By Ted Como
It was a warm summer day in 1945 as Ogdensburg pedestrians crossed the Lake Street Bridge into the Second Ward. It would get much warmer, as heat forced residents back from the bridge in a fire that gutted the city’s oldest building, a structure that predated David Parish’s store and the Ford Mansion.
A little more than a dozen years later, the stone shell of what was Nathan Ford’s grist mill would be razed, but not before brother Tim and I explored it, discovering two millstones that a century and a half before ground oats, wheat and corn for the earliest inhabitants of what would become St. Lawrence County. Had they not been so heavy, we surely would have marshaled the Como kids to salvage one of them, as we did in the late 1950s in retrieving a bronze bell from the ruins of St. Mary’s Cathedral, built in 1855 and burned Nov. 25, 1947. Regretfully, the bell was stolen from our back yard on Mechanic Street.
Construction of Ford’s grist mill was commenced in the fall of 1797 by four French masons and a half-dozen laborers a year after Ford arrived at Fort Oswegatchie, formerly Fort La Presentation, as agent for Col. Samuel Ogden. It took a year to build, the first story of stone topped by three upper stories of wood. In later years, it would be reshaped as a four-story stone structure.
The first millstone came from Montreal and by the first of December, 1798, the mill was ready. Farmers from many miles around brought in their grists. They would come fairly early in the day and would stay around the city, doing other business and visiting, until their grists were ground.
The Ford interests sold the building in 1840 and it passed into the hands of William Furness, who sold it to Doty and Phillips in 1863. In 1868, it was purchased by David H. Lyon, who sold it to S. Charles Oswald, who in turn disposed of it to David Lyon in 1873.
Lyon sold it to Silas W. Day in 1877. It then became the property of the Ogdensburg Bank, which sold it to General Newton M. Curtis in 1883. He sold out to John W. Colnon in 1885, who operated it until his death in 1893, leaving the business to his three sons. Two of the sons sold their interests to John P. Colnon, who later disposed of the mill to Frederick A. Brandy. Brandy sold it to John C. Stevens in 1908, who died the same year. The next year, Bill, Bell and Co. obtained it and organized the Maple City Milling Co. to operate it. In 1930, it was sold to the St. Lawrence Valley Power Corp. with the mill to be continually operated by the same management.
The June 23, 1945 fire started in the mill at about 1:10 p.m. and then ignited and destroyed the long planing mill section of the Proctor Lumber Company adjoining. The roof of the old Ogdensburg Hub Factory, south of the Proctor Company buildings, was also burned. Firemen responded promptly and hundreds of spectators gathered to watch the spectacular fire.
The Proctor mill was established and operated during his lifetime by Henry I. Proctor and in later years by his sons, Charles E. and Harry B. Proctor, under the name of Proctor Manufacturing Co. It was wiped out by a fire about 1896 and later rebuilt. Henry I. Proctor was a brother of William L. Proctor, head of the old Skillings, Whitney and Barnes Lumber Co., in its day the biggest industry in Ogdensburg. Charles Proctor married my great aunt, Elizabeth Pauline Como.
After the 1945 fire, the old millstones were still there and the structure stood in a state of decay and deterioration until the early 1960s when razing operations began. Some of the old stone was used for a new entrance to the chapel at St. John’s Church.
It was suggested that the old millstone be kept somewhere in the city for its historical value. It was reported in 1960 that Joseph Ashley of the Ogdensburg Building Supply Co., a neighbor to the old mill, had salvaged the cornerstone of the building with the date 1798. If that could be found, it would be of great benefit to the city for it to be donated to the Ogdensburg Museum.
- Ted Como is a member of the board of the Fort La Presentation Association.