain milling to electrical power generation, using five waterwheels and three reciprocating engines. A separate system, with one waterwheel and one engine, was dedicated to generating direct current to run the Kankakee Electric Railway’s trolley cars.
In 1910, Maltman sold the old mill building to the Kelsey Brewer Co. of Minnesota. That company continued to operate it as a generating station, and began work on a new power plant at the south end of the dam. After just one year, Kelsey Brewer sold the McGrew building and the partly-built new power station to the Public Service Co. of Northern Illinois.
The lights went out at the old mill at River Street and West Avenue in 1914, when Public Service shut down its waterwheels and generators and switched operations to the new plant. The equipment was removed and the millrace closed off; for the next 36 years, the historic building would be used for storage.