The Planing Mill Historic Building in Visalia
On the Level
By Jordan Venema
Photo: Amber Smith
One of the great things about Visalia is its rich history. Founded in 1852, Visalia is the oldest town between Stockton and Los Angeles, and should you know where to look, you’ll find plenty of historical nuggets – from the old horse ring outside Brewbakers to the opium dens underneath Lum Lums.
“Visalia in essence was a Wild West town,” says Tim Lewis, co-owner of Planing Mill Artisan Pizzeria. “There’s actually a walking tour downtown that not a lot of people know about.”
While the approximately 45-minute, self-guided walking tour wanders from Encina to Santa Fe, and roughly between Acequia and Oak, it leaves off one remarkable and still-standing site: the Planing Mill.
Visalia’s Planing Mill was one of the city’s oldest businesses, turning the Sierra’s raw timber into seasoned and cut dimensional lumber. Before the days of super hardware stores, a planing mill wasn’t just the one-stop shop for all things lumber-related; it basically provided the bones for the buildings of a budding town.
In the last few years, the nearly 100-year-old brick building has gotten a lot more attention (and traffic) thanks to current tenants – restaurant, church and music venue – but admittedly, says Lewis, “we’re just kind of on the outskirts.”
In fact, when Lewis opened Planing Mill Pizzeria in 2013, even he didn’t know what the building was really about.
“I didn’t know much about it other than the big sign outside the wall that said Visalia Planing Mill. I didn’t even know what a planing mill was,” concedes Lewis, but he knew he loved the building.
According to Lewis, the original Planing Mill site was across Main Street, built sometime around 1880, though it later burned down. “We believe our building was built in 1922,” he continues, “and we know that it was used as a planing mill at least until the ‘70s, maybe to the mid-‘80s. I never got a specific date, but I’ve learned just from talking to people.”
While the Planing Mill’s history hasn’t yet been memorialized in plaque or tome, there are remnants of its past found on site – and throughout the homes of Visalia.
“My neighbor from across the street said he used to work in the building in the ‘50s,” says Lewis, “and we always get customers coming in telling us stories. Every once in a while we get some old timer who comes in and tells us about the planing mill itself.”
But the Mill’s history isn’t only oral. “We know a lot of the houses in Beverly Glen and Green Acres have original moldings and bannisters, mantles and doorways that were done at the Planing Mill,” says Lewis.
The Planing Mill Pizzeria occupies the space where, according to Lewis, the lumber was shaped and planed. The original storefront faced Main Street, which is now occupied by Amigo Row, an all-ages music venue, while facing Center is the auditorium and offices of Radiant Church, buildings that comprised the Mill’s sawmill and glass shop.
To this day, and probably forevermore, a very large saw still sits in the lobby of Radiant Church, a solid remnant of the Planing Mill’s past.
“It’s here to stay,” says Travis Aiklen. “It’s a fixture, though now it just carries the coffee.
“It actually still dumps into the creek. The reason the creek is called Mill Creek is because the saw would drop the sawdust into the creek,” Aiklen explains. “So you can pull away the wood at the base of the saw and still see water flowing underneath.”
Another artifact is a large safe located in Amigo Row, “or I would call it a vault,” says Aiklen. “It can’t be locked or unlocked at this stage, so we’ve tried to freak each other out by fake locking each other in – somebody goes in and we shut the door behind them,” Aiklen chuckles, then grows somber. “And then we get nervous because we’ve potentially locked our friend in there.”
The sheer size of the safe led Aiklen and others to speculate about the building’s history.
“We initially thought it was some kind of bank, and maybe it was – we don’t know the whole history.”
Maybe not the whole history, but its parts exist in relics like the saw and the safe, and in the stories of those who used to work at the mill, or even in the old blueprints that “the city found and gave to us, which were just sitting around in some archives,” says Lewis. “So we framed them and set them up, and we’re learning tidbits (of history) here and there.”
So while the whole history might not be known – what history ever is? – these businesses hope to at least bring attention to its past.
“As a young church, it’s amazing to be in a place with such history, and to know we’re part of something that is part of something thousands of years old,” says Aiklen, referring to the historical context of the Christian church. “This building seems to be a reminder of that for us.”
Lewis adds that the building is “a relic of a bygone era,” which gives Visalia that “old school charm.”
And though the Planing Mill is now serving pizza, it’s also dishing a lesson of history to the “young professionals” of Visalia, his clientele. And they’re interested, and they’re asking questions. “These people are the future of this city, and to see them getting interesting in something they’ve never been interested in before,” says Lewis, “that’s pretty cool.”
The Planing Mill Historic Building is located at 513 E. Center Ave., Visalia