Area bakers may need to make alternative arrangements this fall and winter if their secret cornbread recipe includes Graue Mill cornmeal.
All grinding has ceased at the 161-year-old mill in Oak Brook after a structural analysis found the gear system and heavy timber supports used in the process to be unsafe.
And now it appears those safety concerns could threaten the continued viability of both the mill and the museum.
Owned by the DuPage County Forest Preserve District but operated by an independent board, the historic Graue Mill and Museum along York Road was a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War and was added in 1975 to the National Register of Historic Places. Restored to reflect life in the mid- to late-1800s, it's a popular stop for shoppers seeking the cornmeal that long has been made at the site and for school groups interested in its historic significance.
But concerns about safety at the mill began surfacing earlier this year when experts were called to check out some hollowed-out spots in the flagstone floor near the mill, according to Kevin Horsfall, the forest preserve district's landscape architect supervisor.
More serious safety concerns materialized after the mill was closed for 11 days in mid-April when Salt Creek, which provides the power for the mill's water wheel, went over its banks and flooded the area.
"One of the key things they do is demonstrate how the mill works, and those gears are in the basement," Horsfall said. "Right now the building is open, but the gear work and milling are considered to pose safety concerns."
Horsfall said many of those concerns center on the millstones that weigh close to 2,000 pounds.
"When several of those are stacked on top of support timber that is not stable and kids are involved, it could cause a significant hazard," he said.
As the only operating water wheel gristmill in the Chicago area, Graue Mill's primary source of revenue is the roughly $60,000 it brings in each season through the sale of cornmeal. Without that revenue, officials say, the mill's future is in serious doubt.
"It's killing us, to put it mildly," said museum board vice president and mill operator Rus Strahan. "This season, we have only been able to grind once and cornmeal is our main staple.
"A good many of our visitors buy cornmeal. People come on vacation in the summertime and part of their visit is to swing by and grab some cornmeal to take home with them, and we have not been able to deliver. Not only are we losing sales, but we're creating irate customers who come considerable distances and are unable to get what they came for."
Between the flood and the newly discovered structural problems, mill operators have only produced one batch and sold about $2,000 worth of cornmeal. By mid-June last year, Strahan said the museum sold about $7,000 worth of cornmeal.
The mill has been out of the product for roughly three weeks but, when in stock, 2- and 8-pound bags sell for $5.50 and $8.50 respectively and account for about $250 in daily sales.
"That adds up to some serious money for us throughout the course of the season," Strahan said. "We can crank out 30 pounds of cornmeal in minutes with the big mill running."
The facility's many tours and summer programs also will be hurt by the mill's shutdown because the corn-grinding demonstration is a perennial favorite for many guests and considered a major educational tool.
"We're just about out of business," mill board President Bonnie Sartore said recently, while pleading with the forest preserve commission for emergency financial assistance to get the mill back up and running. "As of now we are unable to fulfill orders for the ground cornmeal that is our greatest source of revenue, and people visiting today are not getting their money's worth or educational intent of the history of the museum."
Faced with the possibility of not having the mill for the remainder of the season, Sartore and Strahan are asking the commission for about $7,800 in emergency funds so engineers can study the museum's foundation and design a solution to shore up the mill.
Engineers have estimated a "temporary fix," which could be in place for between two to five years, could cost as much as $20,000 and guarantee the mill will be down for most of the season as the district goes through the bid process.
Horsfall and Strahan, however, are hopeful engineers will design a solution that can be performed in-house by district employees. Such a solution likely would save time and money by allowing staff to begin work immediately and at significantly lower costs.
Strahan is especially hopeful for a quick and inexpensive solution because his board has given him orders to be grinding corn, one way or another, by July 1.
"The board has given me permission to purchase another, more modern, grinding device, but that is going to set us back another $3,000 beyond what we've already lost this season. And they have given me until the end of this month to have something in operation," Strahan said.
"We've also investigated going to a mill in southern Indiana, but it would take our profit margin out of the picture and we wouldn't be able to control the quality."
Horsfall said a complete assessment of existing conditions will be completed in July and reviewed by the forest preserve district in September.
"The reality exists this could just be the tip of a really big iceberg," he said. "But we won't know until the full assessment is done."
Mill: Cornmeal accounts for about $250 a day in sales, officials say