Saving the Leonard Mill, a 19th century agricultural relic in Oakland County

A 120-year-old grain mill in South Lyon is coming down along with any plans for restoring and finding a new use for the landmark building, but parts of the agricultural relic will be used to restore another mill on the other side of Oakland County.
 
Located in the little Village of Leonard (pop. 403), a hamlet in Oakland County's rural northeast corner, the Leonard Mill was once a thriving, multi-story beanery and grain elevator and a center of commerce for local farmers. It was built about 1889 and operated until the 1980s when it became a dry goods store before permanently closing in 2005. It sat idle until 2013, when locals started a "Save the Mill" campaign and village and Oakland County officials began to see the opportunity for historic economic revitalization.
 
The village and county plan to restore the mill and so that it becomes a destination on the Polly Ann Trail, a non-motorized path that wends through 30 miles of Oakland County and into Lapeer County.
 
"The idea was we get funds and tie the mill into the Polly Ann and maybe make this a destination," says Village of Leonard president Mike McDonald. "The mills and elevators in America are rapidly disappearing. Our thinking is we want to make this a project people want to come see because it preserves our agricultural heritage."
 
Besides, he says, Leonard, because of its rural scenery not found elsewhere in Oakland County, is a place worth visiting.
 
The ultimate goal is to see the mill reborn as a visitor center that includes a picnic area and much needed bathrooms. Future plans could include a bike rental shop.
 
"Leonard is between nowhere and nowhere. It's north of Rochester, and there's nothing north of us," McDonald says. "But it's lovely here, and the trail is so nice. We don't mind sharing it."
 
Peter Grebeck, owner of the South Lyon mill and Peter's True Value Hardware, donated lighting fixtures, wooden doors, scales, a shaker/cleaner weighing several thousand pounds, and many other items to the Leonard Mill restoration effort after he realized that the cost for restoring his mill in South Lyon was too high and the chances for re-use were too low. Grebeck plans to expand his hardware store onto property where the mill now sits.
 
"We didn't want it to go to waste," says hardware store manager Shawn Shull. "It's in beautiful shape and we wanted it to go to some place that would respect it. We didn't want it to end up in some scrap heap. This is the best thing."
 
The Village of Leonard decided to buy the Leonard Mill in 2013 and closed on it in 2014. With guidance from Oakland County's Planning Division, various grants were secured and the two mill owners were connected.
 
The cooperation and support between Oakland County leaders and municipal officials in Leonard and South Lyon has been one of the "most surprising and pleasant parts of this," says McDonald.
 
"From the county executive down to the staff in the county government offices, we've gotten help," he says. "They don't give us money, they give us goals and work with us and support us."
 
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, whose office issued a news release about the donation of mill parts, called the project "regional cooperation on steroids."
 
"I congratulate them for their willingness to work together to preserve a piece of Oakland County history dating back to the 19th century. From a historical point of view, it will be great to be able to point to the Leonard Mill when it's completely restored and say, 'That's the way we lived 120 years ago.'"
 
The first stage of work on the mill is basic preservation while village leaders work to obtain more grants for restoration and the addition of bathrooms. The last stage is to see the old mill transformed into a visitor center and trail rest stop.
 
The mill would be a destination on a biking and walking trail that leads to the trailhead on the Leonard's main street, Elmwood Street. It would also serve as a place where visitors can learn about the history of the mill and the area.
 
It's a potential one-two punch of history as economic development.
 
"The Polly Ann Trail crosses both main roads in the village. People can literally see the downtown when they're at these roads," says McDonald. "It would hopefully spur more visitors to our downtown, especially because the trailhead is there. There's plenty of parking and it's well signed. You can travel about two miles around Leonard or take the trail out. It could be a beautiful trip for a day."
 
And a beautiful chance, he says, to preserve history while looking toward an economic future.
 

Kim North Shine is a metro-Detroit based freelance writer and development news editor for Metromode.