Sunday, February 7, 2010

Milling Around Wisconsin

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

Whenever we’re out shunpiking, we’re on the lookout for old mills: grist mills, saw mills, woolen mills, feed mills, etc. We love all old mills.

We drive every “Mill Road” that we come upon out in the country or in the towns we pass through. Wisconsin is not a state that is noted for its mills, but there are more mills around than you would think.

We have several well-known mills, one of which is Hyde’s Mill in Iowa County. It is a small mill with a wooden waterwheel set on a mill pond. Joann and I have visited this mill multiple times in every season. It is such a peaceful place.

In May 1996, after a trip to Spring Green with family, we stopped at Hyde’s Mill on the way home. The owner, Ted Sawle, was home and when he saw us down by the mill, he came down the hill from the miller’s house to talk with us. He asked us if we wanted to see his collection of antique tools and equipment. We did, and we accompanied him into his personal “tool museum” to see everything that he had inside.

As we left the tool museum, he talked about running the mill as a saw mill during the war. And as he spoke, we could tell that he had a reverence for wood. He said that most of the trees surrounding the mill were walnut trees and he loved the strength and grandeur of those trees. And then he put his arms around one and hugged it tight.

Ted loved old mills and helped to restore or recreate waterwheels for mill restorations into his 90’s. He passed away in January 2009 at the age of 103.

Wisconsin also has several mills that have been restored by local historic groups. We are very thankful to these dedicated people who spend their free time researching the mills, drumming up funding, and restoring the mills to their original splendor. If it weren’t for them, these mills would eventually disappear from the landscape.

The Messer/Mayer Grist and Sawmill was on a list of mills that Joann and I have had for years. We went looking for it several times over the years and always ended up driving up and down the road we thought it was on and not finding it. We would slow down along the road at every creek crossing and peer into the woods for any sign of a mill.

Finally, several years ago, we decided to drive down one of the driveways on the road and found the mill. It was in the very early stages of restoration. Today the mill is well marked with a sign, and the public is welcome to visit and enjoy the restored mill and park.

Another restored mill is the Beckman mill near Beloit, Wisconsin. On the way to a Christmas celebration on New Year’s Day, I thought about how close we would be to the Beckman Mill. We had never photographed it in the winter, so we decided to leave our celebration in time to stop at the mill before sunset. Our family already knows that we almost always get side-tracked on the way to and from anything we attend. We try to leave a little early to account for these side trips, but we don’t always make it to the party on time. We consider this to be just one of the little perils of shunpiking!

We made it to the mill as the sun was sinking low in the sky and the mill was beautiful in the snow. It was a bitter cold day and as the sun was setting it became colder. Because we hadn’t really planned to photograph that day, Joann wasn’t dressed very warmly and she didn’t have her boots, but we couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this. I watched from the car as she walked down the road taking photos at various spots. And then I watched as she walked gingerly across the snow to get closer to the mill. Soon she was trudging farther through the snow to get to a view of the mill with the water pouring over the dam.

After watching her take quite a few pictures from the dam, I started the car and pulled up so she wouldn’t have too far to walk back and, as I waited in the car, I watched her walk even further back along the mill pond. She liked that view the best, but I was worried about how cold it was.

Finally she came back to the car and climbed in. Taking off her gloves, she touched my hand with hers, and they were freezing! But she was very happy because she said the best view was from along the mill pond above the dam. These winter photos turned out to be the best pictures we have ever gotten of Beckman Mill.

There are also mills that we didn’t know about and just stumbled upon. The Marytown feed mill is one of those. We were out shunpiking years ago and as we came to a small crossroads town, we passed this mill. It was still an operating feed mill at the time, but it wasn’t open, so we stopped and took quite a few pictures.

It reminded us of the old feed mill we had gone to with our dad almost 50 years ago. In the fall of 2007, we returned to find the mill no longer operating but still very beautiful in its abandonment.

So, when you’re out shunpiking, keep an eye out for old mills. If you find any, let us know!

Happy Shunpiking!

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