Renfrew’s iconic Mill Music adding a little buzz to the mix

Gordon Lightfoot, Burton Cummings among performers who’ve browsed shop’s instruments
Mill Music owner
Mill Music owner Steve St. Michael holds a print of the pre-music mill, noting the historic building helped shape Renfrew. Photo by Tom Van Dusen

With its silo painted bright yellow, the repurposed flour mill on Raglan Street – the Town of Renfrew’s main drag – is an eye-catching local landmark.

But not just because of its close to century-old history as a former agricultural processing plant. For the past 38 years, the sign on the silo has read Mill Music and the beloved building has garnered a new reputation as one of the largest instrument stores – particularly for its selection of guitars – in Renfrew County and way beyond.

Soon it’ll have another sign and another sales stream: Cannabis 228, owner Steve St. Michael’s plunge into the legal pot market, a separate operation in another part of the Mill complex. Expected to open at the end of May, this venture will mark the town’s third government-regulated cannabis store.

St. Michael is a former performer who over the years has welcomed the likes of Gordon Lightfoot and Burton Cummings looking for that something special among his floor-to-ceiling guitars. St. Michael’s own playing ability once got him a gig with The Good Brothers, who recorded a song he wrote.

Raised in Renfrew, St. Michael moved to a nearby dairy farm at age 14, trading the life of a “town boy for that of a chore boy.” He wanted to get into farming as a career but couldn’t borrow the capital.

He headed out on the road for 12 years, eventually circling back to establish Mill Music.

Renewal planned

At last count, there were 500 guitars of every shape and make hanging in Mill Music, a number St. Michael refers to as “low inventory.” Protocols surrounding COVID-19 shut him down for a total of five months over the past year and also hampered his orders from factories and suppliers.

While most of his focus now is on jumping the hurdles to open the cannabis shop, some important milestones are coming up in 2023 and St. Michael wants to recognize them in fitting fashion: The 100th anniversary of the mill, the 40th anniversary of his store, and his own 70th birthday.

He says a facelift is in order – for the building, that is – and he’s in the process of surveying customers for their input. He has a framed print that shows the mill in bygone days with some of its more historic details. He’d like to return some of those touches as part of a renewal project.

Over the years, a lot of people have come through the Mill Music doors and most have expressed an opinion about the yellow tower, almost uniformly that they like it and don’t want to see it changed other than a spruce-up. 

So the yellow colour is pretty much sacred. But the building, which also contains St. Michael’s living quarters, is in line for general repairs, upgrades and new landscaping. Where the money is going to come from is unclear, with St. Michael stating the store doesn’t generate enough revenue to cover full improvements, especially since COVID-19 broke onto the scene.

He says he’s not the type to seek financial assistance and will likely find a way to fund the project himself, possibly with some grants such as ones offered by the town for new signage.

Joking that there’s bound to be overlap between Mill Music and Cannabis 228 customers, St. Michael is hoping the new business – in which he invested $200,000, mostly to meet government requirements – will add substantially to the revenue stream. It’ll bring up to 10 new jobs to Renfrew, with four now employed at the Music Mill.

The current mill was built by Thomas Low after the original structure burned. Back in the day, it was seen to be among Ontario’s better flour mills.

In 1929, Ottawa Valley Grain Products acquired the mill and shifted to registered seed sales, split pea processing and feed manufacturing. OVGP owned the mill until St. Michael completely changed its tune by turning it into a music mecca.