The chimney that once exhausted steam from the Carnation Condensed Milk Plant that a century ago occupied the land where Grocery Outlet is today could get a decorative paint job in the next few weeks, if talks between the owner, the city and the Chamber of Commerce are successful.
The project, while certainly not a new idea, has gotten new impetus from Una Wirkebau-Hartt, the recently-hired director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce.
“Una came to me and asked me about three weeks ago about how I felt about getting the smokestack painted,” said Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas Thursday. “I said that felt it was something that would be good for the community, and she said that the chamber would take the lead on doing it.”
Wirkebau-Hartt set up a meeting with Fred Wolfstone, the man who owns the property on which the tall chimney rests, and the mayor.
During the conversation, the mayor learned that, while most people call the structure “the smokestack,” it’s more correctly called a “steam-stack,” as its purpose was to release steam from the milk evaporation process.
“I went down with one of the staff members and Una and visited him and had a nice conversation with him,” said Thomas. “He seemed very interested in allowing the chamber to paint the steam-stack.”
Wirkebau-Hartt then met with the Monroe Historical Society to discuss the significance of the structure as a landmark. They also looked at some potential design ideas. Wirkebau-Hartt also contacted a representative from Nestle, the company that bought Carnation, with an eye to perhaps decorating the edifice with a painting of a historic Carnation label.
Another design idea put forth was to include a painting around the base of the chimney depicting scenes from Monroe’s history, perhaps in a movie-film motif.
The next step is finding funding; several chamber members are discussing ways to raise the necessary funds.
And they are hoping to move fairly quickly.
“I know Una is interested in having it painted before the Fair Days parade,” said Mayor Thomas. “I know she’s interested in putting forward three or four designs to the community soon.”
As the Fair Days Parade is scheduled for Aug. 23, that puts the project on an accelerated schedule.
Another thing the Chamber will have to do is determine how stable the structure is; several years ago Wolfstone had planned to take the chimney down out of liability concerns, but was dissuaded by people reluctant to lose the distinctive landmark.
The public effort to bring art to the steam-stack is not unlike the effort to bring the original building to town.
In 1908, Monroe residents heard that Carnation, a large milk-processing company, might be considering putting a condensing plant in Monroe.
That would be a great boon to the local dairy economy, as condensers paid half again as much for milk as did creameries.
So about 50 people met with a representative of Carnation and set out to convince him that Monroe was ideal. In order to do that, they had to demonstrate that the area’s farmers could supply adequate milk. Volunteers set off counting cows, and estimated that there were at least 2,000 nearby.
The Carnation company, also known as the Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company, requested that the city donate a specific parcel of land; the city gave property worth $6,000, including land occupied by a hotel and several homes. The city also installed sewer service.
The company built the condenser in about six months. At first there were two chimneys, each 60 feet tall, but later they were replaced with the current structure, 150 feet in height and 11 feet in diameter at the base.
For a while, everyone benefitted to the extent that dairy stock multiplied. In 1911, there were about 9,000 cows in the Monroe area.
But in 1912, Carnation was overproducing, and business began to fall off. To replace the loss of revenue from condensed milk, the company started turning milk protein into casein, a durable substance that could be used to make mock ivory for hairbrush handles and other things.
Finally the plant fell into disuse and was sold in 1928, after which time it stayed idle.
But in 1944 a flax company started processing flax at the plant, expecting large war profits. A mere three weeks after the company got production underway, however, 600 tons of flax spontaneously combusted and burned the plant to the ground.
All that remained was the smokestack, which is now surrounded by a small shopping center.
Barely visible, halfway up the side, is an old painted ENCO sign, for a service station that once stood at the base.
It is that role as a surface for painting that may be the chimney’s future, as well.