The 105-year history of the Peerless Mill in Rossville will end with a wrecking ball and the site will take on a new life as a scrap yard.
Peerless owner Les Coffey purchased a demolition permit Monday morning and said he plans to level the 27-acre site, sell the scrap he can and run a scrap yard and waste transfer station.
"Everybody I've spoken to is very disappointed," said Coffey, who added that his phone was flooded with messages after the news broke. "It's just time to move on. We can't keep pouring money in to prop the project up."
Crews began taking down lights Monday, and all of the demolition will be finished by Dec. 31, he said.
In a news release issued Monday, Coffey noted that all current tenants will be allowed to stay until their leases are up and the Prater's Flooring building would remain up and running.
"We must for the benefit of the creditors of Peerless Self Storage and the shareholders change our direction of business," Coffey wrote in the release. "Beginning immediately we will proceed with demolishing of the complex."
The mill, which is the largest single tract of land in Rossville, dates back to 1905 and, at one time, employed thousands of workers as one of the largest woolen mills in the world. The facility was sold to Burlington Industries in 1952, then was taken over by the Hutcheson family and the Rossville Development Corp. before a disastrous fire in June 1967. No one died, but 15 industries that rented space inside the 360,000-square-foot structure were destroyed.
After Coffey bought it from the Hutchesons in 2007, he and the city have been involved in disputes that have led to lawsuits and countersuits over the past few years.
Coffey had hoped to rent out the space to tenants, but he blamed interference from city officials as the idea's downfall.
"It is very regretful that a dream of mine will never be realized, as I have invested four years of my life into this project," he wrote in the release. "However, reality must take precedence over dreams and the reality is the city of Rossville and their management will never allow the Peerless site to thrive."
Rossville Mayor Johnny Baker wished Coffey luck on his new venture.
"As long as he complies with the zoning and everything, what he does with it is up to him," Baker said. "I say good luck to him."
Baker said the property is zoned industrial and he believed a scrap yard would fit into that description.
"I'll guess we'll cross that bridge when he applies for a business permit," the mayor said.
In the past, city officials have pointed to the road and rail connections at the site, wishing it could be developed for industry to bring jobs back to the town.
Instead, Coffey said he will sell the bricks, wiring and beams from the building to recoup his investment and pay creditors.
Ken Rule of Black Diamond Slate in Savannah, Ga., recently bought bricks and beams from two other now-demolished mills in Greenwood, S.C., and Albany, Ga. He said the market for salvage materials isn't what it was a few years ago, but he and others probably would be interested in buying some of the Peerless remains.
BY THE NUMBERS
Estimated salvageable material from the mill:
10 million pounds of heavy steel
2 million pounds of shredded tin and steel
200,000 pounds of heavy copper
400,000 pounds copper wire and piping
5 million bricks between 75 and 100 years old
1 million board feet of heart-of-pine beams
1 million board feet of maple flooring
Source: Peerless Self Storage LLC
He said salvage brick usually goes for 16 to 37 cents per brick and the beams could go for as much as $1.50 per foot.
Based on those figures and Coffey's estimates, the mill owner could sell the bricks and beams for $1.55 million to $3.35 million. At current prices, the 12 million pounds of steel, copper and other metal that Coffey expects to salvage would bring in more than $3 million.
Coffey bought the mill for more than $1.3 million in 2007 and said he has spent more than $800,000 on improvements.
Local historian Larry Rose said the mill played an integral part in Rossville's past.
"The whole area was set up around that mill," he said. "Just about everybody in Rossville worked there at one time or another."
Despite the mill's importance in the past, Rose said he doesn't see a lot of historical value in keeping it around. Former mill towns around the South are struggling with how to handle the old mills that used to drive the towns, he said, and in Rossville's case, leveling the Peerless would eliminate an "eyesore."
"What are you going to do with a big mill that's deteriorating daily?" he asked. "There's not a lot of uses you could make out of it unless you did some extensive remodeling."
Contact staff writer Andy Johns at ajohns@timesfree press.com or call 423-757-6324.