Last Friday, I left the informal Kent Environmental Council breakfast at Little City Grill at about 9 a.m. and immediately noticed smoke. As I turned south on Mantua toward downtown Kent, I could see that the Williams Brothers Mill was on fire. I live by St. Patrick’s church, east of the Cuyahoga River, so I parked my car in my driveway and headed downtown, taking pictures as I walked downhill toward the site of the fire.
I wanted to document the event, so I took a lot of photos and video. But I also had transformative conversations with my neighbors who were also bearing witness to what was happening and trying to make meaning of it. We all shared our bits of what we had each seen and heard. We shared our concerns about the safety of those involved, and worried that the fire might spread to the rest of the building or occupied spaces to the south. Some of us thought of the beloved late journalist, editor, and local historian Roger Di Paolo, and wondered what he would have said. Others of us (who also love local history) expressed appreciation for Brad Bolton, who captured the inner workings of the mill on film when it closed in 2016.
Meaning making is harder today than it ever has been because of the artificial divisions that have blurred our common humanity. But in those person-to-person conversations that I had on the eastern slope of the Cuyahoga River valley here in Kent, I heard appreciation for each other.
I heard gratitude for the practice of mutual aid when local fire-fighting departments enthusiastically showed up to assist. This included neighboring fire departments from Stow, Tallmadge, Ravenna, Rootstown, Cuyahoga Falls and Hudson who had trucks with aerial ladders needed to help to contain the fire. When there was concern about the amount of water needed, tanker trucks arrived from additional fire departments. When a call went out to City of Kent residents to conserve water, people spread the word on social media.
There’s a special feeling of connection and grounding when we help one another, whether it is between communities helping out during a five-alarm fire or between neighbors borrowing a cup of sugar or a needed tool. There is also a special feeling of connection when we have a shared loss. All weekend, people walked around the mill like it was visiting hours before a funeral, sharing stories about the missing friend. On Kent-themed Facebook pages, people posted photos and paintings of the mill in different seasons and from different perspectives.
The Kent skyline will never be the same, but if you listen deeply, you’ll hear the heart of the community beating strongly.