The site of Community Mills has a history that can be traced back to the 1850’s. The spirit of entrepreneurship and stalwart determination needed to build a business was evident even then, well over one hundred years ago.
A brick maker named Andrew J. Woods owned the ten-acre property that now forms a part of the Community Mills enterprise. Woods sold a portion of the property to Cass County for use as the county fairgrounds, but retained the remainder of the property to run his brick making business. (The hole left from mining the clay for the bricks eventually became Gillespie Park). L.J. Enos, a 22 year old wagon maker, also worked on the property. During the 1860’s, the Peninsula Railroad came through the property, which was a significant benefit to the area, but which evidently halted the development of the fairgrounds. The property was sold to S.T. Read. In the 1880’s, the property was purchased by A. Hill and soon thereafter a freight depot was opened for the community.
In the early 1900’s, the property became the site of a lumberyard and also a coal yard, situated on the north end of the property by the viaduct. By the late 1940’s, Community Mills had opened under the management of John Dean as a flour mill that also ground feed; unfortunately, the flour mill burned down in 1952.
The same Hayden brothers who started Hayden Hardware, still operating in Cassopolis, purchased the property with hopes of rebuilding the mill at a projected cost of $48,000. A Marcellus area farmer, Gene Bainbridge, financed one-third of the projected cost. The new mill ultimately cost $65,000, with the balance of the money financed by Master Mix Feeds (now known as Central Soya).
In 1955, Don McKenzie purchased Community Mills from shareholders. Under his leadership and with the management of Art Trimolin, a grain plant with two 10,000 bushel grain bins was built next to M-62. In 1961, Don sold the mill to Cass Co-op that was located at the time behind Old Kent Bank. Under new ownership, Community Mills was still managed by Art Trimolin when the first store was built on the property. In 1965, the co-op hired Don Olsen as manager, with Pete Young taking over management in 1968 and hiring Dean Collins (Assistant Manager), and Dick Hunsberger. Dale Hartsell was engaged to build a grain plant and mill bin at a cost of about $48,000 each.
Management of the co-op underwent several changes, but the co-op went bankrupt in 1974. In 1975, Don McKenzie, along with his sons, again purchased Community Mills, intending to use the mill for their personal farming operation. However, with Frank Rife as the manager, the McKenzie family decided to open the mill for business. As an indication of how prices have changed, the fence they built around the old lumberyard cost only $550, and the first spray truck, a 1976 Ford driven by Dennis Dominiak, cost only $10,550. A new feed truck, sporting a chrome bumper, was purchased for $35,000 in 1981, replacing an old tandem chain driven auger truck.
Many changes occurred during the 1980’s. Don McKenzie bought two more mills in Michigan, one located in Penn and the other (managed by Bruce Shannon) in Decatur. Community Mills entered the digital generation by purchasing their first computer system, and the mill became the largest Pax Feeder dealer in the United States. Chemical and fertilizer dikes and load pads were poured behind the feed mill in Cassopolis, and the mill boasted six feed trucks and three sprayers. Community Mills had also stored about three million bushels of government corn in various locations throughout Michigan. The mill hired several valued, long-time employees during this period, including Ray and Richard Doyle, Jacque Klein, Linda Tone and manager Terry McKenzie. Things were going well, but that didn’t forestall a few problems now and then. When the second spray truck was purchased in 1983, spray truck driver Dick Hunsberger and manager Al DeRuiter (hired in 1980) were driving the new truck home from Jackson, Minnesota. Alas, the turbo backfired and the truck burned up on Day Lake Street as Dick woefully looked on.
As the decade of the nineties began, Community Mills began selling DeKalb seed. After building a feed warehouse in 1991, the mill earned DeKalb’s award as their largest new dealer. Manager Al DeRuiter hired Jon Tone as the Decatur plant manager, Joe Tone to bag feed part-time in the Cass feed mill, and Terry Parrish. In 1994, Al DeRuiter retired, hiring Mike Buck as manager. Under Mike’s management, the Decatur plant was closed and all employees went to work at the Cass location. Dean Covey was hired to grind feed at the Penn Mill. The mill purchased its first tandem axle feed truck and their first center ride spray truck (which cost nearly 10 times more than the first spray truck purchased in 1978!). The mill benefitted from excellent employees, and many took on added responsibilities. Terry Parrish became feed mill supervisor, Dean Covey took over running the feed mill, and Joe Tone became spray truck driver and on-the-road salesman. Richard Minisee began working in the corn plant and Doug Morse was hired (the second time!) to work at Community Mills. The mill purchased the old wire factory and its fourth spray truck. After Al DeRuiter became interim manager upon Mike Buck’s departure to work for Monsanto, Al purchased a spreader truck and hired Durell Young. Al retired for the second time in 2001, and the McKenzie brothers hired Joe Tone as manager. Having started with the mill as a part-time feed bagger, Joe had certainly learned the business from the bottom up!
Since 2000, the business has continued to grow and evolve. There are many visible signs at the Cassopolis location: a new chemical warehouse, added bulk seed bins, an 180,000 bushel grain bin, renovation of the old store into a shop building, a 30,000 gallon propane storage tank, a dry fertilizer plant, and the purchase of two houses south of the offices for future expansion. The spacious new store, showcasing name brand feeds, apparel, footwear and much more, has made Community Mills a destination for people with a variety of interests, not just farmers.
Since 2000, the Penn location has also acquired 202,000 bushel grain storage bins and a new blender. The mill’s equipment has been continually updated to better serve customers, including the addition of Kenworth and Freightliner feed trucks and L/2 and L/3 tender tankers. Along with success, the Community Mills also faces its challenges with positive action. For example, in 2001, the mill lost a 112,000 bushel grain bin in a storm, but filled the new bin with corn less than three weeks later.
We cite a few employees in this history to demonstrate our emphasis on local talent, the longevity of many of our employees, and the development opportunities for employees in our business. However, we cannot list every employee who has worked with the mill throughout our history. Nevertheless, we hope our history demonstrates that Community Mills would not be the success it is today without our greatly valued employees, many of whom are still with the mill. We invite you to consult our staff directory to get acquainted with all the great Community Mills employees who are ready to assist you!