Riding the Rails

Eagle Cotton Mill has a long history
of industrial activity

Several previous owners tried and failed to revive it

(June 2021) – In 1884 the directors of the Eagle Cotton Mills Co. of Madison, Ind., signed a contract with Rankin & White to begin building immediately and to complete the building in 90 days. According to the Madison Courier, “This is without a doubt the largest manufacturing establishment ever undertaken in this city.”
The main building is 247x74 feet and 6 inches, four stories high. Three stories will be 12 feet, and the last story 14 feet in height. A three-story picker house, a boiler house and engine house were also built – requiring 1.5 million bricks. Rankin & White of Madison were the low bidders against three larger companies in Indianapolis and Cincinnati. 
The Eagle and Banner Cotton Mills had been located in Pittsburgh for a half century when O.M. Harper agreed to sell it to a new joint stock company of Madison businessmen. The city council approved a $10,000 stake in the company and agreed to sell the city’s gravel bank bounded on the east by Baltimore Street and on the west by Church Street (now St. Michaels) for the appraised value of $1,000.


Photo courtesy of Jefferson County
Research Archives

This photo shows workers inside the rolling room at the Eagle Cotton Mill around 1890. The building houses several businesses over the years.

Several other locations had been offered for sale, and there was much local opposition to the city site. The architect and the company wanted the city’s site. Part of the winning argument for the sale of the gravel bank – “The sooner the city quits putting gravel on the streets the better, as it had to be hauled off each spring.” Another argument: Terre Haute was trying to get Harper to move his mill there instead.
Building progressed in the summer of 1884. Real estate prices went up 50 percent in the neighborhood. The Madison Courier warned, “Do not let us kill the goose that lays the golden egg in the beginning. A manufacturing establishment that employs 500 people is something that we all should feel proud of…” 
Many of the mechanics would relocate with the mill – men of property and skill. “Let us do what little we can toward harmony and good will, and the result will be one of the most thriving cities in the Ohio valley. Let discord and bad feeling be forever put aside, and let everything go on toward a happy issue of all trouble and doubt as to Madison’s future.”
It was estimated that the entire population of Madison would fit on the four floors of the main building with four square feet of space each.  
By March 1, 1885, the mill was up and running. The Edison Electric Light Co. of New York City had installed 312 lights. The J.M&I Railroad Co. laid switch lines to the mill. Clem & Morse of Philadelphia installed the elevators, with a pneumatic safety catch. The building was heated by steam. New water lines had been installed down Baltimore Street. A total of $250,000 of capital was raised and 300 people employed.
By 1888 the Eagle Cotton Mill was running at full capacity, producing more than 12,000 yards of brown sheeting, 2,000 seamless bags, besides twine, carpet chain, candle wick, batting and steam packing. They were shipping to Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and even Shanghai, China. Hundred of cotton bales were being unloaded daily.  
Despite the booming business, the management of the mill failed. Only 25 of the 500 workers from Pittsburgh had moved to Madison. The company had to take one of the original shareholders to court to get his investment. The Supreme Court ruled in the company’s favor.  Skilled operators were hard to find, and local workers complained about the 11½-hour days – demanding a reduction to 10 hours. In 1889 they went on strike. Effective Sept. 30 that year,  hours were reduced to 7 a.m. to noon and 12:45-6 p.m., Monday thru Friday, and to 4 p.m. on Saturday. 
Richard Johnson, the proprietor of the Riverside Starch Works, purchased the Eagle Cotton Mill in 1891 from the original investors and replaced the Pittsburgh directors. He installed more new equipment in 1892 and continued to operate it successfully until his death in 1909 when his sons took over. After a major fire in the winter of 1917-18 at the Johnson Cordage factory at the old Starch Works, the Johnson family moved that business into the Cotton Mill.   
The building was more space than they needed. The Longinni Shoe Co. used the top two floors to make Air Kushin Shoes. The Meese Co. leased the two bottom floors. Edwin Meese and his partners bought the building in the late 1930s after their building at Main and Vine streets burned. The Meese name was painted across the front, and they manufactured canvas goods for the military, canvas mail carts, laundry carts, ice cream carts and canvas shipping containers.  
It was used in the movie, “Some Came Running,” as Shirley MacLaine’s character’s workplace.
In 1980, Saul Padek purchased the Meese Co., including this building. He moved the company to its present location on the hilltop and proposed turning this building into apartments.
In 1985 a group of investors called Old Cotton Mill Inc. purchased it and planned to renovate it for condominiums, then restaurants, swimming pool and art galleries.   
In 1989 financing failed for the fourth time, and Padek foreclosed.
In 1990 Buddy Waller of Madison purchased it from Padek and put on a new roof to stabilize it.  He operated his business there.
In 1994 there were plans to turn it into a hotel with a floating gambling boat, but Jefferson County voted against riverboat gambling.
In 1997 George Nichols bought an option on the property and proposed an upscale destination hotel and condominium complex.
In 2001 Jerry Fuhs of French Lick, Ind., purchased the property from Buddy Waller. Fuhs owned the Hillside Inn at that time. After four years, he sold both properties and concentrated his investments and restoration efforts in French Lick.
In 2007 Bob Przewlocki and David Landau of Chicago bought it and formed the River Mill Preservation Co. They started work but were unable to find additional investors after the 2008 recession.   
In 2019, Ron Bateman of Madison and his development partners in Riverton LLC took a chance on the property. They bought it with plans to develop it into a boutique hotel. Multiple partners joined the project, including Dora Hospitality in Indianapolis. The city of Madison and the state of Indiana are providing financing incentives and restoration tax credits.   
After two years of planning and construction, this development group finally found a recipe for success and are hoping to open a Fairfield Inn by Marriott there in July.

• Jan Vetrhus is a Madison, Ind., resident and a former president of the Cornerstone Society, a local preservationist group.

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