Renfrew – Most people who enter Mill Music for the first time often stop to look at the 25-foot yellow tower that was once one of the leading flour mills in the early 20th century. It is not very often a nearly 100-year-old mill remains standing in a modern city.
Mill Music’s owner, Steve St. Michael, is determined to give one of Renfrew’s most recognizable landmarks a complete makeover to help celebrate its 100th anniversary and he is inviting residents of the town to have a say in the final look of the structure.
Mr. St. Michael is excited about giving the former flour mill the recognition it deserves when it turns 100 years old in 2023 and is timing the completion to help celebrate his own 30th anniversary of owning the area’s largest selection of guitars.
“I realized a while ago that this mill will be 100 years old in 2023 and I opened the store in 1983 so I figured why not give it a fresh new look to celebrate the history and legacy of the former flour mill,” he said. “This is a building that helped shape Renfrew and that is why I turned to the folks in Renfrew for their input on the final design.”
Mr. St. Michael recently posted a notice about the upcoming renovation on Facebook and it didn’t take long for his many friends to weigh in with an opinion.
“I expected a good response but I was getting suggestions not just from the folks around here, but people born in Renfrew who have moved away and that just goes to show how much of a landmark this tower is and people can identify with it,” he said. “One thing became apparent and that is a lot of people want the new look to keep the bright yellow look, but I will wait awhile before making a final decision.”
The origins of the mill can be traced back to two of Renfrew’s oldest and well- known families.
The current mill was built by Thomas Low after the original building was destroyed by fire in 1923. Mr. Low is recognized as one of the town’s most important builders when he oversaw the creation of the hydro station in 1902. Today, the Thomas Low Generating Station is still in operation on the Bonnechere River.
Following the fire, Mr. Low went to work at once to construct a bigger and better mill. This new mill was equipped with the best machinery at the time and was considered one of Ontario’s better flour mills.
Six years later in 1929, Nat Lindsay, founder of Ottawa Valley Grain Products (OVGP), purchased the small flour mill and within a few years, he turned to registered seed sales, split pea processing and feed manufacturing in response to the changing demands of local farmers. He purchased Renfrew Flour Mills in 1936 from Mr. Low’s estate and the mill was converted to manufacturing animal feeds, pearl barley and seed grain. OVGP owned the mill and plant until the mid-1980s and in 1983 Mr. St. Michael took over the site and started Mill Music.
Located adjacent the former CP rail line, the mill stands beside Mill Music and just like the mill itself, walking into Mill Music is like walking into a guitar museum steeped in musical history chronicling a small piece of local music history with several original posters advertising several Renfrew-based musicians from the 1970s to modern day.
With over 800 guitars in stock and several other instruments on display, Mr. St. Michael is a walking history book when it comes to the town’s musical history since he was part of the scene in the 1970s and 80s.
When I was in high school, I was a farm boy and growing up on Pinnacle Hill I grew up around everyone playing guitar, so I came by it naturally,” he said. “After I graduated from RCI (Renfrew Collegiate Institute), I realized being a teacher or something traditional was not for me. At the same time I had a job at the old White Tower and I had the chance to play with The Good Brothers and they invited me to Hamilton.
“I went to their show and they called me out of the audience and told the crowd they were going to play a song I wrote about the White Tower and they went on to record it on an album and it was produced by Gordon Lightfoot. After the recording was done and we had a big launch party that included the Toronto Maple Leafs, I decided I was going to make a living as a musician.”
He spent nearly a decade in Toronto and Southern Ontario before returning home to open Mill Music and he has never looked back.
“Thirty years has sure blown by with a lot of great memories and I have made a lot friends along the way and the one thing most new customers ask about is the big yellow tower,” he said with a laugh. “That is one of the reasons I want to give it a proper and modern look, but I want to keep its historical look as well.”
Another reason for the update is the tower is also his home. He lived outside Renfrew for a few years but wanted to be close to town and his business. With a living area in the lower part and a music room on the top level, it only seemed fitting the one-time travelling musician would live steps away from the store he built that that includes a rare collection of guitars from all genres and decades.
“When the old tower is done, I think the people of the town will gain an even greater appreciation of its history and the early days of Renfrew.”
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader