Blooms, by Roger Butterfield, July 26, 1941.
"Glory!" breathed Johnny Campbell. "Glory! I never saw
anything so beautiful!" He stood, a boy of fifteen, with a small surveying
level in one hand, on a cliff overlooking the town of Cedar Buff, in Tazewell
County, Western Virginia. Far below, the Clinch River cut its course through
wall of limestone rock, in a wide horseshoe curve through the town. Bluegrass
and meadow weeds came up to his knees. It was July 4, 1905.
That might seen very long ago to some, but John Blake Campbell, now age
fifty-one, has never forgotten his emotions of that moment. "I just
stood and marveled at that wonderful water power," he recalls. "There
were mills all along the river, some of them grinding grain, some making
blankets and cloth, their wheels turning and flashing in the sun. I knew
then what I wanted to do in my life, but I didn't know the name for it."
The railroad survey crew was working with during the summer finished
its job and Johnny went home to Roanoke, where his father was pastor of
the First Presbyterian Church. One day he read in a newspaper that a near=by
town had engaged a "hydraulic engineer." That gave him "the
name for it" - he, too, became a hydraulic engineer. Not a builder
of Grand Coulee and Boulder dams, harnessing giant rivers, counting his
turbines in million-horsepower groups; that kind of engineering has never
come his way, and he has not sought it. Engineer John Campbell has always
stayed close to the little waters - the creeks and rocky brooks and smaller
rivers that have been left behind in America's rush to make each job bigger
than the last. They have given him a quiet and satisfying kind of fame.
Once these lesser streams turned the wheels of thousands of mills; their
water still runs, though the the mills have stopped. Many are located on
farms and estates that could use their never-failing flow for lighting,
pumping drinking water, doing chores by electricity. Partly because of his
Scotch-Irish hatred for waste, but mostly because he is a natural poet whenever
he is within sight of running water, Campbell has made a career out of redeveloping
these original sources of water power. He served a romantic apprenticeship
tramping the hills and valleys of his native Virginia, soaking up the lore
of back-county millers. Later he organized his own firm - the Campbell Water
Wheel Company - designed and perfected a welded-steel water wheel, became
known as the leading expert on overshoot wheels. Most big water wheels seen
turning in the open are the overshoot (often called "overshot")
type - that is, they are operated by the weight of water dropping into buckets
on the rim of the wheel. When Henry Ford decided to build his old-time,
wheel-driven grist mill at the Wayside Inn in South Sudbury, Massachusetts,
it was Campbell who plotted the lovely natural mill race, collected ancient
wooden machinery, designed and installed the ten-ton, eighteen-foot water
wheel which grinds out sixteen different kinds of grain products, including
Mr. Ford's favorite johnnycake meal.
All up and down the Atlantic seaboard, from New England to Georgia, Campbell
has set his wheels turning in the flow of fresh, clear water - source of
unending pleasure and definite profit to their owners. There is something
about a water wheel that makes all men kin, he has found; few persons can
walk past one in motion without stopping to look, relax and go away refreshed.
One of Campbell's clients, E. Paul du Pont, president of the Indian Motorcycle
Company, is so devoted to the eight-foot wheel on his Delaware estate that
no one else can touch it, even for repairs. He carries the key to a chest
of high-grade tools in the wheel-house, and when the pump needs new leather
washers or oiling, he does the job in person. James Stillman Rockefeller,
husband of Nancy Carnegie, and his cousin Avery, are also Campbell customers.
At the Stillman Rockefeller estate on Jumping Creek, near Fayetteville,
North Carolina, Campbell took over an old grist mill and installed tow water
wheels - one ten foot high and ten feet wide, which provides enough electric
current for lights, a refrigerator, and a 13,000 watt cooking range, and
a smaller wheel which pumps all the water for the estate. The timber dam
near the mill was old and threatened to collapse; Campbell dug under it
and put in a new concrete foundation so cunningly hidden that it still looks
like a partial ruin. IN his first letter, Rockefeller wrote of a "small
turbine" to do the work; Campbell soon talked him out of that. He sometimes
installs turbines, but does not like them; a turbine is completely submerged
in the current, requires more attention than a wheel, and is infinitely
less picturesque. "You never saw a turbine that was anything more than
a rod sticking out of the water," says Campbell contemptuously.
One of Campbell's artistic triumphs was a huge all-wooden wheel ordered
by Robert J. Boltz, a Philadelphia investment counselor know to some of
his friends as "Honest Bob." Boltz was spending fabulous sums
of his 260-acre estate overlooking the Delaware River at Solebury, Pennsylvania
- he built one corn crib, metal-sheathed against rats, costing $10,000,
and there were twenty-two telephone wires connecting his farmhouse, stables
and barns. He insisted on an old-fashioned wooden wheel, instead of the
more permanent steel, and told Campbell to spare no expense. Campbell first
located a stand of Pennsylvania white oak with three-foot trunks and had
the trees cut and dressed: water-wheel timber must never be green and always
seasoned. The finished wheel was fifteen feet high and thirty inches broad,
with a solid white oak shaft twenty inches though the core. The bearing
casings, usually made of iron, were of lignum vitae. When it was finished,
Boltz jokingly complained the wheel had no squeak. Would Campbell install
one for him?
"I told him I certainly would not!" says Campbell indignantly.
"When a wheel squeaks it needs (attention because its parts are loose,
Soon after this job was completed, but only partly paid for, "Honest
Bob" Boltz was arrested on charges of defrauding his customers of more
than $2,000,0000 and is now serving a twenty-year jail sentence. It was
his amusing custom, Campbell learned, to take investors to lunch at the
Bellevure-Stratford in Philadelphia and tell them, "Well, I just took
the five thousand dollars you gave me and bought a new tractor for my farm!"
The victim would chuckle with him, not dreaming the statement was literally
true. Boltz's water wheel - which cost $2,500 by itself - plus some #35,000
worth of fancy mill races, stone spring houses, antique wooden water troughs,
locks, stream moving, and conduit laying that Campbell did for him, were
probably financed in the same way. All of his completely bewilders Campbell,
who doesn't see how a man with such taste in water wheels could be a crook.
" I just cain't understand it," he says, shaking his head sadly.
Since no one else seems much interested now, Campbell sometimes drives forty
miles from his office in downtown Philadelphia just to look at his Boltz
masterpiece. It is still working steadily at its job, filling a concealed
hilltop reservoir with 30,000 gallons of fresh spring water each day.
Water, as far as Campbell is concerned, is the most important and interesting
fact on earth. He has been studying and working in water for more than thirty-five
years, and he has never lost his initial enthusiasm. Standing in front of
one of his own water wheels, watching a narrow creek tumble over an old
rock dam, he will throw back his head and apostrophes, "Just think,
that power is there for all time - for ever and ever! You cain't stop it;
no, sir, you cain't stop it!' In a booklet he had printed to describe some
of his wheels the words "Water Power" and "Water
Wheel" are capitalized wherever they appear. The opening sentence
reads: "Water Power when properly developed, is the most faithful,
the most wonderful power in the world."
During along a country road with him is an experience. His nose, set in
a thin, intense face, seems constantly to be sniffing the air for hidden
springs. His eager blue eyes, peering through shell-rim glasses, are busy
exploring everything but the road ahead." See there," he will
exclaim suddenly, pointing wildly with either arm and letting the car lurch
in any direction. "See that green grass" See how thick and fresh
it is? That's the bloom of water: you cain't mistake it!"
The word "bloom" on Campbell's soft Virginia tongue is a small
poem in itself - every kind of soil, he believes, had its own "bloom,"
and he knows them all. An outcropping of red rock, gravelly red dirt near
the surface, is an "bloom of poor soil; so are sumac and scrub pine.
High weeds and grass are a reliable "bloom" of good farmland.
Shaly outcroppings are a "bloom" of water, which Campbell seemingly
can spot by sheer instinct, may be greener, lusher growth in a certain spot,
which is easy to see; or it may show in the clumping of lichen on a barren
hillside, which is not so obvious.
Campbell can walk along a stream and pick out springs under the running
water, but he finds this difficult to explain to the layman. A few years
ago, J. Stanley Reeve, fox hunter and author of several expensive books
on the sport, bought an estate in the rolling Brandywine valley southwest
of Philadelphia. Last March, Lord Halifax, the British ambassador chased
his first American fox across this land traversed the property, but Reeve
was told drinking water came from an underground spring some distance upstream.
Campbell found the "spring" was really a pipe tapping the open
stream, a dangerous arrangement. The ground near by did not suggest springs,
but Campbell walking up and down the brook, located several places where
a change in flow seemed to denote a new source. His men dug into the bed
and opened four fine springs of "the purest water you'd ever want to
Campbell never charges more than two dollars an hours (in 1941) for his
own services, and always acts as his own engineer. In the back of his secondhand
car he keeps four cases of instruments always packed, ready to make a run
to North Carolina or Connecticut or Virginia on a few minutes' notice. When
John and Edward Rackstraw, wealthy Philadelphia brothers, asked him to come
to Wyoming and install a water wheel on their ranch, he drove all the way.
It was his first trip so far west, and he was amazed at what he found. "Do
you know," he says, "there isn't a single stream between Pittsburgh
and Rapid City, South Dakota, that is worth putting a water wheel in!"
Campbell is as thrifty with cash as he is with water; he keeps a stopwatch
in his desk and times his long-distance phone calls, cutting them short
at the three-minute minimum. He turned a deaf ear to several hints about
"investing money from "Honest Bob" Boltz, though in the end
he lost $4,00 through nonpayment. On his trip to Wyoming, however, his engineer's
curiosity could not resist the South Dakota Black Hills, where he invested
in a quarry producing rose quartz for tombstones. Since then, driving to
and from jobs, he likes to go slow past cemeteries and see how many monuments
are made from this type of stone, which provides a spectacular contrast
to ordinary granite and marble memorials.
His only other investment is a neck of land with an old mill building on
the west bank of the Schuylkill River above Philadelphia. He uses the building
as a shop and storehouse for his water wheels, also keeping there a large
collection of antique lanterns and lampposts, which he sells to estate owners
for ornamental lighting fixtures. Campbell is constantly buying up old milling
equipment wherever he can, but he does not try to store such bulky stuff,
usually leaving it at the original site until he can use it. For Henry Ford
he obtained an ancient screw-jack, hewn by hand from an apple log about
1825, four hoops, two hoppers, crane, and hooks from a mill near Muncy,
Pennsylvania. The old miller was a headstrong man who had deeded his property
"to God" and retired; local officials, declaring "God pays
no taxes," repossessed the land, and the former owner, who always carried
his entire fortune in his pants pockets, was murdered by robbers a few years
later, Campbell never told his story to Mr. Ford.
Hanging on the wall of Campbell's office is an old-fashioned painting of
Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers join. In the foreground
is a large bright red mill which was operated for many years by one of Campbell's
grandfathers. Another ancestor was the first may of Rochester, New York,
at a time when that city was largely a collection of flour mills on the
Genesee River. Campbell got his engineering education at Cornell, which
has one of the celebrated hydraulic laboratories in the world - a gray stone
building nestled in the hills beside an eighty-six foot waterfall high above
Cayuga's waters. Here he spent three years of study with the roar of tumbling
water constantly in his ears; one of the teachers, a professor Turner, used
to set an example for the boys by getting into a bathing suit after class
and diving sixty feet into the seething pool just before the laboratory
Armed with his degree and a brief experience working for the Aluminum Company
of American on the St. Lawrence River, Campbell returned to Roanoke in the
spring of 1915. For the next twelve months he "just followed the streams"
in that section of Virginia, exploring the Big Otter and Little Otter, the
Bluestone River, Crab Orchard Creek, and others with plainer names - the
Goose, the Glade, the Tinker. He talked to farmers and millers, offering
to install water wheels where they could be of use. Everywhere he took snapshots
of mills, streams, springs, ponds, and likely water courses with his own
small camera. Each night he jotted down a minute diary, with diagrams and
calculations, and sums of money spent for postage stamps, livery hire or
mending thread. His first "sale" was a $200 job for a farmer miller
of Big Island, Bedford County, known as "Mr. Bub" Parks - a dignified
man whose chin whiskers reached to the second button of his vest Campbell
had stopped about noon to inspect the Parks Mill, which had ground flour
for Lynchburg before and during the Civil War. He was invited to stay for
dinner, and afterward went out to see the family water supply. For generations,
he was told, the Parkes had drunk from a spring that gushed from under a
big ash tree a gallon per minute - about one fourth the flow of a city water
spigot, but enough, if the water could be stored, to supply for ordinary
farms. Unfortunately, the spring was at the foot of a 110-foot hill and
the farmhouse was at the top, so that drinking water had to be hauled by
the bucketful up a primitive wire "telegraph" arrangement, or
else carted up in barrels. The farm animals had to be led down to drink
every day. "If anyone could show me how to get that fresh water up
to my house, it would be worth a good deal to me," said Farmer Parks.
The young engineer took out his land level, studied the mill stream, the
slope of the hill and the spring. "I can carry every drop from the
spring to the top of the hill with a small water wheel and pump," he
said. "You can run the cold water into a concrete tank in the dairy
besides the house, and keep you butter and cream there, instead of at the
The deal was closed, and further entries in Campbell's diary for 2925 tell
how the wheel was placed in a covered stone recess besides a small new dam,
without subtracting at all from the beauty of the old mill and its wooden
wheel. On this first job, Campbell and the Parks menfolk worked side by
side setting forms and building the dam. On Sundays they rested together.
Campbell's diary for Sunday, August 29, 1915, records: "Bathed in creek,
ate chicken for dinner, ate watermelon, went for walk, ate peaches and apples,
ate supper, wrote a little more, went to bed early." The next Sunday,
September fifth, the entry was simply: "Gathered chinquapins. Wrote
bids." On Wednesday, October twenty-seventh, came the final note: "Test
of system. Gallons per minute falling over 7-foot wheel: 32. Gallons per
minute pumped to elevation of 110 feet:1 Efficiency!"
Four similar jobs followed in the course of his year; when expenses and
receipts were totaled, Campbell found he had a cash loss of $250. He took
a train to Hanover, Pennsylvania, walked into the office of the Fitz
Water Wheel Company, where he had been buying wheels to measure, and
asked for a job as engineer salesman. They took him on for eleven dollars
a week and sent him to Philadelphia. One day early in 1917 he was called
to the Chestnut Hill estate of Miss Lydia Morris, a rich and aristocratic
spinster. Miss. Morris had spent a fortune creating one of the finest American
arboretums on the banks of Wissahickon Creek, but she could not make a large
Italian foundation in her garden work. The fountain hand been a favorite
of her brother, who had recently died, and she was willing to spend any
amount to put it in running order. Oddly enough, the Morrises were part
owners of the I. P. Morris Company, makers of some of the largest turbines
in the world (including those at Niagara Falls, Muscle Shoals and Boulder
Dam), but none of their engineers could fix the fountain. Campbell located
the trouble in a badly designed water wheel besides the creek; the water
was shooting under the wheel instead of striking in the back, and failed
to provide enough power. He designed a new wheel and pump which still feeds
the fountain. This small job paid important dividends, for many of Miss
Morris' friends later became his customers.
On the day the job was finished, however, Campbell received notice to report
with the 19th U. S. Engineers; he had enlisted in April, shortly after war
was declared against Germany. Most of the next two years he spent in France,
where he rarely heard a shell fired. His unit kept rail lines open and purified
water supplies in towns where American troops were quartered. For Campbell,
the war had tow major revelations: the filthiness of most French drinking
water, and the softness of French down beds. He collected French post cards
- not the traditional kind, but the pictures of streams, dams and mills.
After the armistice, he took a long leave and traveled through Southern
France and Switzerland, studying uses of water power. At one ancient earthen
dam in the town of Nevers he found a unique flood-control system. Wooden
boards with handles were set in the side of the dam toward the current;
when a flood threatened, peasants walked along the top and pulled the boards
out, letting the water flow underneath. This picturesque device Campbell
later copied when building $50,000 water-power system on the estate of Brigadier
General John Ross Delafield, near Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
Since 1919, when he returned from France and struck out in business for
himself, Campbell has completed 340 water projects and installed 124 water
wheels on estates, plantations, historic restorations, farms and in a few
cases, small manufacturing and municipal plants. The latter jobs did not
interest him greatly. "Efficiency!" is still his watchword, but
he prefers work in which natural beauty is an equal factor. He boasts that
he has never marred the beauty of a stream with machinery, and his hatred
of iron water towers is an passion. "I never allow a customer to put
up such an ugly thing," he says. "I just wouldn't do it, that's
Next to water power and Robert E. Lee - whose two-volume Life he keeps handy
on his rolltop desk - Campbell's greatest hero is Henry Ford. Ford he says,
"is a superman if there ever was one." He first learned of Ford's
plan to build an old-style mill in 1924, while working on a remote stream
in the Pocono Mountains. An assistant mentioned seeing such a story in the
New York World, but when Campbell looked for the paper, it had been thrown
out. He searched through the cellar of his country hotel and found it -
a brief front-page item stating that Ford, who once had made his famous
remark about most history being "bunk" was now planning to teach
"true history" at his newly purchased Wayside Inn in Massachusetts.
One lesson, the story said, would be an old-fashioned grist mill, run by
"Water power developed on the Premises."
Campbell brooder over this for three days, then sat down and drafted a long
letter on old mills in general, their technical and picturesque features,
and recent work he had down in New England and elsewhere. He rewrote this
several times, finally sending duplicate three-page versions to Ford at
Detroit and South Sudbury, Massachusetts. Ford got the South Sudbury letter
the day after it arrived and immediately wired Campbell to come up. Campbell
was still in the Poconos; he wired an acceptance - his scrapbook records
that it cost sixty-five cents - hurried home to Philadelphia on Sunday with
scarcely a dollar in his pockets, sent his wife out to borrow money from
a neighbor while he packed, and caught the Federal Express for Boston late
that night. The next morning he took a cab from Boston to the Wayside Inn
- that cost ten dollars, the scrapbook notes - and arrived just an hour
before Ford planned to return to Detroit. "Are you ready?" was
the motor magnate's greeting. Campbell breathlessly assented and they started
off at once for the mill site, Ford's long legs well ahead and Campbell
tagging along with a case of instruments. Ford said he planned to build
a concrete flume to carry water from a small stream to the mill, but Campbell
immediately disagreed. His trained eye visualized a lovely natural mill
race winding around a low hill, with the mill set against the rising ground,
just as it was eventually built. Ford, after listening a few moments, smiled
and said, "All right, you stick to your ideas and I'll stick to mine,"
and the bargain was made.
Campbell's estimate of Ford was a superman is based partly on the auto man's
complete disregard of costs. The old milling machinery already described
is driven by gears of steel, with cut teeth, instead of the usual cast iron.
The millstones are French buhr stones imported by Campbell from the town
of La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, where they have been exclusively quarried for
centuries. These flinty chunks of limestone (quartz) rock are four times
as hard as the New England granite used by early American millers. They
are quarried in small pieces weighing from 20 to 200 pounds, fitted together
in a round wheel bound by iron hoops. The French call them meules.
Millstones are grooved so that grain poured through a hole in the upper
one trickles slowly out between the edges in the form of meal or flour.
Europeans groove their stones in straight lines; old American stones are
usually grooved in elliptical lines, either "against the sun"
- to the left - or "with the sun." The Ford stones turn "against
the sun," and, like all millstones, have to be regrooved every few
months as the surface wears down. The hardest chisels are blunted after
a few strokes in this work.
Ford's only concession to modernity was an expensive set of cleaning
and blowing machinery, which is hidden from the sight of visitors in tan
upper room in the mill. He would not let Campbell put electric lights in
the mill and even balked at using ball bearings in the machinery. The water
course at the Ford mill is controlled by a gate which can transform the
flow from a trickle to a torrent in a jiffy. Tourists like to see lots of
water racing over the wheel, but to Campbell this is unnecessary and inefficient
- and, therefore, not beautiful. Any water that shoots over the wheel without
helping it turn the shaft is wasted, in his opinion. Most post-card views
of the Ford mill, however, show it spinning in a great fury of foaming water.
Campbell supplies three principal types of water wheels: the overshoot,
which creates power from the weight of water falling into buckets on the
rim of the wheel and turning it; the turbine, a cylinder submerged in running
water which turns its horizontal blades; and the impulse (Pelton), in which
water is directed through a fine nozzle at small cups on the rim of the
wheel. Turbines are efficient only for large streams and big power projects,
according to Campbell. Impulse wheels can be used only where there is a
direct waterfall 100 feet or higher.
The overshoot wheel, Campbell believes, is best adapted to small streams
and private installations; it dimensions can be governed entirely by the
amount of water available. Campbell produces wheels ranging from tow to
sixty feet in diameter, and from six inches to twelve feet wide. Their weight
may vary from 100 to 36,000 pounds. Sometimes a tiny water supply can do
wonders it it spurts from a never-fail source. One of Campbell's wheels
has turned for twenty years on a one-and-a-half-inch pipe of water it not
only keeps a 20,000-gallon reservoir filled with spring water but supplies
all the irrigation needs of a large nursery near Philadelphia. On the Rakestraw
ranch near Cody, Wyoming, a Campbell impulse wheel only six inches in diameter
produces 1,200 watts of power, which is stored in batteries to supply the
needs of the ranch house and stables. Here there was a 596-foot fall available
from a branch of the Shoshone River, and a larger wheel was not needed.
An average size steel water wheel cost around $500, while the work of installing
it and connecting it to power and pumping system may run from $2,000 to
$10,000, depending on the property being served.
In wooded, hilly sections, remote from large towns or cities, where plenty
of power is available, a water-wheel installation will quickly pay for itself
in reduced electricity and water costs. Maintenance costs almost nothing;
a wheel needs greasing only every three or four months, and once it is set
turning, there is little that can get out of order. Almost any kind of moving
water will operate a wheel and do a useful job; one of Campbell's unique
installations is a wooden paddle wheel operated by the tide at historic
Boone Hall Plantation, near Charleston, South Carolina. This estate was
bought a few years ago by Thomas A. Stone, a retired Canadian diplomat,
who noticed that a nine-acre lake was filled and emptied each day by tidewater
flowing through Wampacheone Creek, one of hundreds of swampy streams that
thread the Carolina low country. In Colonial days, tidewater had been trapped
by primitive pumps to irrigate rice fields: Stone believed its power could
gain be utilized, and asked Campbell to devise the means. The wheel Campbell
designed is imply a set of paddles, each seven feet long and forty inches
across, set in a shaft and geared to turn with the tide in either direction.
The wheel turns only three or four revolutions a minute, but it is attached
to a set of gears that increase the speed 115 times before transmitting
to the generator. The resulting power goes to fifty-six large storage batteries
from which 112 volts- permitting use of standard fixtures - is distributed
underground to the various buildings. The batteries take up the slack during
the few minutes each day when the tide stops running in one direction, and
pauses before starting to flow the other way. Neighboring plantation owners
have dubbed the Stone plant "Passamaquoddy, Junior." As far as
Campbell knows, it is not duplicated anywhere in the United States.
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