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Introduction to Old Mills & Mill Restorations

Breastshot water wheel at Wright's Mill,
Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge Massachusetts.
Old Sturbridge Village constructed this new mill in 1938.
Machinery from Porter Grist Mill, Hebron, Connecticut.
Millstones & orginal waterwheel from Grist Mill, South Egremont, Mass.

Introduction to Old Mills
and Mill Restorations

Theodore R. Hazen

Millers operate mills that have been built by millwrights. Since mills have been restored they have been done with mill rights and mill wrongs. Gone is often the reasoning and proper understanding of proper mill construction. Most often it's not just replaced with the idea of making it work but the idea of someone who thinks he knows how it should be done. Sometimes decisions are made by people totally unqualified to make restoration decisions but they are made by the people who hold the power and the decisions making process. Once a mill has been restored wrong or incorrectly, it may be almost impossible to have it restored right. There are a great number of mills that have been restored incorrectly. These mills were just not that way originally, also in a possible list would be mills that have been restored for multipurpose use.

A mill is a building or buildings used for manufacturing, most often it is used to grind grain. A museum is an institution which has an organization and a permanent exhibit for education or aesthetic reasons. They contain exhibits, and objects from the past. There are many types of museums. They collect artifacts, objects and stuff from individuals, artists, both cultural and items of historical significance. They are a testament to a moment in history. A mill is an artifact within its self. it contains objects, and stuff which is a record of the changes of in the milling technology and individual operators who left their mark and impressions in the mill. A mill may contain evidence and records of various moments in its past.

Mills too can also be museums, either they are static or operating. If a particular mill was water powered, they contain a variety of things including sources of power. A mill may be operated by water power which is made of these elements: the fall, dam, head, head race tail race, and buildings. The building contains material for manufacturing. When many mills stop operating much of the original machinery may have been removed. Now that they are open for the public to view, they pass on more information than just the products of their operation. In America the miller may be a retired person, with a passion for what he does. It may be up to the organization to decide if the miller is paid a proper salary or not. The miller's function now besides grinding grain for show, may also have to make technology easy to explain to everyone. Mills may be accepted as museums, but is there an acceptance of mill technology in a museum setting? Now a mills may be not doing what they were intended to do. Some mills may have been restored as static exhibits or multi-function buildings (which means the only thing mill about it is the shell structure). When other mills and property have been turned over to the hands of museums, they prefer to restore buildings associated with the miller or mill builder, rather than the mill it self. The mill in most cases is the reason an area developed and settled. The mill means technology, it's easier in develop and interpret houses than restore and interpret mill technology.

What is to become of the remaining mills? We can't save them all and some are not worth saving. It may be impossible financially to save a mill. But that does not mean we should write them off. Don't go about restoring a mill by setting a the bad prescient and spending more money than anyone has ever spent before. Mills maybe be expensive to restore but why spend more money than is necessary. Gone is the romance and love about the past which in the early part of this century, mills were converted into tea rooms or homes. In later years some mills were converted into feed mills, but now feed mills too are also disappearing. If we don't find other uses for mills, such as mill museums, art museums, etc., mills will become a thing only of the past. We need watchdog groups interested in old mills, like the grassroots organizations for covered bridges and steam railroads. The teenagers across the country have all ready found mills as abandoned structures as places to recreate in. Tearing a mill down does not solve the teenagers' problems or our cultural problems and we would lose a lot of history in the process. Mills are important artifacts. A museum is just a building which contains artifacts. Mills are more, they carry information about history, change, people, and in the process give a better understanding about ourselves.

Mills are very costly to restore. What most often happens is a group gets the wrong understanding, once you have put the big bucks into a mill restoration, you never have to do that again. Mills require a lot of attention and maintenance. The best way to preserve a mill is to operate it, and the more it's operated, the better it's maintained. Some mills that have been restored may now operated one or two days a year. Mills are affected by seasonal and climatic conditions, they were never intended to operate on an off and on basis, which ends up being mostly idle. Another mistake groups sometime make is after they have spent big bucks restoring a mill. They think people love mills so much, that they think someone will operate the mill for little or noting. They often put the expensive restoration into the hands of someone who they are only willing pay minimum wage to. You get what you pay for. The National Park Service classifies the position of miller-mill operater on a grade level below that of other craftsman, like the plumber, stone mason and electrician. Yet knowledge of those crafts or trades was written into my job description when I worked at Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park.

There are mill rights and there are mill wrongs, mills don't last forever. To restore and operate a mill, you have to give up the idea of original parts. Put them into an artifact storage place. A restored mill needs maintenance, replacement and operation. This means a maintenance and operations manual, with deals of the operation, lubrication, maintenance, inspections, annual and long term maintenance and replacement. The inspection reports should deal with the mill while it is running and while the mill is stopped or at rest. An old mill that may go back a hundred or several hundred years, may contain little of its original fabric. For safety sake replace as much as necessary with new safer materials. The current log and record books have to tell the truth, with things and not cloud or hide the truth from the people or powers-to-be that someone may think they might not want to hear. Which means don't write down: ran the mill today, everything is fine, when in reality the mill is falling apart.

If a mill is restored to a particular period, you should carry out maintenance on the same manor as they would have done in that period. Mills were built to make a product and earn money. Mills are commercial operations, while museums are educational institutions. When a mill becomes an museum its product is to product history, and a byproduct of that maybe interpretive demonstrations. It may be hard to justify the expense, without making that profit.

The mills were not built to be museums and to have tourists. But if that is how the mill may survive, simply to show how it used to be, you need proper operation, safety for visitors and staff, regular maintenance. A miller and a staff who's not afraid to get their hands dirty. You need an experienced person or miller who will know how, and how often, and how much to lubricate. Some one who's willing to learn from the machinery, what works best, and to learn from the machinery what is wrong. If the mill is restored to a certian period, the miller should have the knowledge of a miller of that period. More than just a person who is someone who knows how to smile and talk nice to the visitors, and the knowledge of how to turn the mill off and on.

The replacement J.B. Campbell Water Wheel at the grist mill at the Wayside Inn. This water wheel replaced the original Fitz Water Wheel. In the early 1930's post cards were referring to this mill as the "old grist mill" at the Wayside Inn when the mill was less than 10 years old at the time. This mill was a new mill construction and not a restoration. The mill is finally getting to the age (75 years old) where it can be classified as an historical structure. We seen to tend to refer to things as old or nostalgic just if they use old time technology.

You can't always improve on old time technology. The old timers did things for particular reasons. Sometimes if you try and change what was done before, you just simply mess it up. Its not to say some modern ideas and materials can't be installed. One example would be, if a mill was built to operate with stream power but the water was no longer available, and for some reason pumps are installed to operate the mill. You simply exchange one set of problems for another. Trying to operate a mill with pumps is just a bad idea and you end up with an entirely worse set of problems. Its like trying to fight and defeat the laws of energy, you can't win. One of the big problems the Fitz Water Wheel Company had doing their mill restorations, was if they saw someway to improve on what was done before, they would make the improvement, even though it was not done that way orginally.

Turning a mill into a museum may be the only way they can survive into the future for generations to learn and know of them. But it may be like turning a battleship or a man-of-war into a museum, we only get to play act as sailers. A miller today in a restored mill man only get to play act as a miller.

When Hitler came into power one of the first two things he did was close the museums and kill the teachers. So somewhere wrapped up in the definition of freedom must be the privilege, the knowledge, the learning, and the understanding which has something to do with museums. Freedom does not mean standing by and do nothing while history, our past and our heritage is being lost. You wake up one morning in the world, one might not be happy living in.

When I went to work in one mill, I worked for the mill owner who was then 84 years old. I was 29 and I had to work my butt off just to keep up with him. Harry would always say that he had worked in this mill for 55 years. He did not know everything about milling and he was always learning some thing new every day. So each morning when he got up, Harry Moffatt would say: "If there was nothing I felt I could learn that day, might as well craw back in the bed and die." So I don't claim to know everything about mills and I am learning new things all the time. At least if I don't know something, I have the resources and the knowledge of where to look for the some right answers.

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Copyright 1996 by T. R. Hazen