Ball State grad chooses silos for concept project


Driving through Seymour on U.S. 50, most people go by the old, unused Blish Mill grain silos with hardly a passing glance.

For some, the old concrete towering structure is just a part of Seymour’s landscape. Others see it as an eyesore and obstacle to improving the aesthetics of the city’s downtown.

But what Caleb Ernest sees is something entirely different. Instead of an abandoned building no longer serving a relevant purpose in today’s world, Ernest sees potential and opportunity for the city of Seymour.

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Ernest, a recent graduate of Ball State University’s College of Architecture and Planning, chose the Blish Mill silos and surrounding area for a creative concept project to fulfill his requirements to earn his master’s degree in urban and regional planning.

He also is an associate planner for the city of Westfield’s economic and community development department.

Ernest’s proposal is to repurpose the silos for tourism and recreation, including indoor trampolines and rock climbing, and to transform the structure into a landmark that would be lit up at night.

He also recommended two additional projects as part of the overall site plan, including the development of a themed restaurant and pub to the east of the silos and senior housing to the northeast.

He estimates all phases of the project will cost about $5.5 million total.

The project is purely conceptual, and city officials have not agreed to pursue any of Ernest’s ideas at this time. The city does not currently own the silos or the other properties included in his plans, which he recently presented to city council members.

Although he’s not from Seymour, Ernest said he has traveled through the area many times to visit family here.

“Traveling home for Thanksgiving, my father and I drove on the same route headed east on U.S. 50,” he said.

That’s when he started to notice the silos.

“My dad said something I would never forget. He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if that was used as something else?’” Ernest said.

His dad suggested a restaurant on the top floor so people could dine and look out over the city.

“Ever since he spoke those words, my mind began racing toward the endless possibilities of reusing and repurposing that grain silo elevator,” he said. “Grain elevators, in the past decade or so, have offered up a unique opportunity to create innovation that otherwise would be overlooked in these structures.”

In many cases, grain elevators have been left to the landscape, but they hold quite a bit of history and heritage, he said.

Ernest interviewed local historian Kevin Greene and Mayor Craig Luedeman to research the history of the property and provide background and context to why the structure should be important to the city.

The Blish Mill grain silo dates back to just after Seymour was established. The Blish Milling Co. was headed by John Blish, who became one of the first millers in the nation. He later met and married Sarah Shields, daughter of Seymour’s founder, Meedy Shields.

Seymour became the new location for Blish’s milling operations. He constructed the first mill in 1854. Located north of the existing silos, it grew to be one of the largest employers in the area and one of the largest mills in this part of the country, Ernest said.

But the mill burned down on Halloween night in 1885. It was rebuilt less than a year later to the south of its former location.

Blish died in 1886 before he could witness the reopening of the mill, and his two sons, Meedy and Tipton Blish, took over the business. The mill continued to grow, and by 1912, it produced 1,200 barrels of flour daily. During World War I and into the 1920s, the mill reached its peak production.

Due to the business’ continued success and growth, Meedy and Tipton Blish expanded the mill’s storage area in the 1930s by constructing the 109-foot-tall silos that remain today. The silos, erected in just one week, created a total storage of nearly half a million bushels of wheat.

The next generation of the Blish family took over after Meedy and Tipton, and eventually, other non-family-related businessmen acquired the mill and silos. Milling operations ceased in 1951, but the grain silos were used until the late 1960s.

The city of Seymour acquired the Blish Mill for $10,000 in the early 1970s when part of the property was needed to widen U.S. 50 and the mill was razed at that time. But the concrete silos were deemed too expensive to demolish and were left standing.

They are now owned by the Gill family and have been for the past 17 years, Toby Gill said.

“I think a lot of people presume the city owns them,” Gill said. “The city was approached a few years back about purchasing them, but they wanted nothing to do with them.”

But Gill said the silos are worth saving.

“They are an important historical landmark not only for Seymour but for the whole county,” he said. “I just still haven’t really figured out what to do with them.”

Seymour is not the only city in the United States to have grain silos that no longer serve their original purpose.

Ernest researched other grain silos across the United States and Canada that are now used for tourism, residential, commercial, recreation, preserving heritage and as art.

Some of the silos he studied included Silo City in Buffalo, New York, which is now used for tours, art and historical displays and as a private event venue; Magnolia Silo in Waco, Texas, which is a retail store, bakery, garden, market and office/retail business for HGTV hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines; and Stoneworks Rock Climbing in Carrollton, Texas, which is a rock climbing gym.

He also studied the Lofts at Globe Mills in Sacramento, California, which provides 31 loft apartments with aesthetic views of the city, a fitness center and the unique opportunity to live in a grain silo; the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which offers guided tours, interactive activities and group events and a private event venue; and Aurora Borealis in Quebec, Canada, which is lit up at night by 574 color-changing LED spotlights along with photos and animations retelling the city’s history.

Two other case studies he included were Silo No. 5 in Montreal, Canada, which the city is preserving as a landmark attraction, and Tin Bins in Stillwater, Minnesota, which is a restaurant with a bakery and a coffee shop.

He also interviewed three people who had repurposed their own silos into a bed and breakfast, a climbing gym and apartments.

Ernest said he enjoys all of the uses he studied but had to come up with the most realistic choice for Seymour’s site. That choice was tourism.

“Tourism is the simplest way to utilize the structure without bearing too much cost,” he said.

His least recommended option was for residential because the silos and the site are not as big as other silos that have been renovated into apartments.

The structure is divided into three sections with the work floor on the first level, nine separate storage bins/silos in the middle making up the bulk of the building and a distributing floor and a headhouse on top.

In Ernest’s plans, the lower floors of four of the silos would be used for indoor trampolines, bouldering and rock climbing. Two of the four silos would be gutted for indoor rock climbing all the way to the top of the structure, he said.

The other four silos on the east side would be used for guided historic tours with exhibits on the history of grain silos, the Blish Milling Co. and the site itself. The last silo would be gutted and a staircase installed that would lead to access to an outdoor walkway and viewing dock to give visitors a different perspective of the city.

In front of the silos, Ernest proposes a small building be constructed for a visitor center for the grain silos and onsite parking.

Local residents have a variety of ideas for what they think the grain bins should be.

Lenny Hauersperger, who is leading efforts to create a Seymour museum in the old police station downtown, said he would like to see the site attract people to Seymour and help promote the city.

“It does seem like a great location to display local artists’ work, and perhaps it could also promote the visitor center, the Seymour museum, Southern Indiana Center for the Arts and other places and events,” he said. “Lots of possibilities.”

With the shortage of affordable housing in the area, Paula Weaver believes the silos might make popular residential living.

“I think you could create cool apartments out of them with a cool shared green space on the roof,” she said. “Parking for the apartments would be the bottom floor.”

Cindy Galbraith of Seymour said whatever comes of the silos, she doesn’t think taxpayers’ money should be used.

Local artist Kyle McIntosh would like to see the silos painted to feature a mural highlighting Seymour’s history and famous residents.

“It would take a team of artists to do that scale of mural. I’m all about doing murals and have done several in my day,” he said.

But he’s afraid it will never even be considered.

“Just like most things, politics will keep this project or any project like it from ever getting off the ground,” McIntosh said. “Until Seymour embraces local art, it will unfortunately stand still. Several communities have embraced local art and seen a huge boom in the economy.”

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