'The fun part': Group celebrates restoration of Beckman Mill
BELOIT—If you ever doubt what a dedicated group of talented volunteers can do, visit scenic Beckman Mill.
The 1868 grist mill wasn't always so straight and strong.
Step inside and look long and hard at the photo taken of the mill before it was restored. On the verge of collapse, the rundown building looks like fodder for a hungry wind.
Now step outside and look again. The transformation is stunning.
Today, the storied mill has new life because of the thousands of hours and skill invested by people who did not listen to the naysayers.
Twenty-five years ago, the believers got together and formed the nonprofit Friends of Beckman Mill.
When an expert in historic restoration recommended that the building be demolished, they strengthened their resolve.
“I'm sure they took a look at the building and said, 'This guy is wrong,'” said Marty Densch, board president of the friends group.
Volunteers rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Some had specialized skills in engineering, welding and electrical work.
The results are a mill restored to look like it did in 1925.
“Now is the fun part,” said Sheri Disrud, who has been involved in saving the building almost since the beginning. “We've worked so hard and accomplished so much. We are like proud parents. We want people to see what we did.”
In September, the public will have several opportunities to enjoy the mill at one of the prettiest times of the year.
The friends group is celebrating a quarter of a century of preservation with tours and a 25th anniversary party.
In addition to the restored mill, a new dam, mill pond, creamery, blacksmith shop and 1840s cooperage and museum are all located at Beckman Mill County Park, six miles west of Beloit.
“I don't know how many times I've heard people say they didn't know the mill was here,” Disrud said. “It's a hidden treasure. People visit from all over the United States and say how remarkable it is.”
Most of the money for the restoration came from fundraising and donations. Rock County also provided $7,000 to $10,000 annually for about a dozen years, Disrud said.
“When I first got involved, what I found most remarkable is that the work was done with volunteer effort,” Densch said. “That's the only way it could have happened. Otherwise, you couldn't have thrown enough money at it. You needed dedicated volunteers.”
TRIP BACK IN TIME
Since 1990, restoration has included:
—Jacking up the building and supporting it on two huge I-beams to provide access to the decaying foundation. Volunteers poured extra-wide footings, followed by vertical concrete walls on top of them. They re-laid existing limestone against the inner and outside surfaces to create an authentic look and an extra strong foundation.
—Reconstruction of the flume components, resulting in a new water inlet, collector box and huge turbine enclosure in the mill's sub-basement.
—Restoration of the mill's power train and milling machinery, especially the two turbines. Several new parts were made and machined to fit in the turbines. Today the mill operates with power supplied by its original 1860s water-driven Leffel turbine. If alternate power is needed, a vintage two-cylinder gas engine can operate the mill.
—Repair of the French mill stone's massive drive gears. Crew leader Bob Fosler spent more than 200 hours making the 119 wooden teeth required. Fosler also designed the new dam, while consulting with Mead & Hunter Consulting Engineers of Madison. Volunteers said building a new dam was the toughest challenge. They put in more than 5,700 hours of labor to construct a 145-foot dam, which was the same size and shape as its 1924 predecessor.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources required that a new dam be accompanied by a fish ladder. The ladder ensures that protected fish species do not get isolated either in the pond or in the stream below the dam.
Volunteers invested more than 1,900 hours building the ladder, which uses a long series of pools and riffles.
Jim Disrud helped with the mill's restoration.
“Saturday was always a full work day,” he said. “We'd be here by 8 a.m., and Bob Fosler, project coordinator, had things ready for us to do. He was well organized as well as being a good engineer. Six or eight guys can get a lot of work done in a day.”
The Beckman brothers, who grew up at the mill, had the foresight to take equipment and parts off the site for safekeeping. When restoration began, they returned the items. Today, the mill has about 90 percent of its original equipment.
Sheryl Horvath, a retired teacher and board member, called the mill and its buildings living history.
“History happened on this site,” she said, “and you can see it now. We need to pass on the message to the next generation, so it passes it on.”
Children like visiting the mill because it is a hands-on place, where they are encouraged to touch and learn.
“Words you won't hear here are 'don't touch,'” Densch said. “In the mill, children operate the corn shellers and the hand grinders.”
FULL OF PRIDE
Buzz Beckman remembers when the seven-member Beckman family lived in what is now the cooperage.
“There was no insulation in the house,” Beckman recalled. “On a cold night, the moisture from our breath would form ice on the windows and walls. I remember taking my fingernails and scraping off the frost. It was like sleeping in a refrigerator.”
His mother and father—Charles and Bessie Beckman—mainly ground buckwheat at the mill. Later, his father ran a dance hall west of the mill, but the building no longer stands. He also built piers so people could fish over Coon Creek.
“My dad was quite an entrepreneur,” Beckman said. “He got involved in many things.”
Today, the 80-year-old Beckman lives in Manitowoc and is the retired chairman of the foreign language department at Manitowoc Public Schools.
Beckman and two of his brothers began knocking on doors more than 25 years ago to get support to save the historic mill of their childhood.
“We got a lot of help from neighbors who didn't want to see it fall down,” Beckman said.
When he talks about the building's restoration, he gets emotional.
“I feel appreciation for what people have done,” Beckman said. “I'm choking up a little. The main word is gratitude. If it wasn't for neighbors and volunteers, the building would be just a pile of rubble now.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email [email protected].