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In Memoriam.

In Memoriam.

Thursday, October 29, 1987 The Philadelphia Inquirer 23-D


John Blake Campbell, 97; Master of the Dying Craft of Water Wheels.

By Murray Dublin, Inquirer Staff Writer.

John Blake Campbell, 97, the last man in America to built water wheels, died Tuesday at the Presbyterian Home in Broomall.

My Campbell, who until his final illness lived at 42nd Street and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia, owned the Campbell Water Wheel Company there. He and his company were a link to a day when America's industry was powered by water.

The dam, the millrace and the gristmill were integral parts of community development in the 18th and 19th centuries. In his wife, the water wheels added a touch of beauty that could never be replaced.

"They're just beautiful," he would say, delight coating his words like corn syrup. "The water, the motion of the wheel. It's just a picture, any water wheel, even the small ones. And they accomplish something. Nothing is any good unless it accomplishes something."

A Scotsman from Virginia who built water wheels for Henry Ford, the Rockerfellers and the du Ponts, Mr. Campbell would drive across the county in his black and white 1954 Chevrolet, building and designing water wheels.

He never officially retired, friends said, "Until his illness, he was a familiar figure on 42nd Street, a frail man in a three-piece gray or black wool suit, a gray, felt hat, a thin, dark tie and a white shirt."

Historians, curators, restorationists, even those who knew him from the street recognized him as something special.

"He's an endangered species," said Charles Yeske, manager and curator of historic property for Bucks County's Department of Parks and Recreation, after the county had hired him several years ago to oversee the restoration of two mills near Pipersville and Durham.

"There's a sense of urgency to get this done while he's still around........I don't know of anybody like him." Yeske said then.

His work ranged from the mill in Bucks County to restorations on such widely know grounds as Washington Crossing State Park and to private project as the grist mill at the historic Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

He built the Sudbury Mill in the 1920's for Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. The 10-room inn was built in 1702 and claims to be the oldest operating inn in the United States.

The Sudbury grist mill is in daily use, said Millie MacKnight, a desk clerk. "It grinds the whole-wheat flour and corn meal that we use here," she said. "We're famous for our corn muffins and whole wheat rolls with flour that we grind here at the mill."

The son of a Presbyterian minister from Ronanoke, Virginia, Mr. Campbell knew even as a teenager that he wanted to be a water wheel man. He decided that meant going to Cornell University to become a hydraulic engineer.

After service in World War 1 with the Army Corps of Engineers, he returned home to become a lumberjack. His passion was for water wheels and mills, though, and in 1923, after marrying, he moved to West Philadelphia, and formed the Campbell Water Wheel Company. He became a recognized authority, and his interest never waned.

He said he always wanted to stay close to the brooks and the streams, to the creeks and the smaller rivers, to the little water where one person with some know-how and care can make a difference.

Until the latter part of the 1800's, water wheels drove sawmills, pumped drinking water, powered textile mills and furniture plants, farms and estates and created work for generations. Most of the mills and their water wheels are gone or dormant now, replaced by electricity.

"I didn't realize what power lines would mean," Mr. Campbell would say sadly, "They just crept out."

Over the years, he designed, built and installed water-power and hydroelectric systems on private estates and historic sites throughout the United States and Canada. He also did consulting works on the reconstruction of old mills.

"He was the most completely honest, work-oriented person I knew," said Carol Steinruck, his secretary for more than 20 years. "He called me Miz Carol. He was the perfect Southern gentleman."

"He just went to a job whether they agreed to pay him or not. He never made a big profit," she said.

Mr. Campbell would often talk fondly of the Perkiomen, the Schuylkill and the Brandywine, all water he had tapped for his water wheels, four of which still operate in this area.

"I don't like motors," was another oft-heard remark of the water-wheel man. "No life to them, no interest, just a pure thing to give power. But an overshot water wheel on an old gristmill! Ah, the antiquity of it, the beauty of it, the romance of it........."

Even its sound -- the creaks and groans, squeaks and rumbles -- seem pure music to his ears. It was a sound that should be preserved for all times, he insisted.

He is survived by a son, J. Blake Campbell Jr., and five grandchildren.

A graveside service will be held at 1:30 tomorrow at Harper's Ferry Cemetery in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. 

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Copyright 2009 by T. R. Hazen.