By Burton Speakman
The look of the Volant Mills hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years from the outside, and without the work of a few concerned citizens, the building could have been lost forever.
Volant natives Bill Kingrey and Sam Miller, who owned the mill before it was sold to the Volant Community Development Corporation in 2006, took action to keep the mill standing, said Karen Rockenstein, secretary for the corporation. The mill had shut down in the 1960s and was vacant for about 20 years before being opened in the 1980s as the mercantile store it still is today.
“When Bill Kingrey bought it, the roof leaked and the windows were out; there was a chance it could be lost to nature,” she said. “He realized it would be an important building to save.”
The mill has undergone a lot of renovation since being purchased by the VCDC. There have been private and government grants that enabled the VCDC to raise and repair the foundation, fix damaged support beams and add a heating system, Rockenstein said.
“We used all local labor for the repairs. We try to use local sources whenever possible,” she said.
The goal of the mill is to go beyond just being a shop where people can purchase items that are either made locally or reminiscent of decades long gone. Although part of the mill’s goal is to help the local economy as much as possible, they also want to focus on the community’s history, Rockenstein said. The mill seeks to educate people and entertain them as well.
Volant Mills sells items such as Amish furniture, locally made jams, jellies, pickles and preserves, along with historic books and toys.
On the third floor of the mill is a historical area where people can take pictures wearing antique clothing and see many of the sifting parts for the flour mill operation, Rockenstein said.
“People can go to the big cities and see what they have to offer. Then they can come here for a slice of Americana,” Rockenstein said. “Part of the lure is the Mayberry kind of feel we grew up with.”
The fact that Volant still has the Main Street area where people can walk up and down the street and visit all the various shops “is part of its charm,” she said.
Volant is certainly a unique tourist attraction within Lawrence County, said JoAnn McBride, executive director of the Lawrence County Tourist Promotion Agency. The agency has been helping the mill to promote its 200th anniversary.
“They’ve accomplished a lot within the last five or six years,” she said.
This group of people has been able to organize the community and get things done to improve the mill, McBride said.
The area’s Amish also serve as a draw to the area. Many of the people who come are curious about how they live and survive, Rockenstein said. All the Amish items at the store come from within an hour of Volant.
“They have a reputation for producing high quality products,” she said.
There are still parts of the mill that need repair. The dam needs to be raised 3 feet to operate the mill property, Rockenstein said. It will cost about $250,000 to raise the dam.
“We’re raising money for it, but with the economic downturn, we’re not moving forward as quickly as we would like,” she said.
Members of the community also have shown an interest in what the VCDC has been doing to renovate the mill.
It’s been a good thing for the community to see the mill renovated, said Fred Steve, who just turned 90 and has lived in Volant his entire life.
When he was younger, Steve said he, along with other men in the community, would be hired yearly to add clay and wood to the dam.
“We would pack clay into the dam to keep it from leaking,” he said.
There is concern because of the poor condition of the dam that it could be washed away before it can be repaired, Rockenstein said.
“We come down two or three times a day to check on the dam,” said Steve’s wife, Betty.
Another benefit of the higher dam is it would help trout fishing in the area. The mill is beside the Neshannok Creek, which is known for trout fishing, Rockenstein said.
In addition, a consultant is in the middle of restoring other parts of the mill including one of the stones used to grind flour, along with some of the sifting equipment, Rockenstein said.
“Once the mill is working, we’ll grind flour for bird seed or as souvenirs,” she said.
The mill is hosting special events every Saturday in September. Events for Saturday and Sept. 29 include tours and possibly grinding demonstrations, Amish vendors, a beekeeping demonstration, hayrides, a folk guitarist and caricatures. The Beaver-Lawrence Railway Historical Society will have a train display and discussion of the role trains played in the area’s history.
On Sept. 29, they will host a Halloween event with a contest for the best-dressed witch.
For a full list of events, go to www.volantmills200th.com/schedule.html.