Special to The Madison Courier

In 2013, Indiana Landmarks added the Eagle Cotton Mill to its annual list of the 10 Most Endangered Landmarks.

Indiana Landmarks has issued the list since 1991 to call attention to the needs of historically significant properties.

Indiana Landmarks President Marsh Davis said all of the sites have potential for revitalization, but acknowledged they can be a challenge to save. The group hopes that including them on its most endangered list will bring attention to their plight and help “find solutions that will ensure their preservation,” he said.

The building, on Vaughn Drive, made its first appearance on the list in 2013.

When builders Robert H. Rankin and James White announced plans in the 1800s to build a cotton mill facing the Ohio River east of downtown, they said it would take three months to build. Instead it took six months to construct the huge building at what is now Vaughn Drive and St. Michael’s Avenue.

Completed in 1884, it is 247 feet long, 74 feet wide, four stories, with the brick walls 25 inches thick. The first three floors have 12-foot ceilings and the top floor has a 14-foot ceiling.

Rankin and White had a purpose for building the cotton mill: When the building was finished, money that had been raised through subscriptions in Madison was used to buy the equipment of the Eagle and Banner Mills in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and move it to Madison.

The Eagle Cotton Mill failed financially in 1890, according to the 1971 Historical American Buildings Survey. Richard Johnson Sr., whose prominent family had been involved in Madison businesses since 1850, bought the cotton mill the same year it failed.

According to the survey, the Johnson family turned the business around by 1905, and it was the leading industry in the city. When the Johnson family’s cordage factory at the Tower Manufacturing site burned during the winter of 1917-1918, the factory was moved to the cotton mill.

Later, the building was vacant for several years until Edwin Meese and two partners bought it in the 1930s after their building at Main and Vine streets burned. Meese’s name was painted across the front and many people still call it the Meese building. Meese used the first two floors and a shoe manufacturer used the top two floors.

Meese moved to the hilltop on Cragmont Street in the early 1980s.

During the nearly 100 years that the cotton mill was a factory, the products made there included long sheets of muslin, muslin sacks, cotton twine, canvas and later aluminum laundry hampers, canvas goods for the military, canvas mail carts for the post office, ice cream carts for vendors, polyethylene containers, shoes, canvas shipping containers, evaporators for commercial refrigeration units and for air conditioners, and many other items.

In addition to manufacturing, the cotton mill has been used for storage of starch and of equipment in different centuries.

Twice the cotton mill was sold to people who planned to restore and reuse the building, with talk of hotel rooms, condos, a combination of both, and include restaurants and retail spaces.

Jerry Fuhs and his wife, who remodeled and upgraded the Hillside Inn, bought the cotton mill in 2001 but didn’t do anything with it and put it up for sale about four years later. At the time, Jerry Fuhs said they decided to work closer to their home and their developments near French Lick.

In late June 2007, Bob Przewlocki and David Landau of the Chicago area, in business as River Mill Preservation Co., bought the cotton mill and announced plans for River Mill Resort. Windows were removed and taken to Przewlocki’s restoration business near Chicago. Later the window openings were covered with white material, which remains in some windows, is tattered in others and is missing in some.

They also painted over the Meese name on the side facing the river, cleared out undergrowth on the property, did some exterior painting, started excavating a pond at a front corner of the property and did condo floor layouts for part of the building. Potential buyers put down payments into an escrow account, but their money was refunded when the developers could not get financing, partly because of the 2008 recession.

Landau left the business. Przewlocki began looking for a buyer. When Turkish investors showed interest, the city sent then-special projects administrator Betsey Vonderheide — whose paternal grandfather was Edwin Meese — to Turkey to talk to them. And then-Mayor Al Huntington wrote an open letter to Turkish investors that was published in a Turkish business magazine, inviting Turks to invest in Madison. Nothing came of the efforts.

River Mill Preservation Co. still owns the property, which is listed on the tax rolls for $211,400. Przewlocki has moved to Arizona and Landau lives in Florida.