This is an interview with Thomas “Skip” Wilson. Skip has worked for the mill since 14 years old and been doing it full time since graduating college. Milling is no longer the main focus of the facility and instead they are now focused on a customer oriented business. They have a good relationship with the Park but have an innate fear of “big government.” As a protection against this they opened up another facility not within the park in case they buy out the land. All-in-all Wilson has spent his entire life doing what he does and he enjoys it. He has good memories of living in the Cuyahoga Valley and of the Wilson Feed Mill.
Wilson, Tom Skip (interviewee)
Petit, Joseph (interviewer)
Cuyahoga Valley Project
"Tom "Skip" Wilson Interview, 2011" (2011). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 518016.
Transcription sponsored by Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Joe Petit [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Joe Petit, and today is Monday, March 28th, 2011. I'm interviewing Skip Wilson for the Cuyahoga Valley Agriculture Project. For the record, would you please state your name and spell it for me?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:00:17] My name is Thomas G. Wilson, my nickname is Skip, S-K-I-P. Obviously in a family that comes from numerous Thomases, Thomas Wilsons, I got the nickname.
Joe Petit [00:00:28] All right. Well, why don't you begin by telling us something about yourself, such as when and where you were born and where do you live now?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:00:36] I was born here in Cleveland, the Cleveland area. I lived all my life in the Valley View Village, grew up here, worked here. I went to school in Cuyahoga Heights School District and I'm a father of four, married to a lovely wife and hope to spend the rest of our lives around here.
Joe Petit [00:00:57] How did your family come to reside in the Cuyahoga Valley?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:01:00] Well, our family is... the Wilsons purchased the feed mill that was owned by then the Alexanders and some of the other interests back around 1900. The actual date's to still to be decided. But there they moved into this valley approximately 1900. And we've been living in this area ever since. Father was born in the house that my grandparents built, so we've been within a stone's throw of the feed mill all our lives. They actually moved out of the area known as the Millstream, up in Garfield, not too far south of the Slavic Village, north of Garfield Cleveland area, where there was numerous mills at that time. So upon selling those properties, they moved to the valley.
Joe Petit [00:01:50] How long have your family been millers?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:01:53] As near as we can tell, we're going on about six generations right now. And if you want to put a date on it, I would guess probably predating the civil war. So about 150, 160 years.
Joe Petit [00:02:08] How is milling different today than when your grandfather purchased the Wilson feed?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:02:16] When my great-grandfather and grandfather were running things, there was a larger agricultural presence in the valley. Farming was pretty much it. They were doing grinding and milling for animal feeds for the local farmers or where there was the grain to bring in and process so that could be sold or ones to be made into feeds. Today, we do very little actual milling per se. We do some mixing, but most of the feed now is preprocessed, pre-bag. We're buying it from major distributors like Buckeye and Purina. And in between, we went from using a turbine-powered feed mill to now electric, where back then, until like the mid '70s, early '70s, my father used the water power. Now everything is electric. In the early days, my grandfather once boasted he had one of the finest bread flours in Cuyahoga County. And now we're a little more, everything is retail. It's aimed for the pet owner, for the bird fancier, the lawn and garden fans, horse owners. We're quite a bit more broad than we were in those days.
Joe Petit [00:03:33] So you no longer use the water power, do you still have the facility for it? Or do you still maintain that?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:03:40] A majority of the parts are still in place. I'm old enough to remember when Dad still used the water power, but because of conditions that came through with the canal water actually being river water from Cuyahoga Falls and Akron, that and floods, it would basically gum up or stop the mechanical pieces. So Dad had to literally go out and physically clean it out every time there was a big flood or heavy rain, something of that nature. The parts are pretty much still there and we just don't have really the water there to use the wheel also and it needs to have a constant flow of so much water in between the canal, not containing as much water in the Park Service at the time, doing different projects. You know, we could probably get it up and running. It would be a pretty good undertaking with some dollars involved, but it could be done without saying hesitation yeah.
Joe Petit [00:04:39] So you said that one of the reasons you switched from being water power was especially when the canal would flood. Is that a problem today?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:04:49] We don't see as much of the problem, partly because the water level in the canal was left lower in those days. What happened was, is that all the mud and whatnot would come down through the canal from the river. The river actually, underneath Route 82 bridge, is where the opening gate is for the canal. So when that water would flush through there, if it wasn't controlled, we would end up getting it, you know, way too much mud and stuff in there. To actually have flooding problems with the facility, we don't see that as much because we sit a good bit higher than the actual floodplain. So actually, the only time we see a real problem was is like in 2006, I think it was, we had that heavy flash flood of sorts and then the water came down. But we sit a good bit higher than where the river comes in. Now, if the water does get up and into us, there's gonna be a lot of folks in Valley View and all north of us that are going to be some serious, serious trouble.
Joe Petit [00:05:49] So flooding doesn't affect your business personally, but how does it affect people actually frequenting your business?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:05:57] That would be the problem because a lot of our clientele has to get into us, has to come down into the valley. So if any of the roadways have to be covered with floodwaters, we're sunk. And all we have to have is the rumor of a flood and the phone calls start coming in and asking, "Hey, can I get to you? Is such and such a road flooded?" And it lasts usually several days after the floodwaters are long gone so it does affect us. It affects the people that work for us. Some of them actually live in flood plains. My sister's part of it. We do see, you know, the inconvenience and also getting a little bit landlocked because they can't get to you, they can't get to you.
Joe Petit [00:06:42] Over the years, what would you say has been the biggest change your mill has experienced?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:06:50] It has gone through several, and I don't like to use the word evolutions but, several different reincarnations or times where the mill's had to reinvent itself, because I can even go back in my lifetime and see how many of the local areas, townships and villages were more agricultural and farming oriented. Where you would have a small herd of cattle, you know, dairy cattle or folks would have an actual chicken coop in the backyard with several dozen hens. Now we're seeing things like the resurgence of what we call urban flocks, where a lot of the towns and villages and cities are allowing you to have a small flock of chickens or raise an individual animal. But as the land has become more and more suburbanized, we've seen that move away from what we call farming as we've kind of known it, to now backyard gardens. The flock has become a couple of chickens, the only cattle we have are one or two small herds, if you will, in a nearby area where there allow such animals to be raised. There are not as many, they're pretty well landlocked and have to be almost grandfathered in. So we've seen this shift from really a place where the people coming in were more ag-related to now where they're coming in to feed the birds, they're coming in to feed their pets, they're coming in to put a little bit of fertilizer on their lawn or a reseed it, or comes wintertime buy rock salt from us. So we've had to see this general diversification from a time when it was all about farming pretty much to now about a little bit of everything and sadly gotten away from a lot of that farming, at least on the extent it used to be.
Joe Petit [00:08:38] Any other big changes you can think of?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:08:41] Well, watching the terrain change around us in terms of how many open pieces of ground that used to have, you know, a garden in it to where now these houses have the urban creepers come in. The sprawl that we see, you know, what used to be open fields is now housing developments and what this has done has changed our clientele. We see a lot more of a suburban thing, which means we also see a lot more competition. You know, we used to be able to sell a lot of, let's say, dog food, and we were an island unto ourselves. Now you have the box stores. So there's always a Wal-Mart or PetSmart or Petco not too far away that you have to worry about whether or not you're going to sell them a bag of fertilizer, a bag of dog food, you know, any of the things we have in our store. So it forces us to become more service-oriented than the big guys are.
Joe Petit [00:09:35] How about any big changes to the actual facilities? Have the grounds stayed relatively the same?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:09:42] With the exception of the things that have happened before my lifetime, so we're going to have to go back almost 50 years at least, the building has pretty much stayed the same as where it is. We've done a little remodeling in what we would call our sales area, but it's a very small place to begin with. And if you can double like 400 square feet, you know, to almost 600 square feet, that's really something. I don't think we have that. The building is primarily as it's been probably for the last 120 years, shoring up a few times with about four or five years back. My brother did some foundational work to help shore up where the footers and the beams are. But other than moving around equipment in there, the building itself and the ground's pretty much stayed the same. We've moved our parking lot around a little bit and got rid of some older, we used to store some things in trailers, it was convenient. There was an outbuilding that was on the premises that was part of the old American Steel and Wire division of U.S. Steel. That was pretty well ready to fall down, so we helped it along and took it out. But otherwise, what you see is pretty much similar in one way, shape or form, since the longest most anybody can remember.
Joe Petit [00:10:58] What type of grain do you sell?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:11:00] Well, the only real true grains we sell whole are things like wheat, corn, oats, milo [sorghum]. For the most part, the grains we get in are your prebag, with the exception of corn, which does come in bulk from a farm out slightly west of here, out towards Huron, Norwalk area. Our grains are all, again, like I said, are all coming in bagged. And we do sell some of it for mixing, but for the most part, it's either horse food or poultry feed of one kind or another.
Joe Petit [00:11:35] So most of the grain is horse feed or poultry feed. Anything else?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:11:40] Our mainstay is birdseed. That is one of the biggest hobbies around is to have and stay with your pets indoors, have them outdoors. So we sell a lot of mixed greens where we have, it's mixed up to our formula that we've been using for probably 30, almost 40 years where we put it in the backyard and let the birds come. Birding has become a real big hobby to a lot of folks and we sell a lot of birdseed. Things like sunflower seeds, different grains like thistle seeds, safflower, to track the different types of birds and the feeders that go with it. So you can see that there's horse feed, a little bit of poultry, but that's really our bread and butter is birdseed.
Joe Petit [00:12:23] Do you have any actual farmers that buy from you?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:12:27] In terms of the grains or are you talking like also from fertilizer and seed? I mean, the farmer nowadays around us is one who has a small backyard flock. Let's say maybe as much as three or four dozen chickens at the largest. I do have a gentleman who lives up in Sagamore, has a small string of dairy cattle he uses mostly as a hobby and to show at county fairs. The growing ag-type farmers around us are doing pretty much like pick your own greens, sweet corn and things like that, so they'll buy some seed and fertilizer from us. But many of those things are also getting out of seed houses where they're having it delivered in. The days of having numerous farms around from when I was a kid to now, you can probably say went through twenty or so down to virtually nothing. Three or four that I can count really on one or two hands, you know, fingers. That's about it.
Joe Petit [00:13:27] Can you pinpoint the time when it really changed?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:13:34] It's been a gradual change because you look at the generations, for instance, when I was a teenager, the guys that were my age and their kids were my age at that time, maybe their families are not handing down the farms. Maybe the [inaudible] children didn't want to get into it. In some cases, you had the pressing use of land. For instance, several of the smaller farms that are in the valley, some were bought up by the park. Some just went out, decided not to carry on the tradition any longer. So it really probably took place over about a 20 year, 30 year period where you just saw it dwindle down. One here, one there. And just also the idea of some of the mass markets. I mean, if you're trying to go up against, you know, the grocery stores and things of that nature, it's pretty hard to be able to do it unless one wants a farm-fresh this or that. The old-fashioned garden markets are kind of making a comeback here and there, we see them pop up in the summertime. But the full-time stores that were there, they're not so much. And there were a couple in the area.
Joe Petit [00:14:48] So you say a lot of the farms dwindled, probably because the children didn't want to continue that. You obviously have been doing this as part of your family for a while. Tell us how you got into that.
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:15:02] I honestly think that God has a sense of humor, that if you're a Wilson, you're gonna be some way, shape, or form gathering dust on you, mill dust. Originally when I was in high school, I was hoping to become a teacher but working at the mill, I would help my parents out. Cleaning on a Friday night when I was eight years old probably didn't accomplish very much, but still was there, quote-unquote, "helping". And by the time I was 14, I was legally working there with a work permit. And even after going to college, I started to see that this might be the place I'm going to make my business the same way my father did before me. So and my brother was in the same boat. He can actually do a nice job as a stone bricklayer, but we're both here doing feed mowing. My sisters, the same, they help us out with bookkeeping. So it seems like, you know, there's a little link to the family being linked to the business and we found that it's made a good living for us. There's been some uptimes and some downtimes like right now where the economy is at, but we're still at it.
Joe Petit [00:16:08] So how long would you say you've been a miller, let's say?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:16:13] To use that term, I've been working legally at, you know, of course, we as kids, you always work for mom and dad doing little things. But I started literally with my work permit at 14, so that's thirty-three years already. And for that, it was sweeping floors and doing odd things down there. Being a little bit larger and a little stronger, I could carry some of the bags before I was 14 without any trouble. So I can put 33 years on the books there and then say that much with these.
Joe Petit [00:16:47] How long have you been doing it full-time?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:16:50] Since literally I graduated. I went to school pretty much full-time at Tri-C and any other time of the week I was working forty hours a week. So that goes back to when I was 18. So I'm looking almost 30 years there again.
Joe Petit [00:17:09] What about your kids and your siblings' children? What about the next generation? How actively involved are they?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:17:17] Well, the eldest of them are right around sixteen. I've got a daughter who's fifteen and a half at this point and her two nieces are just slightly older, same grade. They'll come down and do a little bit of work once in a while. Bagging, they've helped me out numerous times and promotions and special events. I don't know how much interest they have. All the kids have come down and run around and climbed on the bags and jumped into the bins where the grains at and things like that. It's, you know, taking home the dirt to mom, just like we did to my mom. But I don't really know how many of them will be interested in carrying on the business part of it. The next wave of my kids and also my nieces and nephews, then we go down around twelve years old and other than them looking for money to help pay for whatever, you know, hobbies and things that they want as teenagers, I'm not so sure if they're ready to work there or want to work there or not. We haven't been, we don't push them, and it just kind of happens on its own and we see what happens. So inevitably, I don't doubt that there will be some, one of them will want to pop their head in there and end up doing something like their father or mother did.
Joe Petit [00:18:33] Alright. Well, you said sell some things besides grain. What do you sell?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:18:40] Well, the bird feed is a big part of the feeders and accessories. During the spring, summer, and fall, we sell quite a bit of fertilizer, lawn products, insect killers. You know, if you got problems with your grubs in the yard as an example, ants around the foundation, we sell a great deal of grass seed bulk so that you can come in and take care of a patch in the yard. Dog food, cat food, pet treats are another part of our staple. You heard about the poultry type things, if we literally can, between some of the suppliers. If it walks, flies or swims, we could probably find a food for it. Wintertime, we do quite a bit of ice melters, whether you're buying it by the bag or by the pallet for a contractor who's doing snowplowing churches, funeral parlors, you name it. So we have a large umbrella of products of different kinds. It just depends what season and what you're looking for.
Joe Petit [00:19:46] When did you start to diversify what you sold?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:19:52] My father was probably the one that best saw this because in the late 60s and early 70s, he could see the shift of going from where we were dealing also with farmers, where our customer base was going to start being more retail-oriented as they just came in the door to buy fertilizer for their lawn or garden or finding garden vegetable seeds, or they were coming in to buy a bag of feed for the few chickens they had, it all started to shift. So that's when we started to see this switch over to a pre-produced product where we're getting a lot of things from suppliers versus making some of them ourselves. And also with that was the rise of the bird feed demand, which, you know, went from a time when he would maybe mix a pallet ton in let's say a day to where we can average two and three a day without any trouble. So it really happened probably when I was a younger child, in my early childhood and throughout about my early teens, he started to see the shift and with it came also, he had the foresight enough to think, you know what, I can't fight it. I might as well go with it and stay just enough ahead that because of our unique placewe're at, this old building. The people knew they could get good service there and there wasn't really any competition except for a few hardware stores and garden centers. We could do the lawn and garden point there, we could do the pet food thing. We could do the bird feed thing and still keep in touch with the farming, whether they were feeding a few cattle, a few pigs or whatever.
Joe Petit [00:21:29] Have you added anything new in the past few years? Have you been involved in any sort of diversification?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:21:39] Other than just adding and seeing what the newest products are and what people are looking for, nothing radical at this that I could say lay claim to. Of course maybe I'll have one of those aha moments coming up, but at this point I can't really take any credit there. It's been pretty much a within the same genre. If we have a new pet treat come out, that's something like that, but nothing radical and say "oh, we automatically have this here to." Other than maybe a game that became very popular in the last five years called cornhole toss, we sold the corn and my wife, being a mild seamstress, started making the bags. And, you know, we did a little bit of things like that. That's probably about the only diversification I could say was really there.
Joe Petit [00:22:34] Okay, so you guys made your own cornhole game?
Speaker 2 [00:22:36] Yeah, I've tried to become a carpenter and it's this little sideline. It's developed because of the mill.
Joe Petit [00:22:45] Paint me a picture of your typical day
Speaker 2 [00:22:50] Things I do? Do I include getting up and herding teenagers to a bus stop. Get my oldest ones up the school about six o'clock, walk them down to the school bus,about 6:20, next baskets up at seven. I have them down the hill about, because I live right across the street from the feed mill, I have them down the hill about 20 to eight and step foot in the middle, get the cash registers ready to go, start to set up any of the products that we have outside for displays. And basically, it's taking care of the customers, taking care of orders, troubleshooting customer relations, ordering product, taking care of random inventory. At this point in time when you're here, I basically whatever needs to get taken care of. It can be anything and everything, from standing behind the counter and doing actual sales with you as you walk in the door to carrying out the feed and putting it in your vehicle to answer your questions. "How come this ugly-looking weed is in my yard?" to "my dog doesn't like its dog food" or "what's that strange bird coming in?" I'm taking care, just basically watching as a bit of a shepherd over the young guys that I've got working for us because we need, you know, strong bodies and sometimes with it comes easily distracted. I shouldn't say that, I can't on tape. But dealing with early teens or early 20-something guys, it's sometimes keeping them moving and getting there. Basically making sure when the people come in the door, we get them what they need and have a reason to tell someone that they want to come back. And that'll go on and off from before eight to when we close the doors on the weekdays at five-thirty and then four o'clock on Saturdays. We haven't had to open on Sundays, but Lord willing, we probably won't.
Joe Petit [00:24:49] Is that pretty standard throughout the year, each season?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:24:54] You have to just change our focus from whether it's wintertime, where it's more feeding of the wildlife and taking care of snow and ice to summertime, putting in the lawns and fertilizing and selling some. We'll have a chick day coming up here in a couple of weeks. In early April, I got baby chicks for those who want to have a backyard flock and in the fall, it's selling pumpkins. So, you know, it's a little bit of everything, depending on what month of the year it is.
Joe Petit [00:25:25] Who makes the decisions?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:25:28] Well, in the past, my father was the chief cook and bottle washer, if you will use that. He was the president and the one who made decisions. As my brother and I have grown older and so has dad, he's pretty well-turned things to both of us. My brother is technically the president of the company, I'm a vice president. So a majority of the weighty decisions come through him, but he also makes sure to see what's the temperature in the room and what's the feel on anything he needs to make a decision on. So it is a bit of a a select democracy, if you will, between a couple of us. It is a family-owned business, so we best make sure we keep my two sisters in the loop on things because, you know, after all, this is their livelihood as well as ours, but primarily my brother and myself.
Joe Petit [00:26:25] Is your dad still actively involved?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:26:29] He comes into the mill. He calls himself retired, but he comes in for usually Monday through Thursday to work behind the counter. It keeps him busy and keeps him thinking. When we lost my mom about thirteen years ago, he decided he was going to get involved with trail riding with horses and now he raises donkeys and mules down towards Mansfield area and Galion area. So he needs to pay for his hobbies and take care of his critter, so he comes up for a couple of days, keeps his house up here and he's got a small farm down there. But usually three to four days a week, he's still there. So there's two generations of us working.
Joe Petit [00:27:14] Has that ever presented a problem where you and your brother make a decision and he might not agree with it?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:27:20] There's always going to be second guessing between generations. I'm starting to realize I'm becoming my father and I'm looking up and like asking him at times in my head, why are you thinking this way? So there's sometimes question about what's the judgment on it. For the most part, he's realizing that his view on things and his perspective is desired, but it may not always work for what's happening today. Just the same as maybe he saw with his dad and I heard there were some pretty good arguments between them in that in those days. So why would it be any different with us? But it's usually even if it's hotly discussed, it's pretty amicable.
Joe Petit [00:28:05] So between your father and his father, what sort of disagreements?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:28:10] Oh, it was about like the same things, which product needed to be in, why are you doing this? Why are you doing that? Or just the style of running a business and decision-making process. As we get generational, you'll find out as you get older, you start to look at the younger one and wonder why they do what they do. What was their thinking? Just the same as our parents and grandparents before us probably looked at us and going, why were you doing that? What were you thinking? I hope you're right when you make this decision, because if you're not, it's going to hurt. We're going to take a hit in business. You think you can sell that product because if you can't, somebody's gotta to pay for it. And both of them probably had very strong personalities, when they finally decide they want to make a decision, boy, don't step in the way of it. See him even now, "I don't know what you're doing, but I hope you're right."
Joe Petit [00:29:06] Was your father's decision to expand what you guys sold, was that a problem between him and his father?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:29:14] It might have been. I was too young to know about, I just heard that they had some pretty good knock-down discussions about stuff. That both of them were, my grandfather I know was a very strong personality, a little more outgoing than my father was so. They were probably coming at the same thing, looking at the same perspective from two different angles and bang, butting the heads.
Joe Petit [00:29:41] Alright. How successful is Wilson Feed Mill?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:29:44] Well, I will say there's a bit of irony attached to that because we're now in the third and fourth generation are working there. And throughout most of my limited but college education in business management, it seems that we had broken most of the major rules that my professors were telling me business needed to survive. So by the grace of God and hard work, it has been serving the people around this now for 110 years. And hopefully there will be another couple of generations there, depending on our relationship with the park and how the economy goes, and how things change with the customer's buying habits. You know, we're really an old-style business that needs to try to play catch up in a modern world. I mean, we do actually have a website now and that's something that we're only probably, what, a good 10 years behind the curve on things. But successful-wise with employees, we have probably six or seven full-time employees besides family and another half a dozen part-time kids that come in seasonally just at the Valley View location. So keeps us going and keeping people working. I guess we're fairly successful.
Joe Petit [00:31:06] You say that the business is more successful, or this is the most successful it's been?
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:31:14] If you look at in terms of the number of customers and dollars and cents, those things are all up. We do add a little bit of a downturn in that last recession year, but if you think about it, it's still the number of customers coming through the door. We did OK. We had our high watermark and our best. It's hard to say because what we used to be able, let's say, buy a product for two dollars a bag, now it's costing us five and six dollars a bag. So to literally try to compare dollars, we'd have to try to use that factor of what's it cost today, no different than a gallon of gas 10 years ago versus a gallon of gas today. You know, we're always selling more units of this, less of this. So we usually trading one product for another. So that's a good question. I don't know if we can give you a straight answer other than what I gave.
Joe Petit [00:32:13] Tell us about the Chesterland location.
Thomas "Skip" Wilson [00:32:16] Well, my brother has been looking for some time because we have an odd arrangement with the National Park Service. The property that we occupy right now, the building belongs to Wilson Feed Mill. But the strange way the land has been drawn up in terms of the parcels, part of it belongs to us. Part of it belongs to what originally belonged to the state of Ohio, which we leased from the state, which then was turned over to the Park Service. So if you want to take a look at our overhead view of the land plots on it, it's like looking at a pie that comes all together and different angles. None of it's square, none of it, but part of it we own part. To make a long story short, we're never quite so sure what their game plan, long term plans were for this historic building because it's in a national registry. They did studies probably 20 some years ago, archived it, the whole nine yards. But what is the future? And in watching past processes and ways that the Park Service dealt with the public, it was pretty e
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