When you visit a grocery store today, you don’t think too much about how your food was processed and generally don’t see the building in which it is produced or packaged. But the early settlers in Cañon City would have been able to look down the street or go straight to the door to see where their flour was coming from when they purchased it.
A mill is a building equipped to process raw material into a product and a grist mill specifically grinds grain into flour. Power was needed to run the mill and water was usually the easiest source of power for many early millers with the use of water wheels. Working in a mill was often dangerous due to the dust produced from the ground grain. When the dust built up, it became combustible and could easily ignite leading to the entire mill going up in flames. Despite this, flour mills were a lucrative business provided there was water to power the mill.
One of the earliest flour mills in the Cañon City area was owned by Colonel Ebenezer Johnson and Egbert Bradley out in the Four Mile area. It was managed by George Rockafellow Sr. and moved to the corner of 2nd and Main Street, likely in 1868. Unfortunately the mill, named Continental Mills under the management of J.P. Chapman, was burned in a fire in the spring of 1884. It was rebuilt shortly after and was known as the Cañon City Milling Company by 1886.
In 1905, the mill was overhauled and all the old machinery taken out and replaced under the management of J.O. Stearns. The mill continued as such until 1911 when the mill was incorporated as the Peerless Flour Mills Company. J.O. Stearns stayed on as manager with U.E. Sidebottom as the new president of the company. The mill used local wheat in much of its production according to an article in the Fremont County Leader on December 12, 1912. In that year, the mill bought 8,700 bushels of local wheat costing nearly $8,000. The brands of flour produced were “Peerless” hard wheat, “Our Special” hard wheat, “Jessie O” blend of hard and soft wheat, and “On Time” soft wheat.
Unfortunately, disaster once again struck the mill in 1915 when it was burned with an estimated loss of $50,000. While the origin of the fire could not be determined, it was thought to potentially be a left over spark from an incident earlier that day where the electric motor caught fire. Much of the wheat, oats, and flour in sacks were able to be carried out of the building but suffered damage from both smoke and water. The business was considered a loss and the mill was not rebuilt. The land was sold to the prison in 1923 and the prisoners tore down the remaining mill buildings and put in a small hydro-electric plant. Today, City Hall stands on the land where the mill once operated.
The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.