Former state preservationist seeks stay of demolition at historic flour mill

History Nebraska board voted in April to tear down a portion of Neligh Mill

By: - July 13, 2022 5:45 am
Neligh Mill

A portion of the historic Neligh Mill is slated to be torn down — the tall, tin corn elevator and tin-sided warehouse. But the oldest portions would remain, including the brick mill and wheat elevator at right. (Courtesy of Roxanne McNally/Antelope County Historical Society)

LINCOLN — A preservationist who helped save two historic bridges from the wrecking ball has come out of retirement in hopes of staving off demolition at the Neligh Mill State Historic Site.

Bob Puschendorf, who headed the state historic preservation office at History Nebraska for 25 years, said \ demolition should never be considered for such historic, state-owned structures as the mill, the last, complete 19th century flour mill in the state.

‘Win-win’ situation here

He is calling for the History Nebraska Board of Trustees to hold off on plans to tear down one of the two grain elevator additions to the Neligh Mill and pursue a fundraising effort to restore and save the entire structure in stages.

 “I think there’s a win-win situation there,” said Puschendorf, who retired five years ago as deputy state preservation officer. “Yes, it will be expensive, but let’s look at alternatives before we jump into this.”

Neligh Mills
A postcard from about 1909 pictures the Neligh Mill, which used flows from the Elkhorn River to grind wheat into flour. (Courtesy of History Nebraska)

Puschendorf’s effort comes after the History Nebraska Board voted unanimously in April to tear down the 103-year-old corn elevator portion of the mill, as well as a warehouse addition, and explore saving the wheat elevator portion, which was added in 1886.

The brick mill, which ground wheat into flour powered by flows from the Elkhorn River, was established in 1873 by the founder of Neligh, a farm town of 1,600 people about 32 miles west of Norfolk.

Flour went to England

Flour produced at the mill was shipped to Indian reservations, Fort Robinson in northwest Nebraska and even overseas to England.

The wheat and corn elevators, used to store and move the grains, were added later to the mill, which was converted into producing livestock feed in 1959.

Just recently, two reports from structural engineers were completed that placed the cost of saving the wheat mill and tearing down the corn mill at nearly $900,000. 

One report concluded that it would be feasible to tear down the corn elevator while saving the adjacent wheat elevator — answering one question posed by the History Nebraska Board when it voted in April.

Costly demolition

The consultant, Kenneth Lathrum & Associates, estimated it would cost $100,000 to tear down the old corn elevator and another $130,000 to reinforce the remaining structure, build an access stairway to the mill and for related engineering costs.  

Another report, done by the structural engineers R.O. Youker, estimated it would cost between $325,000 and $650,000 to shore up and save the wheat elevator portion of the mill, due to rotted wood and some termite damage. That consultant concluded that because of the expense and because the elevator didn’t add that much to the overall historic mill, demolition would be the best course of action.

Two Neligh residents involved in the Antelope County Historical Society said while it would be nice to save the entire structure, there didn’t seem to be another choice.

‘Unsightly’ tin siding

“My personal feeling is it’s unsightly,” said Roxanne McNally, noting that tin siding now covers the original wooden elevators.

McNally said she wonders where the money could come from to fix up the old structures.

Boyd Pedersen, president of the Antelope County Historical Society, said even if money could be found to preserve the elevators — a figure he said would be in the seven figures — where would the money come for ongoing maintenance?

Most Neligh residents, Pedersen said, have already resigned themselves to the idea that some portions of the grain storage structures of the mill must be torn down to preserve the most historic portion, the mill itself.

“I’d like to see it there, but if you haven’t got the people who are willing to pursue it and donate to it, I don’t see it happening,” he said of saving the entire structure.

Don’t need to rush

Puschendorf said that while he was discouraged by the cost estimates for repairing the wheat elevator, he still believes it’s “doable” to save that and the corn elevator and said that option should, at least, be pursued.

“All of a sudden, there’s a rush. I don’t think the alternatives have been thought through,” Puschendorf said.

Toward that end, he has formed an advisory group of 12 authorities on history to brainstorm how to save the mill. “The group,” as he calls it, includes Larry Sommer, the former director of the Nebraska State Historical Society (which changed its name to History Nebraska in 2018), and Eli Paul, a former senior research historian with the agency.

Puschendorf also plans to speak Friday at the meeting of the History Nebraska Board at Fort Robinson. At that meeting, the board will consider the structural engineers’ reports and weight whether it’s feasible to save the wheat elevator and tear down the corn elevator.

Seek donors, state money

Puschendorf said the history agency has never sought money for Neligh Mill before, either from private donors or from the Nebraska Legislature. Puschendorf said he thinks there would be support for preserving the historic structure.

Fix the leaky roof first, Puschendorf said, then pursue a long-range planning process. The mill could be restored in stages, he said, adding that the tin siding, while not the prettiest, is historic, too.

Puschendorf said he doesn’t want to be confrontational and realizes the board has some difficult choices. But, he said, he also doesn’t want demolition to be the answer without considering all the alternatives.

Helped save two bridges

He has been in this situation before.

Fifteen years ago, there was talk of tearing down the unique, double-deck Meridian Bridge over the Missouri River at Yankton, S.D., after a modern replacement was finished. Money was set aside for the demolition.

But a campaign mounted by local fans of the bridge and Puschendorf saved the Meridian Bridge for pedestrians and bikers. It’s now a favorite spot for walkers, joggers and tourists.

In 2010, a flood on the Elkhorn River severely damaged an approach to the Neligh Mill Bridge, a truss bridge that used to carry wagons full of wheat and corn to the mill. Both the bridge and the mill are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

County officials, in 2011, voted to remove the bridge, lacking the funds to replace a “jump span” approach to the structure that had washed out.

But only a couple of months later, thanks to efforts by Neligh residents, Puschendorf and an anonymous donor, the bridge was saved and repaired.

He said he’s hoping for the same kind of reconsideration now.

“There are always options,” Puschendorf said. “If we fail, we have at least tried.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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