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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Tony’s Old Mill

 (From The Secaucus Reporter, Apirl, 2000)

For more years than most people can remember, people used to come to Tony’s Old Mill to eat, drink and talk. Tony’s Old Mill Inn and Restaurant was a haunt of fisherman, boaters and old-timers, all of whom could still recall a far wilder life on the Hackensack River, when generations of children wandered the wetlands to fish, hunt and trap.
Long after the hunting ceased and the fish turned poisonous due to pollution, many still told tales of old exploits over meals and drinks, pointing to the nearby meadows and the waters of Mill Creek and the Hackensack River as if to pinpoint the exact location.
Surrounded on three sides by water and reeds, with a single long road leading to it from the area of Schmidt’s Woods,
Old Mill has always been a place of local secrets, where longtime residents used to celebrate holidays or just go for dinner.
While the building still stands among the ruins of boats, old tires, a boat launch and cat tails, no one has dined here since the management closed its doors nearly two years ago. Yet long before the doors closed and its kitchen stove grew cold, people like Captain Bill Sheehan and Emily Cattuna of the town’s Environmental Committee eyed the site as a possible historic landmark.
Cattuna was particularly anxious in 1996 to have the town purchase the property in order to preserve one of the few monuments left in Secaucus’ history,
“Too often, in our community, irreplaceable history is lost and/or buried, along with our most valuable wetlands, under mountains of trash or cement in the name of progress,” Cattuna said at the time.
Last week, the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission moved to make at least part of Cattuna’s dream a reality by joining Secaucus officials in an effort to restore the site and transform it to a viable recreation facility.
Last May – under the urging of then Mayor Anthony Just – the town passed a $5 million bond ordinance that put aside $850,000 for the purchase and possible preservation of open space.
“That was a figure negotiated by the previous administration,” said Town Administrator Anthony Iacono.
Last month, the Secaucus Town Council voted to appropriate $85,000 as a down payment on the Old Mill property. The  sale is contingent upon the property’s passing two levels of environmental contamination tests.
Although the town amended its open space ordinance earlier this year to include the purchase of property in the north end near Huber Street School for parking, making it seem as though the town was shifting its focus, the Old Mill deal was still on the horizon.
“When we amended the ordinance, we did not shift our focus from what we set out to do as far as open space is concerned,” said Mayor Dennis Elwell. “We are still committed to that idea, and the Old Mill is one of the places we had in mind.”

Historic location

The Old Mill is perhaps one of the few remaining historic sites left in Secaucus. Sawmills and gristmills operated in Secaucus since the 1760s, and one of the gristmills built in 1840 stood on the left bank of Mill Creek. By 1860, the mill was in ruins, and Cattuna said she could not determined whether the mill had ground wheat or was used then as a flywheel for the saw mills. Maybe both. The mill, however, was marked on a map from 1900, showing that the restaurant now occupies the original site.
Howard Elwell and Tony Calderone built the existing building in 1947. At the time, the area was largely desolate, flouting hopes that some of the original building remained as part of the existing structure.
When Arthur Treacy purchased the property in 1965, now-mayor Dennis Elwell worked there. Elwell said Treacy did some interior work, changed the front door and repainted the building. A large section of the millstone, which had been quarried as a single piece and shipped to Secaucus from Virginia, was found in a ditch near the mill in 1970 and was placed in the restaurant’s lobby. It was 44 inches in diameter. A few scattered pieces were found at the Stonewall Lane.

A satellite HMDC

Under the proposed agreement, the town is asking the HMDC for $530,000 from the HMDC’s Environmental Initiative Bond fund to pay for architectural design and construction management services on the project.
The new proposal for the 1.8-acre site would convert the Old Mill into a satellite HMDC Environment Center that will expand upon the HMDC’s school activities and complement wetland restoration work currently ongoing just up Mill Creek near Secaucus High School.
The project, if it becomes a reality, would fulfill – in part – some of the wishes expressed by the Secaucus Environmental Committee four years ago. They had stressed the need for greater access to the river, envisioning a walkway, park area and benches along the riverfront.
The committee has also recommended applying to the state and national registry for historic preservation and applying for grants to restore and rehabilitate the “Old Mill” building. This would be in conjunction with dedicating the Old Mill as a historic site, with a commemorative plague proclaiming it.
“What (the HMDC) is proposing, we proposed four years ago,” Sheehan said. “It is nice to see that the HMDC has finally come around to our way of thinking.”
Mike Gonnelli, who wears two hats, one as the superintendent of Secaucus Public Works and the other as a commissioner on the HMDC, was instrumental in forging the agreement. He said the location of the property makes it ideal spot for water front recreation.
“The Old Mill is the gateway to the Mill Creek area and future plans we have for the area around the high school,” he said. “While the proposed facility will be an asset for Secaucus students, it will also be available to other students throughout the district.”
Gonnelli said the town of Secaucus took the first step when it set aside the money to buy the property, and the HMDC will help in developing the site.
“The town is purchasing the property, and once that is done, then we’ll use the money from the HMDC to proceed in the direction of waterfront recreational use,” Iacono said.
Under the HMDC’s plan, the original Old Mill building would be renovated, and in that way, would maintain this small piece of Secaucus history as Sheehan and Cattuna once envisione

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