March 9, 1995
It slipped by unnoticed, but last month marked the 57th anniversary of the demolition of an authentic Perry landmark -- the tall brick smokestack at the site of the old Perry Mill. It was a sad ending to a significant chapter in the story of this city's development.
The Perry Mill was our most important industry for more than four decades. At its peak, probably no more than 30 employees were on the payroll, but that still made it the largest industry in Noble county. There was no Ditch Witch manufacturing company, no Department of Transportation district headquarters here then. It was the giant of its day. Wheat from farms from all over this area was refined into flour, bagged and distributed from the Perry Mill.
The cloth flour bags were labeled "Pride of Perry" and that, is just what they were. The brand was familiar to users throughout the U.S. and other parts of the world. Perry indeed was proud of it. The mill was located on the south side of Birch street, just east of where the Charles Machine Works, Inc. Subsite plant now stands. Steam turbines provided the energy for a central power unit which drove all the machinery at the mill. Towering over the entire complex of buildings was a 100-foot tall brick smokestack. The smoke from coal-fired boilers rose from the stacks during each day's operation.
The Perry Mill was started in 1894, the year after the Cherokee Strip land run. It operated as an independent until General Mills acquired it in the 1930s. At that time it was assumed the new owners would expand operations, and indeed a $100,000 improvement program had just been completed shortly before General Mills made the decision to shut it down in 1937.
The mill also operated an ice manufacturing plant, and virtually everyone in Perry got their supply of ice blocks from horse-drawn delivery wagons which moved slowly through the residential areas each day. Others came to the ice dock to get theirs. Electric refrigerators were uncommon until the 1930s, so most folks had a golden oak icebox in their kitchen or on the back porch.
Orie Nida began his employment at the mill working in the ice plant during summertime and helping out in the office during cold weather. He was the last employee remaining at the mill when it was closed. "Last of the Mohicans," he says: Orie, who now lives at 1404 Ninth street, later spent some time on the road as a salesman. When the local operation ceased in 1938, he moved to Chickasha and continued with General Mills for several years. In 1976 he and his wife retired and returned here to their hometown.
Perry Mill stories abound. One from an old Sunday Oklahoman columnist, Kent Ruth, concerns Dave McKinstry, who was known as the power behind the local operation. He was a bachelor when he arrived in Perry. Thus he had time to visit the early homes and encourage the young to do their homework so that they could make their town great in the future.
Newspapers of the day told of school kids afraid to play jump the rope because their homemade underwear had "Pride of Perry" plainly stamped on them. Another story tells of the mother who brought her own sack to a store for some peaches. She held it while the clerk poured in the peaches at the top, then watch red-faced as they ran out two holes in the bottom. She had, it seems, absent mindedly grabbed up what in her day were X-rated unmentionables.
When the smokestack was sent toppling to the ground on Feb. 3, 1938, Alf Wilkerson assisted in destroying a structure he helped build some 26 years earlier. A quantity of dynamite was placed at the base of the tower. When the fuse touched off the explosion, the old stack slowly began to lean, then noisily crashed to the ground as a plume of dust rose. The bricks remained intact until the structure was half way to the ground, then they began to break up.
Machinery from the mill already had been removed and all the buildings, except grain bins, also had been torn down. Only the smokestack remained to mark the place where the business once stood. Jess Mills, one of those who had been employed at the mill, estimated 38,000 bricks were used in building the stack.
Many Noble county families made a comfortable living by working at the mill. Lee Merry, son of Mr. and Mrs. W. E. Merry, became a district manager for General Mills in the upper Midwest. H. C. Jackson retired as manager of the business in 1930 and was succeeded by Harold Hughes. John Mugler was assistant manager at one time and was moved to Oklahoma City by General Mills in that capacity, according to newspaper files.
The Journal photographer snapped a remarkable picture of the smokestack's final moments, showing it just as the bricks began breaking up on the way down. It was a sad, if historic, moment. I well remember the day the smokestack came crashing down, and probably many of you also have some personal recollections of the old Perry Mill and of those who toiled there. A lot more could be said about this interesting pioneer industry. Perhaps there will be additions to this in the near future.