The Mill, tavern and restaurant

The Mill's dance floor, with the Ray Cappella Trio set up on the bandstand (Sangamon Valley Collection)

The Mill’s dance floor, with the Ray Cappella Trio’s set-up on the bandstand (Sangamon Valley Collection)

The Mill, 906 N. 15th St., was one of Springfield’s most popular dining spots for nearly 40 years.

Brothers Herman (1897-1980) and Louis Cohen (1893-1962) opened the tavern and restaurant in May 1933 on the same corner where they had operated a grocery and meat market since 1919. The Illinois State Journal said in 1972 that “The Mill began in 1933 as a 15-seat lunch counter at the rear of the L & H Grocery.” However, contemporary news clippings suggest the restaurant was a more ambitious operation from the beginning.

The Mill opened on May 27, 1933. A short article in the Journal announced the new nightspot.

Tonight, Harry L. Cusick’s Mill Tavern will make its formal bow to the Springfield public. A fish fry and special entertainment have been planned for tonight, including orchestra music.

Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer will be on draught and all popular bottled beers will be obtainable. Chilli and sandwiches will be served. There is ample parking space for guests.

The Mill Tavern is located at 906 North Fifteenth street in the L. & H. Cohen building on the corner of Fifteenth and Matheny.

The restaurant – next to, and named after, the Pillsbury Mill flour plant – was immediately popular. In August, only four months after The Mill opened, Cusick oversaw a major expansion.

“A kitchen has been added as a separate unit and the main dining room doubled in size. A new bar, new booths, tables and fixtures make the Mill Tavern one of Springfield’s finest in appointments,” the Journal reported. “A special dance floor has been added also. Many new features are planned for the menu.”

Herman, left, and Richard Cohen, 1960s (SVC)

Herman and Richard Cohen, 1960s (SVC)

Cusick (1886-1954) stayed at The Mill only about a year, leaving to spend 20 years running another legendary Springfield bar, the Sazarac, 229 S. Sixth St. The Cohen brothers themselves took over management of The Mill, and they had another addition constructed – a 110-seat luncheon/party room – in 1938.

A fire that started in the old grocery section of the building gutted the structure in June 1940. However, the restaurant was back in operation at least by the following fall, and a Journal advertisement on Dec. 31, 1940, promised “the gayest (New Year’s) celebration of the town.”

The Mill remained a popular dining and dancing spot through the 1940s into the early 1970s. The Ray Cappella Trio, which played The Mill for 31 years, was synonymous with the restaurant during that period.

Herman Cohen and his nephew Richard – Louis’ son – continued to manage The Mill after Louis’ death in 1962. Leg problems eventually forced Herman to use a wheelchair, and the Cohens sold the restaurant in May 1971 to Ray Pennington.

Ray Cappella at the drums with his combo at The Mill, 1941 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Ray Cappella, at the drums, with his combo at The Mill, 1941 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

The Mill was destroyed again by fire the night of April 24, 1972, causing an estimated $350,000 damage. This time it wasn’t rebuilt. Arson was suspected – a witness reportedly told police two people ran from near the building just before smoke and flames began pouring out – but the cause was never officially determined.

Cappella (1909-79) was one of those most devastated by the loss of The Mill, he later told Illinois State Register reporter Paul Povse.

schs-logo-2My heart went down in my stomach. I remembered another night some years back when we had a fire and I played “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire” for over an hour – ‘til the audience got tired of it. I can’t find the words to express my sadness. I couldn’t go by there before I went to work that day.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

 

 

This entry was posted in Amusements, Fires, Hotels & taverns, Restaurants, Social life, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Mill, tavern and restaurant

  1. Mike Duvall says:

    Interesting about Cusick. Byron Booth (of Hobbs) insisted the horseshoe was invented at the Sazarac not the Leland Hotel.

    • editor says:

      Thanks, Mike. If it was the Sazarac, though, it would have been an earlier incarnation. (Cusick picked up the name from a previous Sazarac in 1934; I think he worked there too, though.) By all accounts, the horseshoe sandwich appeared sometime in the ’20s.

  2. Charles Ensor says:

    There was a bar tender, who was called “Daddy Longlegs”, circa 1955-1959 roughly. Does anyone know his real name? Or any pictures existing?

    • DALE BROOKS says:

      the person you are talking about was my father Robert (Bob) Brooks

    • Al Farmer says:

      If the bartender to whom you refer is, as Dale Brooks says, her Dad, Bob Brooks, he was there well past 1959. I worked there, as a busboy, from 1963 – 1964, and Bob was there at that time. I suspect that, unless he retired before the restaurant burned in 1972, he was probably there to the end. There was a second bartender, shorter guy with white hair, whose name I don’t remember. I reported another busboy for stealing tips from a table one night. I told Richard, because I knew Herman would have grabbed the guy, made a scene, and thrown him out. Richard handled it much better. It had been at a small 2-person table right outside Richard’s office, so he told the guy he had seen him take the money. Richard fired the guy. The guy didn’t believe him, and jumped me when I got off work that night. I managed to get on top of the much bigger guy and was ‘winning’ when Herman came out the front and fired me on the spot. Richard came out right behind him and hired me right back, and I thought THEY were gonna be the next ones fighting. I reported the other kid because ALL tips were the waitresses, unless something was handed to us directly as ours, and they split the tips. We, as busboys, divided 10% of the tips every week, and I averaged $35 to $45/weekly for MY part!! So, when you stole from one, you stole from all.

      I also played a brief stint on trumpet there in 1965-66, for 2 months, part-time with another trumpeter, while their trumpeter, Pete Rameros, was off for some kind of surgery. I cannot recall the other trumpeter’s name, but I am pretty sure he was from out around Sherman, somewhere.

      • editor says:

        Great story, Al, and great behind the scenes detail. Thanks for writing, and thanks as always for reading.

      • Janette Walker says:

        The other bartender, besides my dad Bob Brooks, was Larry Hardy. They were both at The Mill until the end, when it burned in 1972. I stood in the parking lot that night with my dad as it burned. So many memories of this place and the people, my dad worked there for decades. Thank you. Jan Brooks Walker

  3. Paul Price says:

    I worked there too as a busboy with my best friend Manfred and his Dad Fritz was a cook there. I have never in my 70 years seen a restaurant remotely like The Mill. They just don’t make ’em like that any more. Great food great atmosphere and every waitress gave the guests great service too. A very classy place.

  4. Richard wagoner says:

    I loved the Mill Restaurant. My favorite meal was the pompano almandine. The prime rib was wonderful too. One night we sat next to the kitchen which had saloon door that opened in the middle. Herman was such a nice man always smiling and attentive. However when he walked through those kitchen doors he was hell on wheels. I could here him working the kitchen staff over and his voice became louder as he approached the doors to exit the kitchen. As soon as the doors parted and I expected a wild man to appear his face beamed with a big smile and he transformed back into the wonderful man I had always known. I believe he had knee replacement surgery late in life.

  5. Nick Penning says:

    I loved The Mill, Ray Cappella, dancing and the unique atmosphere that wonderful restaurant created – a place for special occasion family dining or for a memorable night out with your date. When I learned of the fire that destroyed it, I wrote a letter/reflection that Illinois Times published. Not long after I received a beautiful letter from a surviving relative.

    I’ll always remember the radio plug I would hear from a little radio in our 1950s bedroom, an announcement spoken by “Waverly” Wayne Cody: “That’s The Mill at 15th and Matheny in Springfield.”

  6. Chris Schuster says:

    My extended family lived on that end of town. My aunt was a waitress at The Mill, one of numerous finer restaurants she worked, where then as now tips were nearly the sole source of income. I had a high school job at Lincoln Library, Hospital division, and our Christmas party was held at the Mill. My uncle and I had both worked at the nearby Pillsbury Mill, an imposing structure visible for miles around (along with the Capitol, only), which no doubt served as the source of the restaurant name. Pillsbury paid well thanks to the union and purchased and ground wheat, creating custom products such as cake mixes, Pizza Hut flours, Dunkin Donuts mixes, Farina, d other dry wheat-based products.

    Also, re: Waverly Wayne comment, always listened to him on WMAY to see if we had a snow day, otherwise the school lunch menus, and some ads for fresh “Chanel [as he pronounced it]” catfish. Was a long time before I knew there was a town named Waverly, just thought it was his name…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *