The Bill Cook Story II: The Re-Visionary

The Bill Cook Story II: The Re-Visionary

by Bob Hammel


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The Bill Cook Story II: The Re-Visionary by Bob Hammel

Working from the spare bedroom of his Bloomington, Indiana, apartment in 1963 with a $1,500 investment, Bill Cook began to construct the wire guides, needles, and catheters that would become the foundation of the global multi-billion-dollar Cook Group. This story has been eloquently told in Bob Hammel’s The Bill Cook Story: Ready, Fire, Aim. The sequel to this story explores Cook’s final years, when the restoration work he championed, epitomized by the spectacular West Baden Hotel, became a driving force in his life and a source of great satisfaction and pleasure. Hammel takes us behind the scenes on the important restorations of Beck’s Mill, a Methodist Church that is now Indiana Landmarks Center, and the remarkable commitment of Cook toward reviving his home town, Canton, Illinois. At the heart of the book are the events of Bill Cook’s final days and his death in April, 2011, but this solemn chronicle soon gives way to fond recollections of Cook’s extraordinary life and legacy, and to the continuing saga of the company he founded as it looks toward a bright future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253016980
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/23/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bob Hammel is a journalist and lifelong resident of Indiana. He is author or co-author of twelve books including The Bill Cook Story: Ready, Fire, Aim! (IUP, 2008) and (with Bob Knight) Knight: My Story and The Power of Negative Thinking.

Read an Excerpt

The Bill Cook Story II

The Re-Visionary

By Bob Hammel

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Bob Hammel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01707-9


Beck's Mill


"Beck's Mill needs stabilizing. It needs to be made operable again, because it is fed by a very large spring. It would be wonderful to have a place like that that kids could go to see."

Bill Cook

History—at least its romantic version—records that young Alexander the Great wept in despair when his successes were such that he finally had no more worlds to conquer. In the realm of architectural rescue, Bill Cook never experienced such a moment. When triumph was at hand with the uniquely magnificent French Lick and West Baden hotel projects, he had a new target list in mind.

"After we get French Lick and West Baden a little more complete," he said in early 2007, "I think maybe I'll start getting more interested in Beck's Mill, which is out in the middle of nowhere, not too far from Salem. It would give me something to do. Beck's Mill needs stabilizing. It needs to be made operable again, because it is fed by a very large spring. It would be wonderful to have a place like that that kids could go to see, like the old one-room schoolhouses that are preserved. And it could be open during the day, to grind feed, like Spring Mill."

One of the world's most visionary minds was visualizing, and of course it happened.


For some time, a friend of Bill's in Salem, Jack Mahuron, had tried to interest him in restoring a really old treasure, the nineteenth-century grist mill outside of Salem in southeastern Indiana. Jack hadn't had to introduce Bill or Gayle Cook to Beck's Mill. Like the Col. Jones House of Indiana-Lincoln lore, it was a place the Cooks had found on their own in their early Bloomington years. When Cook Inc. was in its infancy, the company's two cofounders entertained themselves many a Sunday by taking young son Carl with them on auto trips that ultimately produced the booklet that came out in 1972 titled A Guide to Southern Indiana. The guide was popularly received, so it was updated and re-published frequently up through 1982.

"The cover picture of the very first Guide was of Beck's Mill," Gayle says.

This wasn't just a place picturesque and ancient. History seeped from every timber. Of course the Cooks were enchanted by the place, and not just for A Guide to Southern Indiana.

The mill was in Washington County, deep in southeastern Indiana, one county north of the Ohio River across from Louisville. Washington's county seat is Salem, a city two years older than its state. Its whole downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places, and so are several buildings. Its courthouse lawn has a memorial to its citizens killed in duty all the way back to the Revolutionary War. John Hay, Lincoln's private secretary and Secretary of State to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, was from Salem. So was Everett Dean, Indiana University's first basketball All-American, first Big Ten title-winning coach, and as it says in Cook Hall, the IU basketball museum funded in large part by Bill and Gayle Cook, "The Father of IU Basketball." In Indiana, maybe only George Washington is tagged for greater paternity.

Salem was Indiana's one Civil War site of note. When John Hunt Morgan's raiders made the Confederates' lone entry into Indiana in 1863, his slice through Indiana included a brief takeover of Salem. At nine o'clock on the morning of July 10, Morgan's men took possession of the town and burned its large, brick railroad depot, all train cars on the track, and railroad bridges on both sides of the town. Morgan threatened to burn all the town's mills, extorting $500 before leaving six hours after arriving.

A Beck's mill existed at the time, but not the present Beck's mill. It was built the next year, 1864, the third designed and constructed by George Beck on property he claimed after arrival from North Carolina in 1807, in Indiana Territory then, nine years before statehood. One day Beck noticed a waterfall from a cave on his property and immediately thought "mill!" It was special geography: the waterfall from a spring said to be Indiana's second-largest; the cave, a half-mile long, allowing water to flow even during the dead of winter; the site's elevation, 946 feet, among the highest in Indiana.

The land had been a Native American burial ground, in Shawnee and Delaware country. George Beck is believed to have been the first white man on that land. His first mill, 11 feet by 11 feet, stone and log, went up in 1808. A second, larger mill replaced it in 1825. The present mill, the first to have a second story, went up in 1864 and for the next 26 years ran 24 hours a day, a turbine/ waterwheel combination turning its grindstones. Beck had built a small dam at a higher point west of the mill, creating the power source for all three mills.

"Ingenious!" Cook's architect George Ridgway raves. "For somebody to say, 'I'm going to dam up this cave, I'm going to put this pipe in, I'll run it over the top of the wheel, and then I'm going to take excess water and spin this turbine, which goes upstairs and turns the ...' Two hundred years ago! The turbine we found out came from Philadelphia—that's where it was forged. So it had to come by barge down the Ohio, then probably up Blue River, then horse-and-wagon, or oxen."

By 1914, modernization had put Beck's third mill out of business. It was nearing a century of inactivity and minimal maintenance when things started to happen. One was the Cooks, with their A Guide to Southern Indiana passion. In the book, Gayle Cook had written: "There are many surprises awaiting the traveler who takes the side roads and lingers in the villages along the way. He should not be afraid to get lost. Some of our best discoveries were the result of unplanned meandering."

It's a lovely thought and perfect advice for the travelers' guide she and Bill put together, but it did not apply to their link-up with Beck's Mill.

"We had seen the mill, and we wanted it as a wrap-around for our first cover," Gayle said, "but the people we ran into would say, 'Oh, stay away from that. The man who owns that will chase you away.' We called ahead, told them what we wanted, and they said, 'Sure.' So that day we rushed down there with [Cook Inc. photographer] Walt Niekamp, and a guy was mowing the grass in anticipation of our coming. We got the picture.

"We went back to Beck's Mill a couple of times. We were exploring everywhere, and taking notes.

"Before that, we had gone to Parke County [which calls itself 'The Covered Bridge Capital of the World' for its 31 existing covered bridges] on the west side of the state. We had driven by the mills over there that were operating. Bill was fascinated by those mills, by the technology.

"This is the only mill that survived intact in southern Indiana. Spring Mill [an operating mill that is the centerpiece of Spring Mill State Park near Mitchell] was rebuilt. Everything was still in this mill. And the water source was still there. It was of interest just for being there."


George Ridgway came into the picture in 2007. "Bill told me when he and Gayle took those driving trips in the '70s, they came across Beck's Mill, which was in deplorable condition. It was owned by the Anderson family. Bill and Gayle wanted to invest in it then and repair the mill, and the Andersons said no. In the '90s they went through there again and made another overture, and were turned down again."

Then, Gayle says, picking up the story, "In recent years, 'Friends of Beck's Mill' was formed. Jack Mahuron, a retired businessman of Salem, shepherded it, kind of kept them on a businesslike approach."

Even Jack and his Friends "had not wanted any work done on the mill early on," Gayle Cook says. "Then they contacted us and said, 'I think we're ready to restore the mill now.' We said no—all our resources are tied up, the Pritchetts and everybody are at French Lick."

So, nothing happened. A few years went by, but when French Lick and West Baden were finished....

At Bill Cook's request, George Ridgway lined up an opportunity for Bill, Carl Cook, and Ridgway to go inside the mill. "Of course it was in terrible shape," Ridgway says, "and Bill right away was telling me everything he wanted to do, just like he did with every other project: 'I want to fix this, fix that, take that wheel off ...'

"I was standing there looking at the building, and Carl walked up: 'What are you looking at?'

"I said, 'I think I'm looking at a two-comma figure.' He said, 'Really?' I said, 'Yeah, I think I am.'

"He said, 'Let's try to do it for a high one-comma figure.'"

The key word was commas, as in setting off three-digit groupings within a cash figure—only one comma needed for anything up to $999,999. Carl was hoping to duck under $1,000,000, but Ridgway was on-target.

"When it was all said and done, we spent $1,215,000." A two-comma figure.

The night of their visit to the mill, Ridgway represented Bill at a "Friends of Beck's Mill" board meeting. He sat down, a stranger to all. "A guy from the New Albany office of Historic Landmarks of Indiana offered them a $50,000 matching grant," Ridgway recalls. "They had to come up with $25,000 and Landmarks would kick in $25,000, to do a feasibility study on fixing it up. They were starting to vote, and I said, 'Excuse me. Could I say something?'

"I told them who I was and who I was representing, and I said, 'Now, before you commit to this money, here's another deal: Mr. Cook will pay for all architecture, all engineering, all construction—he will restore your mill, put it back in working condition, fix the parking lot, fix the grounds, and give the mill back to you. All he asks is the opportunity to do this for you.'"

The "Friends" were stunned, then explosive. "People had tears in their eyes, they were shouting at each other, all excited and upbeat," Ridgway says.

Ridgway had included one condition: "We have to be totally in charge." Experience had taught the Cooks that little proviso. "When we first started down at West Baden," Gayle recalls, "there were little committees forming, wanting to approve the paint colors and so on."

No such thing happened at Beck's Mill.

Work began in May, 2007. "We had to jack the building up, and lay foundation stone, which had to be laid historically correct," Ridgway said. The restoration was precise, helped by verifying evidence. "There were a lot of pictures of the mill, and all the original pieces were there." Wood two centuries old and rotten still told tales: "I know what size it is—it has to go from here to there," Ridgway said.

"When we opened it, we were using tooling that was 199 years old. We had to take it apart, repair as much as we could, and then rebuild pieces to make them function. And we made the old wooden loom work again. It was a neat project. It had been about ready to fall into that creek.

"It's all water-powered. There's a cave that goes back in the limestone country there about half a mile. They dammed up that water coming out of the cave and then took a round pipe that comes out of the cave pool and delivers water to the top of the overshoot—instead of water going underneath and spinning the wheel clockwise, it shoots over the top and spins the wheel counter-clockwise.

"I went back into the cave, probably about halfway, until the water got about chest-deep. I just wanted to see where the water came from. If you go up on top and know where the cave outlet is, you can walk about 50 feet away and see where it goes down a sinkhole and swirls. It's coming from a lot of different sources."

Bill Cook couldn't stay away during the construction. Pictures and videotapes taken during the work frequently show him right on top of things, sometimes hopping around in perilous places, scary to watch even knowing that nothing really happened to that spry man in his 70s, indulging his curiosities where no safety nets were around. Ridgway has seen those films several times and winces every time. "I think Bill had a lot of fun [walking on what amounted to narrow pipe]," Ridgway says. "He was up there looking over the dam to see how much water was coming through." It was perilous, Ridgway confirms. "I walked on it several times, and it was slick, it had moss on it, and it was wet." But he claims no responsibility for the film, or where Bill was when the camera was running. "I say, 'Now, Gayle, I wasn't there that day.'"

After 11 months of work, the mill was operational in time for the 200th anniversary of the first Beck's Mill. The public opening was September 20, 2008.

As a follow-up in 2012, Gayle and Carl Cook "bought and donated the 79 acres around the mill, because Friends of Beck's Mill owned only the land that was right there, and the parking lot," Gayle said.

"One of the things I wanted to see before we bought all of that land was if they could keep it going with their volunteers. They have done a good job. They have an enthusiastic bunch of people—they dress up in their costumes. Seeing that they had a dedicated group and Jack Mahuron was still seeing them through properly on finances, we added that to it.

"They have trails in the 79 acres of woods around the mill now, and quarries and springs and cliffs, and a little cemetery. There's nice hiking around it."

George Ridgway says, "They use it as a museum, run it on weekends, charge admission, grind corn, and you can buy little memorial bags of corn flour."

It's a mill, functioning as it was meant to, all those years and all that technology ago. Borne out with every one of those little bags of corn flour is the guiding philosophy preservationist Bill Cook once gave for his way of selecting targets—saying yes to one restoration and no to another, the guiding principle: Can life be breathed back into the building? Can it live again as it was meant to live? He put it:

I never like to do any kind of building and not have a prospect of making a profit. Just having a living history is not good enough. The building should be alive and doing its thing. You can't make every building a museum.

And Gayle Cook's concurring thoughts:

Sometimes preservationists are not practical. They'll say, 'Oh, do anything to save the building.' But you have to find a use for it. That's a point we always make: finding a use is the key to saving architecture.

They certainly did operate as a team. In 2006 Gayle said, "We always say Bill likes the bricks and the mortar; I like the architecture, the history, and the interiors. So it works out." Bill called the two roles "the agony and the ecstasy" in a talk to students at the Ball State College of Architecture and Planning. Gayle's researching part, the fun, the ecstasy; his, the work, the agony. But clearly there was a lot of enjoyment for both of them in the nearly 60 such projects they teamed to do.

Those projects also fit into another area that he described in a 2006 talk on "The Art of Giving" for the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation:

We all have an obligation to society to give. If you are going to give, do so without the feeling that you are ever going to have a reward. One of the greatest kicks that I have is to see a gift come back in kind, where the gift means so much to someone ... it actually did some good to someone.

Values come early in life. I learned from my father and mother. I learned from my classmates in high school and college ... from a lot of people over a long period of time. Gayle has had a similar upbringing. She also has that same idea that what you give, you get back manifold. She has been a great partner over the years. It's been a lot of fun being with the lady.


Canton, Illinois


"And here comes Bill Cook, not with hundreds of dollars—millions! He gave us hope. He gave us life."

—Michael Walters

Even the people closest to Bill Cook aren't sure how long he thought about it before he began the remarkable, even charming, resuscitation job he did on the hometown he loved: Canton, Illinois, which had been given up as moribund by most.

Harriett Beecher Stowe invented the best word for how that Bill Cook ruminating materialized into today's revitalized Canton. Like Stowe's twinkly-eyed slave girl Topsy's self-description in Uncle Tom's Cabin, every evidence is that it just growed.

And it's not done. As so many rusting relics that got their restorative TLC, particularly in the senior years of Bill and Gayle Cook, Canton today has an onward-and-upward look of its own momentum.

It's a kind of love story not new in Canton. It's hard to tell if it's more a case of man influencing town than town influencing man, but either way, "charming" still is what that love story is.


Consider the Canton that William A. "Bill" Cook's parents rather chanced upon in 1940 when putting down roots during his childhood.

It's the same town that another man named William, a Massachusetts-born blacksmith named William Parlin, happened upon almost exactly 100 years before. Parlin apprenticed in his trade in his native Acton, Mass., and in his early 20s headed west: destination uncertain. "He simply stepped out into the unknown and began walking west as if he were looking for a prize," Michael Walters wrote in his 2013 book Legacy: The Story of Three Families.


Excerpted from The Bill Cook Story II by Bob Hammel. Copyright © 2015 Bob Hammel. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Four Fruitful, Philanthropic, Futuristic Years
Part One. Restorations
1. Beck’s Mill, 2007
2. Canton, Illinois, 2008-
3. Old Centrum, 2011
Part Two. Measuring the Days
4. Friday April 15, 2011. Death of a Giant
5. Saturday, April 16, 2011. No Chance for Privacy
6. Saturday Night, April 16, 2011. The Show Goes On
7. Sunday, April 17, 2011. A Day of Remembering
8. Monday, April 18, 2011. Just the Silence
9. Saturday, April 23, 2011. A Day at the Office
10. Wednesday, June 1, 2011. Celebrating Quite a Life
Part Three. Outside the Lines, 2007-2011
11. Zenith
12. Alger-ian Advice, April 9, 2010
13. Newport Hill Climb, 2009-2010
Part Four. Looking toward the Future
14. 2013 Was Golden

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