This is the house where Buddy and Louann Waller lived when he owned the Cotton Mill property, which then included this house. When he sold the property, he kept the house and it is a rental. (Photo by Peggy Vlerebome)
This is the house where Buddy and Louann Waller lived when he owned the Cotton Mill property, which then included this house. When he sold the property, he kept the house and it is a rental. (Photo by Peggy Vlerebome)
Editor’s note: When the plans for the Cotton Mill site were published in The Madison Courier Jan. 23, Buddy Waller’s daughter called to remind us that her father also had played a part in the history of this treasured building on Madison’s riverfront. We visited with them as they recalled the years they spent with the building.


Special to the Courier

For 20 years, the Cotton Mill was not only the place where middle-aged entrepreneur Buddy Waller started his wholesale business selling water meters and sewer pipes and fittings, but also where he lived.

He paid the then-owner Saul Padek $250 a month to rent everything on the six acres at Vaughn Drive and St. Michaels Avenue — the huge, four-story brick factory; a small brick building attached to it on the southwest side that had been the Cotton Mill office; a house that had been a Jaycees clubhouse; and a long, green building behind it.

The property had been vacant for a long time.

“The shrubbery was up over the top of the building,” Waller said.

In 1981 he rented the property until later buying it from Padek, who had sold it to an out-of-town group that planned to have an inn and restaurant. As with other plans for the Cotton Mill, it didn’t work out and Padek had taken it back in foreclosure.

Waller added a bedroom, a full bathroom and a wraparound deck to his home; the front of the deck remains. The first floor of the big Cotton Mill building was where his business inventory was stored. The green building was the office for the new Waller’s Meter Inc., established in 1982. His son, Terry, moved with him to the Cotton Mill and has worked for Waller’s Meter since the day it opened.

“It was a great place to live because I like the river,” Buddy Waller said. He had a houseboat and the dock had a big sign: Buddy’s Landing.

Teresa Waller, vice president of the business, which she joined in 1990, said her father did a lot of work on the factory building, also known as the Meese building. “He put new roof on it, covers for the windows,” she said.

“I spent a lot of money preserving it,” Buddy Waller said. “It was going to fall down if I didn’t. I didn’t have the heart to see it fall away. Demolition by neglect.”

Waller, 87, built his business there. He had worked for a similar business but decided to cash in his retirement when he was almost 50 years old and open his own company. In his former job, he had met people whom he now would want doing business with him. He took his guitar and sang at meetings, conventions, anywhere where people who buy the pipes and such for water, sewer and drainage projects were gathered.

“That’s how I kept my name in,” he said.

He also entertained local audiences on Ferry Street near his Cotton Mill home. He played his guitar and sang, mostly country-western music, at Pirate’s Cove, which was on the ground floor of Key West Shrimp House, from 7 p.m. to midnight Fridays. A Key West newspaper ad, framed on the wall of Waller’s office, called him “Madison’s Own Kenny Rogers.”

In the early 1990s, the controversial issue of whether Indiana would allow riverboat casinos raged in the General Assembly and then was approved. Investors plied the riverfronts looking for money-making opportunities. Switzerland, Ohio and Dearborn were among the counties whose residents voted in 1993 to allow riverboat casinos in their counties. Jefferson County’s referendum vote was set for May 3, 1994.

Waller was wined and dined and wooed and courted by investors and developers from Canada, Las Vegas, Florida and elsewhere who coveted the Cotton Mill to redevelop if a casino came to the Ohio River in Madison. There was talk of locating a casino across Vaughn Drive from the Cotton Mill or at Rivercrest Marina on the west end of the city.

“I didn’t really care where they docked it as long as they paid me,” he said with a laugh.

The Wallers and the investors awaited the vote.

“We had contracts on that property contingent on that,” Teresa Waller said.

Jefferson County voters rejected the idea of having a gambling boat on the Madison riverfront.

Three years later, the flood of 1997 “kind of made us serious about moving,” Teresa Waller said.

“There was 22 inches (of water) in the (green) metal building,” Buddy Waller said. “I could lay in bed where I lived there and hear it lapping” against the house.

There had been interest in buying the Cotton Mill from others through the years, but Waller said they were planning to spend other people’s money, not their own. There were so many calls from people who didn’t have the money to buy the property themselves that he finally stopped returning their calls. Then one day when his wife, Louann, was in the yard, Jerry Fuchs stopped by and asked her to have Buddy call him. She did, he didn’t.

A couple of months later, Fuchs stopped by when Buddy Waller was there and said he wanted to buy the property. Fuchs had just finished remodeling Hillside Inn.

They reached terms that began a lengthy process that involved land swaps and financial transactions. Waller kept the house where he and Louann and lived; it is adjacent to the east of the fence around the Cotton Mill property and is a rental.

The sale was in two parts, the commercial and residential, and took until 2004 to complete the transactions, Waller said. He and Louann moved to a house on a private lake past Hanover. Waller moved his business in 2001 to the former Kmart store on Wilson Avenue, where the painted names of departments are still on the walls of the Waller’s Meter warehouse. In the front of the former store, he had offices built.

Back at the Cotton Mill, Fuchs had some minor work done but did not develop the property. Fuchs sold it to two Chicago-area men, whose plans for condos, restaurants, shops, and other uses could not get financing. Now another group has come forward with plans for the property.