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The Rebirth of Gray's Mill

How the old mill was restored and transformed into the centerpiece of Montgomery's downtown.

Ernie Anfinsen was an electrical engineer, and co-owner of Anfinsen Plastic Molding, when the United States Government called him to Washington D.C. to oversee a munitions plant. He left his wife and children behind, sold his portion of the business to his partner, who was also his brother, and left to serve his country.

When the war was over, he came back home and found that the plastic molding business was thriving and doing well with a single owner, so he decided to open his own business manufacturing and repairing electrical equipment. He began the search for a suitable location.

The old abandoned mill on River Street in Montgomery looked promising, although it was in horrible condition. Vandals had broken in repeatedly over the years, doing serious damage. Everything appeared to be crumbling because of the holes in the roof that opened it to the elements.

It was once used as a mica mineral processing company. Sigura Olsen bought out Hord and Brodhead and converted the mill to electricity. He changed the operation from one that ground grist to one that milled mica, which was used in insulation, decoration (Christmas snow), and for use in the manufacture of radios. Julia Smotzer spoke of working at the mill when “Santa Claus Snow” was being produced.

Sheet mica is layered and flexible enough to be separated and split into thin transparent layers. The ground surrounding the mill was covered with large pieces of mica and provided many hours of entertainment for the children who enjoyed peeling apart the layers, and inventing ways to use them.   

Ernie fell in love with the old building and bought it. Then he proceeded to rebuild the interior. There was extensive damage due to an earlier fire, so the floors had to be replaced or reinforced. It needed a new roof, and that became a priority, along with replacing numerous broken windows. He hired carpenters to work alongside him on the restoration. 

An elevator was installed so that he could use all three floors for manufacturing. He used the money that he received from the sale of the plastics business as well as from the sale of his farm. But, more importantly, he poured his own labor into the project – working long days and nights turning it into a useable building.

During the restoration he found a sub-basement, and was thrilled to find the old gears from the mill stored down there. He donated them to a museum.

He personally built the new front door that is still being used. While the first floor was devoted to his electric motors, the second and third floors were used for manufacturing. He hired women to work in the upper areas. He invented a small record player that he manufactured using a plastic case, probably molded at his brother’s company.

Ernie went on to manufacture his other inventions; one of them was a child’s merry-go-round. He acquired a new outside partner in this enterprise, but the arrangement went bad. The partner sued Ernie and won a considerable amount of money, which devastated him for a time. Soon he regrouped and began to focus on his first goal, the electronics business.

Sometime in the '70s, he leased a portion of the property for a restaurant and the Pink Cup was built. Although the small building is not joined to the mill, it is so close that the original papers issued for the historical preservation erroneously include this building. The Pink Cup was successful and provided a cozy (if crowded) meeting place for the locals, as well as the workers in the area.

His wife, Anita Nelson Anfinsen, worked as the company bookkeeper. She was a one-room schoolteacher in Newark when they met, but that was in the days when teachers had to leave once they married. Ernie kept busy working up until the day he died, in 1971. 

After his death she took on the job of selling the business and disposing of the property. She loved history as much as Ernie, and screened the prospective buyers to make sure the Mill would be used properly. She encouraged the prospective buyers to have it listed on the National Register of Historical Places.

Finally a couple from Boulder Hill, Max and Betty Grimshaw, met with her approval. Betty was an artist and an entrepreneur. The couple fixed up the Mill so that it could hold several small boutique businesses, and a beauty shop. 

The Grimshaws have since moved away, and Anita Nelson Anfinsen died in 1987. The building stands tall and proud today, and a has opened there. It is feeding a new generation of history loving patrons.

Barbara Anfinsen Eichler, daughter of Anita and Ernie, whose delightful interview was given to Gretchen Countryman in September 2011, provided much of the information for this story. Sadly, Barbara passed away on July 1, 2012. She was anxious for the village to know how much her father loved the mill and it’s history, and how hard he worked to save it. 

We are indebted to him for caring for the beautiful building that forms our centerpiece. Thank you Ernie, Anita and Barbara. Montgomery is grateful.

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