401 Mill Street, Home To J. B. Wise Co., Wilbur’s, California Brewery and Watertown Roller Skating Rink
Completed in 1891, the J.B. Wise Co. factory at 401 Mill Street was later home to Wilbur’s Discount City, California Brewery, and the Watertown Roller Skating Rink. Originally built by J.B. Wise, the purchase of the land came several years after the death of his father, Joseph Wise, whom J.B. Wise partnered with at the age of 18 under the business name Wise & Sons. A very successful businessman prior to his partnership, the younger Wise was a well-respected citizen and and later mayor of Watertown.
Upon his father’s death, J.B. Wise purchased the remaining half, operated the business under his own name, and bought the property to build the then three-story structure to manufacture plumbing goods, locks, hinges for pianos, organs, and sewing machines before turning the business over to his son C. Ralph Wise in 1900.
The building itself was not the scene of a tragic accident on Christmas Eve, 1918, as many believe. That accident where munition shells exploded, killing 6 and injuring 19, happened on Water Street at the facility J.B. Wise had built in 1915, a year prior to his death. The accident has erroneously been attributed to the Mill Street location and the subsequent loss of the upper two floors as a result of the explosion.
What led to the removal of the top two floors was the purchase of the building in 1958. The building underwent extensive remodeling, readying it for the Wilbur’s Discount City store to open. This entailed removing the top two floors and concerting the second floor into the first floor’s ceiling (though the article quoted below states otherwise; apparently, changes were made after its printing.)
As reported in The Times on June 28, 1958—
Workers have begun to convert the former J.B. Wise company plant at the Mill Street and Main Avenue intersection to a 14-department discount store. The property has been purchased by a firm headed by Wilbur Duberstein of Westport, Conn., and will be leased on a seven-year contract to Leon Feldman of New York city, who will operate the store.
According to the Edward Harper, a representative of the property owners, the minor buildings of the property will be torn down to make room for a three acre parking space for customers of the proposed store. The top floor of the main building facing onto Mill Street will be removed and the remainder of the building, after being “capped” with a new roof, will be sand-blasted clean and completely modernized. The renovation and demolition work is being completed by the Sullivan Construction and Rigging Company of Watertown.
After the J.B. Wise Co. folded in 1953, the building was later occupied by Wilbur’s Discount City for five years beginning in 1959. The California Brewing Co. opened in the location at the tail end of 1972, just after Christmas, and proved to be a popular spot. The Times reported of its vast array of beers which owner Ed Yager believed to be a world record–
On a side wall of the recently opened California Brewery, Mill St., and Main Ave., is a National Geographic Map of the world.
Its owner, who already claims the largest selection of draft beer in the world, someday hopes to establish “a United Nations of beer where you can order any beer you want or ever heard of.”
Behind the 100-foot bar are nearly 40 beer taps, their handles topped with colorful labels representing 23 different brands.
“My gimmick, you might say, is to have on hand anything anyone wants, so people will remember this place and bring their friends here,” Mr. Yager explains.
A list of beers in the article that were available either on tap or in bottle include: Fyfe and Drum, Gennesee (three different types), Old Vienna, Miller, Budweiser, Lowenbrau, Heineken, Harp (and soon Guinness Stout), San Miguel, Kirin, Sapparo, Asahi, Peroni, Pilsner Urquel, Maccabaes, Corona, Rinhaus, Turborg, Wurtzburger, Union Bier, Pschoor, Koch’s Holiday Beer, Rollin’ Rock, Fort Schuyler and Iron City.
By the following March, several arrests had already been made for intoxication, fights, and disturbances outside the California Brewery, which boasted 40 taps, 200 brands, and 2 lighted dance floors to work those calories off. To be fair, its successor, the Watertown Roller Skating Rink, also had numerous incidents without alcohol on the premises.
The good times, beer, and newsworthy incidents continued to flow through July of 1974 when fire, blamed on burglars, the California Brewery’s after-after-hours mischief-makers who repeatedly struck over its year-and-a-half existence, caused major damage to its interior. The Times reported on July 31—
Police authorities said the tavern, located in the former Wilbur’s Discount Center building with entrances on Main Avenue, had apparently been burglarized. Several vending machines were found pried open and the coin box had been removed from a pin ball machine. Investigators said they have not yet determined how the burglars entered the building.
The blaze was discovered at 4:43 this morning by a motorist who saw smoke seeping around the doors and windows. The motorist alerted police who set off the box alarm at Mill and East Moulton Streets. The fire is believed to have started in the cellar in the middle of the building facing Mill Street – or the east side.
Complicating matters for firefighters was the flooring saturated with oil from the days when the building was used by the J.B. Wise company. 17 firefighters from Arsenal, Factory, and Lillian Street companies fought the blaze with thick black smoke and temperatures reaching 200 degrees.
According to The Times, the building was then owned by Edward H. Massey, Jr., president of Massey’s Furniture Barn, who purchased it from Marine Midland Bank Northern. The site was vacated by J. B. Wise Co. in 1953, ending its 76 years of business, and later occupied by Wilbur’s Discount Center from March 1959 until 1964.
Edward Massey renovated the interior of 401 Mill Street at the expense of $10,000 and opened the Watertown Roller Skating Rink in 1975. Steel beams were installed to eliminate support posts and provide skaters with a 7,000-square-foot floor free from obstructions, while a snack bar was added next to the skating floor.
The Watertown Roller Skating Rink opened for business at noon, on August 9, and proved popular. Various organizations held roller marathons, 1950s skate parties with costumes, etc. The place operated until around 1995 and closed permanently, per The Times, in 1997.
Shortly thereafter, the roof partially collapsed and the building was condemned while $14K was owed in back taxes and penalties by its then-owners. That amount climbed to $31K by 1998 when the city acquired the property and finally tore down the last remnants of the old factory shown below in November 1999.