New restaurant to pay homage to a fading piece of Lawrence history; large downtown restaurant closes

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

The Big Mill restaurant is in a former laundromat building at 900 Mississippi St. The building in the early 1900s was a grocery store. Owner Brad Ziegler began restoring the building in mid-2018.

There was a time when the only skyscraper in Lawrence was a windmill. (Don’t rent the penthouse suite in that one, unless you like to be dizzy.)

The windmill was 64 feet tall with blades that measured nearly 35 feet. It dominated Mount Oread in the days before Fraser Hall. Now, the old windmill is largely forgotten, unless you are a local history buff. A new restaurant is aiming to change that.

The Big Mill is set to open at Ninth and Mississippi streets on Wednesday evening. I briefly reported on the restaurant earlier this month, saying it was going to bring something called Detroit-style pizza to the local dining scene. I’ve since had a chance to talk with the owner, and it is clear the project has been about more than pizza. History has been a big part of it, as the old laundromat building has been restored using historic preservation tax credits.

With pieces of the past — tin ceilings and wood floors, for example — popping up throughout the renovation, owner Brad Ziegler said it made sense to give the restaurant a name that has a historical tie-in.

The Big Mill refers to the old Wilder & Palm mill that operated for a couple of decades near what is now the corner of Ninth Street and Emery Road, which is just a few blocks west of Ninth and Mississippi streets.

photo by: Submitted photo courtesy of Big Mill restaurant/Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum of History

Activity is shown around the Wilder & Palm mill, which operated from about 1864 to around 1885 on its site near modern-day Ninth Street and Emery Road.

When Ziegler was researching his newly purchased building at 900 Mississippi St., he began learning about the mill. Ziegler knew his building had long served as a laundromat, but quickly discovered it had been a grocery store in its early days. He found one advertisement from 1901 where the grocery’s tag line was “in the shadow of the windmill.”

“When I found out and started reading about it, I was just amazed,” Ziegler said. “I had lived in Lawrence for 30-plus years and never heard about it.”

Certainly there are plenty of people in town who do recall that piece of Lawrence history, although there surely aren’t any left who actually saw the big structure in operation. The mill was under construction when William Quantrill raided the town in 1863, according to post on the website of KU’s Spencer Research Library. Damage to the mill was minor, and, by the middle of 1864, it was operational. It ground both corn and wheat for flour and meal. The two owners, John Wilder and Andrew Palm, also used power from the mill to help build farm implements like plows and carriages.

photo by: Submitted photo courtesy of Big Mill restaurant/Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum of History

A flyer from the Wilder & Palm mill is shown. The mill opened in 1864 and manufactured everything from flour and grain meal to agricultural parts.

But by the 1880s, the mill was producing more debt than anything else. According to a brief history posted on the Kansas Historical Society’s website, the mill had a capacity to crush only about 40 bushels of grain per day. Other mills with greater capacities had popped up in Douglas County. By 1885, the company had basically gone bankrupt. The mill sat largely unused for many years, until it was destroyed by a fire in 1905, according to the Spencer’s website.

Thankfully, though, several photos were taken before that fire. Ziegler has copies of many of them hanging on the restaurant’s walls. He thinks they go well with the historic feel of the building. The renovation project saved the glass transom that lines the top of the building, and it also restored the old tin ceiling in the building. In addition to the old windmill photos, Ziegler had some fun with other parts of the building’s past. The wait staff table near the front door is partly made with a round glass door of an old dryer from when the building was a laundromat.

photo by: Submitted photo courtesy of Big Mill restaurant/Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum of History

The Wilder & Palm mill is shown after it had closed and started to deteriorate. The old mill was near current day Ninth Street and Emery Road. The mill burned in a 1905 fire.

Of course, Ziegler hopes visitors get excited about the food too. The pizza is unique. For one thing, it is not round. Yes, a restaurant that pays homage to one of the largest circular structures in Lawrence’s history serves rectangular pizza.

That’s one of the hallmarks of the Detroit-style pizza. The rectangular pan helps the sides and edges of the pizza get extremely crispy while allowing the pizza to have a thick crust. Unlike a Chicago-style pizza, though, the crust isn’t heavy. It is full of air bubbles, which makes it lighter than it looks. The bottom of the pizza also has a crispness to it because the pizza is cooked upside down, meaning the cheese side is facing downward in the pan.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Big Mill restaurant serves Detroit-style pizza, which is characterized by its rectangular shape, its crispy edges and its light yet thick crust. Above is the cheese pizza, which includes dollops of ricotta. Also shown is the restaurant’s signature cheeseburger with a spicy Korean sauce.

Ziegler, who is a partner in Lawrence’s Six Mile Chophouse and has owned multiple bars and restaurants over the years, said he thought local diners would find the pizza intriguing, but he said Old Mill would strive to be more of a general restaurant and bar rather than just a pizza place.

In addition to the pizzas, the menu also includes several hamburgers, including a signature Mill burger with a slightly spicy Korean sauce. Appetizers and several salads, including one with a lemon garlic dressing and another with a honey poblano dressing, are also on the menu. Coney-style hotdogs will be part of the late-night menu, Ziegler said.

The restaurant has a full bar, and Ziegler added a patio area on the east side of the building. Plans do call for the business, located just a couple of blocks from the KU campus, to be open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Ziegler has been in the college bar business before — he owns Louise’s Downtown and just recently sold the Eighth Street Taproom after running it for years — but he said the Big Mill was designed to attract a broader audience than college students.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Renovation of the old laundromat building at 900 Mississippi St. included restoring the tin ceilings and repairing the glass transom along the front of the building.

“I think it will be a good watering hole for Old West Lawrence,” he said. “I would envision our clientele late at night may be more college oriented, but we will have a lunch and dinner crowd that will be a mix of all ages. I think it will have a really comfortable feel for everyone.”

In other news and notes from around town:

Downtown Lawrence’s Lark a Fare restaurant has closed its doors. The restaurant was on the ground floor of the Marriott hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire streets. As we reported in June 2018, the restaurant’s concept revolved around a “Midwest kitchen and bar” vibe. That meant classic Midwestern comfort dishes that had some chef-inspired twists.

Lark a Fare is the second restaurant that has tried but ultimately failed to bring a slightly upscale menu to that corner. Port Fonda was previously in the Marriott spot, but the popular Kansas City Mexican restaurant did not take in Lawrence.

No word on what, if anything, is scheduled to take Lark a Fare’s place. In a note on the door, the restaurant’s management thanked its customers and said its staff would “continue to be part of the downtown Lawrence community and they value your continued support.” People with questions, such as perhaps unused gift certificates and such, can email, according to the sign on the door.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Lark a Fare has closed its restaurant at Ninth and New Hampshire streets in downtown Lawrence.


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