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An abridged history of Mill Avenue: The Hayden Flour Mill

Perhaps Tempe’s most historic cultural hub and landmark is Mill Avenue. To students, residents and tourists that live on Mill, the street may just look like a strip mall littered with bars, restaurants, boutiques and other shops. However, there is a rich history that lies in the 1.2 miles between Gammage Auditorium and Hayden Flour Mill.

Mill's Mill

What better place to start than Mill Avenue’s namesake: The Hayden Flour Mill. Located near Rio Salado Parkway and Mill Avenue, the mill is one of Tempe and Arizona’s oldest and most storied landmarks. 

Many would say that the origin of Mill Avenue’s dynamic history started in the late 1860s thanks to the original homesteaders Kirkland and McKinney. The two are best known for constructing a monumental irrigation dam which provided water to the east side of the Tempe Butte, now known as Hayden Butte.

During this time, legendary businessman Charles T. Hayden had his eye on Tempe. The new irrigation system and prosperity eventually allured him from Tucson. As the local farmers grew fields of wheat, he found his niche by creating the Hayden Flour Mill.

Creation of the original mill proved challenging as all supplies had to be imported, but after years of work, the construction of the first Hayden Flour Mill was finished in 1874. Local wheat growers sold their products to the mill and the flour was initially delivered on horseback.

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As more people immigrated to Tempe, the Hayden Flour Mill’s monopoly only grew. The mill brought many jobs to the Valley and created a bustling local economy. Hayden soon became the largest purchaser of wheat in the state and hired wagon drivers to deliver the milled flour throughout Arizona and the Southwest.

A Mythical Fire

Before proceeding further in the timeline, it must be noted that there are many rumors and contradictory reports surrounding the elusive Hayden Flour Mill at the turn of the 20th century, especially about a fire in the summer of 1895. 

Local historians are combating this by creating a concise history of the site. Leading this hunt for the truth is Tempe History Museum curator Jared Smith.

“During the history of Tempe's Hayden Mill, there were only two mill structures built,” Smith said. “Although it is often said that the building burned in 1895, this is simply not the case. A study of historic photographs and Sanborn Fire Insurance maps clearly shows only changes and additions to the original building until the 1917 fire.”

A Modern Mill

By 1917, Charles C. Hayden had passed, and the operations were left with Carl C. Hayden and Hayden C. Hayden, Charles’ son and grandson respectively. The team chose to make the new mill out of concrete to avoid another fiery demise.

Completed in 1918, this iteration of the Hayden Flour Mill stands on the site today, but the silos behind the mill weren't built until 1951. 

Check out the Mill circa 1918! #TBT #DowntownTempe

Posted by Hayden Flour Mill on Thursday, October 2, 2014

If one squints, they can see “Hayden” written in black letters across the white, dirty silos, barely visible after years of sun damage. The silos are arguably the most recognizable feature of the lot and were the tallest structure in Tempe for more than 50 years. 

In 1981, the Hayden milling industry was sold to Bay State Milling in Massachusetts and the Hayden Flour Mill closed after more than a century of operation under the same family name. For over two decades, the mill remained abandoned and mostly locked up, until October 2012 when it had a “re-grand opening” of sorts. Since then, the mill is used as an events venue and the public is free to peruse the lot.

Respecting the mill

Some say the iconic and significant landmark deserves better. This is a sentiment that many Tempe residents seem to share, including electrical engineering junior Sydney Miguelino.

“Hayden Mill is the biggest eyesore on Mill," she said. “You would think a historical landmark would be well maintained and beautified.”

Some residents have proposed their own ideas on how to make the most of the mill, including long-time Tempe historian, photographer and resident Larry Mishler.

“Ten or fifteen years ago, I had this idea of having a way to restore the mill to its almost original condition,” he said. “I proposed they make a historical site or historical museum and move the headquarters of the Tempe History Museum down there. It would have cost about $3 million.”

Mishler proposed that they raise this money by putting piggy banks in the shape of the mill in each Tempe classroom. The city council shut down this idea as a development company was looking to bring something new to the lot, although this also fell through.

“There are some people in the city who just think ‘tear it down and build something new,’” Mishler said. “But (especially the silos) are iconic, so they were pressured into at least saving those.”

The Mill's fate

The mill is protected and preserved under the National Register of Historic Places and is pending preservation by the Tempe Historic Property Register. But what does that actually mean for the mill? 

Not much, it turns out. In fact, the owner of a preserved property can do whatever they like as long as federal money isn’t attached. 

Thus, Hayden Flour Mill’s fate is up to its owners, the city of Tempe.

Maybe the future of the mill is all but decided. In December 2014, Tempe City Council voted to have the Hayden Flour Mill redeveloped into a hotel and outdoor music venue capable of seating 4,000. David Baum with Baum Development is working with City Manager Andrew Ching to bring this vision to fruition. However, this project has been strangely muted and a contract hasn’t materialized.

Without the Hayden Flour Mill, Tempe wouldn’t exist in the way it does today. No matter how the property is treated, many will be upset with the decision. We, the residents of Tempe, can only hope that the site becomes a place of pride for our city and the rich history is preserved and passed on to future generations.

Repeated requests for comment of the future of the mill were not returned by city officials.

Related Links:

Tempe City Council selects developer to renovate Hayden Flour Mill

Editorial: Renovating History

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