Farmington got a piece of Latter-day Saint history out of its most expensive real estate transaction ever, and Tom Owens got a sense of relief.
The Farmington City Council voted unanimously last month to buy the historic Richards Grist Mill from Owens, securing long-term preservation of a structure that was built at the direction of Brigham Young.
Owens purchased the property decades ago for the purpose of preserving the historical site, not with the intention of selling it to a developer to construct bland housing in its place.
“For 30 years,” the 81-year-old Owens said, “I’ve worried about what’s going to happen to the old mill after I croak.”
With Farmington’s $4.75 million purchase, the mill will stand for generations. The Davis County city intends to incorporate the property into a future park named after Owens.
Kristian Kallaker, interim executive director of Preservation Utah, lauded the city for its investment in preserving the property for all to enjoy.
“This is a unique structure,” Kallaker said in a statement, “that tells the story of the early pioneers and the dedicated efforts of both individuals and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to build infrastructure for the early settlers.”
The property was first owned by early Latter-day Saint leader, Willard Richards, who was with Joseph Smith when the church founder was gunned down in 1844 at the Carthage Jail in Illinois.
Young, the church’s second prophet-president, directed architect Frederick Kesler in 1857 to build a new mill in Farmington Canyon, Owens said. The mill was completed in 1860. (Kesler designed 29 mills in Utah, including Liberty Park’s Chase Mill.)
In 1960, Garth Naylor and Terry Gross bought the mill and turned it into the Heidelberg restaurant, creating what would become one of Utah’s finest dining establishments. The restaurant shuttered in 1989 and fell into disrepair.
“It was being horribly vandalized every night by the local kids,” Owens said. “It was torn apart. It was just a mess.”
Restoring a piece of history
Owens, a self-proclaimed Latter-day Saint history buff, was looking for investment property along Davis County’s east bench in 1992, when he read in The Salt Lake Tribune that the mill was going up for auction.
He left his upper-floor condo in downtown Salt Lake City’s American Towers and headed to the Hilton around the corner for the auction, waiting out the bidding war among prospective buyers.
“I just threw in some big offers and scared these guys off,” Owens said, “and ended up winning the auction.”
Afterward, the first order of business was taking back the property from the vandals who had smashed out an estimated $80,000 worth of stained-glass windows from the 1800s.
“I literally had to come up here in the middle of the night with a club,” he said, “and take it away from the punks that were destroying everything.”
Owens initially thought it might take another $100,000 to restore the mill — sometimes referred to as the Rock Mill — to its former glory. During the next four or five years, however, he pumped more than $1 million into the property.
Signing over the mill to Farmington
The offers from developers started rolling in almost immediately after Owens purchased the property, and they haven’t stopped in the 31 years he’s lived there.
Owens never budged, stating, “I’m a seriously anti-McMansion kind of guy.”
Selling to the city, which owns land around the property, on the other hand, seemed a logical move.
Conversations about a sale began in earnest last fall, when the city approached Owens about the property. The buyer and the time were finally right.
“Well, I’m now an old man,” Owens said, “and I’m running out of energy, and I’m no longer really able to take care of the place.”
City Manager Brigham Mellor said Farmington is putting up money it has in its parks department to make the initial purchase and will reimburse the account when Weber State University closes on a parcel of city-owned land for a satellite campus this summer.
Under the deal, Owens will live the remainder of his days in the mill.
Mellor said the amount of work the property will require will push back public access for years.
The city wants to hire a landscape architect, ensure the safety of all the existing buildings on the property and gather public input before opening the grounds.
“We want,” Mellor said, “to do this right.”
He said the city intends to take the 6½ acres and combine it with an adjacent 2½ acres of city-owned land to create Tom Owens Park.
Farmington officials also have discussed the possibility of bringing back the Heidelberg restaurant.
Mellor said officials are going to work with Owens to ensure the pictures and stories that he’s collected about the property through the years are as well preserved as the structures that occupy it.
“A hundred years from now, it’ll still be there,” Mellor said, “and people are still going to know the story of not just the grist mill and not just the Heidelberg restaurant, but also of even Tom, who worked so hard to preserve this and make sure that future generations can enjoy it.”
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.