By 1871, Swiss immigrant John Spindler Sr. had grown tired of the whiskey business and decided to open a general store in Highland — a chapter in the city’s history about to come to an end.
Spindler was 24 when he came to Highland in 1849, and immediately was caught up in a whiskey distillery business. But it seems the distillery acquired its grain from local farmers who were compensated in whiskey, and the saloons didn’t like the arrangement, according to historical accounts at the Highland Home Museum. They refused to carry the whiskey, and eventually Spindler became frustrated and changed professions.
Spindler turned his eye to Main Street, and bought a small store. He quickly needed to expand, so he built a three-story brick edifice at 717 Main St. that housed Highland’s biggest general store for many years.
The building — one of the oldest in Highland — still stands beneath the thick oak trees, its history literally imprinted on its doorstep. But not for much longer, as the Highland City Council is proceeding with demolition in the next month or so.
It’s really three buildings, one of which is a much younger garage, and the others stand adjacent to what is now a residential neighborhood near the town square, with some houses almost as old as the Spindler building itself.
The mercantile operated as Highland’s biggest store for many years, and Spindler’s reputation grew throughout the area due to the quality of his merchandise and honest dealings, according to narratives recorded by the Highland Historical Society. Spindler died in 1899, but his family carried on for years before selling the building, which has now passed through many owners over the last century.
But the old general store has fallen into such disrepair that few are arguing to save it, not even the historians at the Highland Home Museum.
“They’re in such terrible shape, there’s no way to repair them,” said museum curator Roland Harris. “They’re just a pile of rubble now, causing everybody trouble.”
The city acquired the buildings some months ago for $35,000, and voted two weeks ago to demolish them. Councilwoman Peggy Bellm said she had viewed the building herself before voting for demolition.
“As much as I really wanted to try to save those buildings, they were beyond hope,” she said.
Access to the interior is strictly forbidden, but through the empty window frames one can see collapsed floors, paint peeling back from exposed wood and a staircase that hangs in midair. While the brick walls are mostly intact, the wooden interiors are largely destroyed. Most glass has been removed from doors and windows, and orange safety fencing surrounds the property.
“Maybe it could have been saved 20 years ago,” said David Palenchar, who lives across the street from the site.
Now, he said, it’s a neighborhood nuisance, with kids often trying to get in and police chasing them out before someone gets hurt.
Indeed, Interim Fire Chief Brian Wilson said the buildings are in such poor shape he cannot use them for training purposes. It is often the custom of fire departments to practice certain fire rescues and techniques on buildings set to be demolished, but Wilson said it would too dangerous to try at 717 Main.
But the city hopes to salvage something of Spindler’s legacy and the history of the old general store. There is a metal foundation strip at the doorstep that reads “Highland Foundry 1873,” and Mayor Joseph Michaelis said they will try to save at least that part, and possibly some of the facade, for historical display in the future.
Wilson said the contractors have four to six weeks to accomplish the demolition.. The entire project, including demolition and construction of the lot, will cost approximately $200,000.