Historic Windsor mill fire declared arson, while town ponders what lies ahead

Very little remains of the old mill. Firefighters are still working to put it out. Photo: Libby James

By Libby James
North Forty News

Smoke was still rising from the remains of Windsor’s historic old flour mill when this reporter visited, following a devastating fire that broke out on Sunday night, August 6. Workers manned huge cranes as they worked to remove chunks of charred remains through the smoke.

At the same time, a team of  federal investigators from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) began to dig through the wreckage in search of a cause for the blaze. By Sunday, August 13, ruling out lightning and other possible accidental causes, they announced that the fire had been set intentionally. At this writing, the investigation continues and no suspect or motive has been identified. ATF has offered a $10,000 reward for anyone supplying information leading to an arrest.

On learning that the fire was not the result of an accident, Windsor mayor Kristie Melendez said, “I am again deeply saddened and this time even more so, to learn that this was an intentionally set fire that put our downtown and people’s lives at risk. If not for the swift response of our local and neighboring response teams we could have seen much more destruction beyond the mill. I highly encourage anyone with leads to step forward so that we might be able to catch the perpetrator/s involved. Again, I am grateful
to our fire and police teams for their high level of responsiveness and professionalism and to the property owner (Blue Ocean) for their pledge to remain committed to this project.”
To report information that may lead to the suspect(s), call Windsor Police Department investigators Sgt. Shainline or Detective Hogsett at (970) 674-6400; Northern Colorado Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477); email windsormilltips@wsfr.us; or go to http://www.reportit.com/ to download the ATF app and report your tip.

Onlooker and Windsor resident Gilbert Peralta leaned on his bicycle and explained, “The wood was so old—more than 100 years—and had become so hard that it is taking forever to burn.” He lives close enough to the site that he smelled smoke and saw flames leaping into the sky on Sunday night. A little research revealed that the wood used to build the mill in 1899 was heavy-duty fire resistant timber and solid stacked plank encased in clay brick, making it unlikely to burn easily from the day it was built.

Once the central focus of town, the building was a rare example of 19th-century agri-industry architecture. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places and the Colorado State Register of Historic Places in 1998, making it eligible for reconstruction and restoration funds.

The mill produced high quality flour for two decades before closing for a time after World War I in 1919, because of the growth of the sugar beet industry in the area. Originally, the building had four stories and contained long alleyways for funneling grain, with offshoots to tracks where grain and flour were loaded and unloaded.

Smoke still rising from remnants of the old mill. Photo: Libby James

The brick mill on the west side of the building withstood the fire, but the other three sections, a wood frame warehouse on the east end and a silo and tall elevation section in the center, were completely destroyed.

In 1919, the windows and doorways were bricked in, and the building was used as a livestock feed storage facility until 1990. Former owner Ron Lauer used the building to produce pool tables and billards equipment which he marketed from the premises. A tornado that tore through Windsor in May, 2008, damaged the existing structure, and it sat vacant from then until it was purchased by Blue Ocean Enterprises of Fort Collins in 2016.

According to Windsor mayor Kristie Melendez, the formation of a downtown development authority (DDA) in Windsor in 2010 was a plus for the town, and by 2013, had resulted in a feasibility study that deemed the mill suitable for restoration and made suggestions as to likely uses for the building. “We got all excited,” said Melendez. But DDA and the Town of Windsor didn’t have the funds to move ahead.

Purchase of the mill by Blue Ocean was about to create “the first real piece of development in downtown,” according to Melendez. At the time of the fire, a brewpub and a tavern were in the works, and there was interest in each of the spaces Blue Ocean planned to develop in the building.

The Town of Windsor, DDA and Blue Ocean had come together to form a public-private partnership to make the $9.2 million project a reality. DDA and the Town committed $3.7 million in tax incentives and tax increment funding.

To date, the only entity that has actually put up funds in the project is Blue Ocean, according to Melendez. Before they could receive public funding, they were obliged to “show good faith.”

Windsor mayor Kristie Melendez talks with the North Forty News about the future of the old mill. Photo: Libby James

While Melendez says it is too early to know exactly what the future will hold for the mill, she has had assurance from Blue Ocean that the project will move forward. Blue Ocean has said they are ready to start over from square one as soon as they have a green light to do so.

Meanwhile, Channel 9 and Channel 2 TV trucks are parked across the street with cameras set up to record progress. A heavy stream of traffic drives by slowly, taking in the scene. Windsor police personnel and a federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigator from North Carolina hang out on Main Street, working together to try to determine a cause of the fire. Before long, they will all be gone and construction will begin anew.

Melendez, who was on Windsor’s city council for six years before becoming mayor two years ago, believes that the tragedy could turn into an incentive for the city and DDA to explore the potential for two pieces of property they own in the immediate area sooner than they might have otherwise.

A fourth-generation resident of Windsor, who points out the building across the street from us where her mother was born, said one friend told her that losing the mill was like losing an old friend.

There is no doubt that the loss of the old mill was a disaster. It had sat vacant for many years, but that did not diminish its meaning for the community. It has been through two fires, various remodels and owners, and abandonment, but it looks as if it is about to rise once again. It will no doubt become a symbol of rebirth and contemporary development for Windsor, a small town that has, in recent years, grown to a population of nearly 27,000 souls who will welcome new life in the old mill.

 

 

 

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