The midlife crisis is a natural experience for many and often manifests in unusual ways. That’s how Wyoming Senate President Ogden Driskill describes an active building project on his ranch near Devils Tower.
A 119-year-old historic sandstone building is being rebuilt on Driskill’s ranch, and he’s footing a hefty bill to finish the project. But saving and restoring the building is testament to Cowboy State history and the spirit of northeast Wyoming, not a money-making venture.
The building has been “just something I've always admired and liked,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “No Corvettes, no girlfriends, but I’ve got an old stone building I like a lot.”
Toomey's Flour Mill
The sandstone structure now standing in the shadow of Devils Tower was built more than a century ago in Newcastle. It was Toomey’s Mill, a 100-barrel flour mill built with sandstone from a local quarry in 1905.
The Newcastle Milling Co. and Electric Light Plant built it to process locally grown wheat as part of their growing business. It was the largest flour mill in Wyoming when D.J. Toomey bought it in 1919 and kept it operating until 1965.
The mill remained standing unused for decades while more buildings were built around it. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, but has since been removed from it.
When Maverik Inc. bought the property to build a new gas station, Toomey’s Mill had to go. Despite a local effort to preserve the mill, it was torn down in March 2012.
That’s when Driskill dropped into Newcastle. He came to pick up air conditioners and left as the owner of Toomey’s Mill — some assembly required.
Driskill has a soft spot for stone buildings.
“I've loved stone buildings forever,” he said. “Some buildings throughout the hills are built out of that quarried sandstone, and they're all just spectacular buildings. I've always admired them. So, when we had the opportunity to come up with one, we went ahead and jumped on it.”
Driskill came to pick up the air conditioners he had bought from the construction site of Newcastle’s new Maverik station. He admired Toomey’s Mill and had supported the local effort to preserve it, but he didn’t know the dismantled structure was “for sale” until someone at the site approached him.
“The guy there asked if I was buying anything else,” Driskill said. “I said, ‘I think you've sold everything,’ and he said, ‘No, we've got the stone and all the beams that held up the flour mill, and we're going to bid it if you’re interested.’”
Driskill was interested. He bid on the remains of Toomey’s Mill, getting for “next to nothing.”
Before the sandstone blocks and support beams were transported to the Driskill Ranch, local stonemason John Francis sketched the entire building and numbered each stone. Brick buildings are designed for simple assembly, but sandstone is a different animal.
“Bricks are coarse,” Driskill said. “They're all in layers, and they're even-sized. This is all hand-cut sandstone, so every stone is a different size and shape.”
Toomey’s Mill was just a bunch of sandstone blocks on pallets for several years before they would fit back together again. And Driskill had the perfect place to put them.
When Driskill decided to begin the monumental effort of rebuilding Toomey’s Mill, he again enlisted Francis' professional skills. Thanks to his meticulous work of numbering the blocks, it was much easier to reassemble them into the mill's shell.
“John Francis is an incredible stonemason,” Driskill said. “He made wheelbarrows of mortar and poured the foundation. Then he just started setting (the blocks). They were all numbered, so he would pull out the right numbers, and they went stone for stone.”
By the time the last block was in place, Francis had rebuilt Toomey’s Mill precisely as it stood in Newcastle for more than a century. As for the location, Driskill felt comfortable placing the reconstructed mill near Devils Tower, where locals and visitors could see it.
“We're so used to modern construction these days. That building aesthetically fits into Devils Tower. It looks ‘Old Western,’ like it's been there for 100 years. And it's got a real appeal to it,” he said.
If the numerous photos of Devils Tower looming over the roofless shell of Toomey’s Mill are any indication, most people agree with Driskill’s aesthetic assessment. The structure will be completed eventually, an endeavor Driskill simultaneously anticipates and dreads.
“The hard part of the stonework is done,” he said. “The next part is going to be even more expensive, and that's getting roofs and windows and all the things that go inside.”
If Driskill could do it tomorrow, it’d be done. Reconstructing Toomey’s Mill has been a labor of love, but he guesses it could take another $1 million to finish the job.
“It's probably not going to happen overnight with my cash flow,” he said. “But it's not about the money.”
A Bit Of Church, Museum And Wedding
When Driskill bid on and bought Toomey’s Mill, he didn’t know what he would do with it. Even as it nears completion, he’s not entirely sure.
“It'll need some more building on it,” he said. “It’ll probably end up being a bit church, a bit museum and a bit wedding all rolled into one.”
Driskill believes a historic building with a picturesque backdrop will make Toomey’s Mill a desirable venue for many events once it’s finished. He also envisions the mill and the surrounding property as a concert venue.
The romantic nature of historic sandstone structures on Wyoming’s landscapes is how Toomey’s Mill ended up on Driskill’s ranch. He believes others with the same affection will naturally be drawn to the structure once it’s restored to its humble grandeur.
“It’s second-to-none stonework in an unbelievably nice location,” he said. “I'm sure we'll end up doing a lot of weddings there once it gets done.”
Andrew Rossi can be reached at email@example.com.