After 25 years, historic mill thrives

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Margaret Plevak | September 23, 2015

NEWARK TOWNSHIP -- Never underestimate the power of a volunteer.

For nearly two decades, countless visitors, from seniors to school groups, have toured the grounds of a 50-acre Rock County park to see what Friends of Beckman Mill volunteers have wrought, including an 1840s-era cooperage, a dam and mill pond, a fish ladder, a foot bridge, saw mill display, blacksmith shop, nature trails -- and the crown jewel, an authentically restored 1868 grist mill.

On Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 26, 2015 and Sept. 27, 2015, the Friends of Beckman Mill will mark its 25th anniversary with a celebration in Beckman Mill Park, located six miles west of Beloit and planted in the footprint of a mill that's almost a century and a half old.

When the August Beckman family acquired the mill in 1882, it already had been running since shortly after the end of the Civil War, built on the grounds of a distillery that had burned down in 1853. The mill served as both a business and a gathering spot for customers, whose tag-along kids would fish or swim in the mill pond, according to the Friends of Beckman Mill website. The Beckman family kept the mill grinding corn for flour until 1954, when the building was rented as a storage barn for hay.


In 1977, the mill was placed on National Register of Historic Places, and a year later, family members sold it along with a 10-acre parcel of land to Rock County.

The county had plans for the mill, but couldn't afford to restore it. So the mill sat, boarded up to keep vandals out, but slowly deteriorating.

Area residents, including grandsons of August Beckman, didn't want to see the mill disappear, so they formed a non-profit organization, the Friends of Beckman Mill, to help preserve it. Their first meeting on Oct. 2, 1990, drew only about 40 people.

By 1991, the mill, teetering on collapse, was making Wisconsin preservationist groups' "top 10" lists of endangered places. Sheri Disrud, former Friends of Beckman Mill president and still active volunteer, recalled a visit that year from staff of the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

"They looked at the mill and said, 'Just tear it down. Don't try to redo it. It's just too far gone,'" Disrud said. "To some of our volunteers, that was kind of a dare. 'Oh, you think we can't do it? Well, we'll show you.' And they did."

The group had the building jacked up from its crumbling foundations and laid new concrete walls down, facing them with the existing limestone. Then restoration of the building began, from its walls and windows to its elevators and grain bins.

Disrud credits the skill of volunteers with getting the work done, including engineers and welders who did everything from drawing project blueprints to fabricating 119 wooden teeth for one of the mill's massive drive gears.

"The expertise from all these different fields, we were very lucky to have that," she said.

Lucky especially since there were challenges along the way.

When Friends of Beckman Mill members approached officials at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Madison about permission to a rebuild the 1924 dam near the mill, DNR officials told them they would also need to build a fish ladder, or passage, to let smaller species of fish move from the mill pond to the stream below the dam.

"In our whole group, no one had ever built a dam before -- or a fish ladder," said Kirby Simpson, a retired Chrysler worker who heads the FBM work crew. "But we figured it out and put it in."

Over the years donations and grants -- ranging from the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills to the Wisconsin Humanities Council -- have helped fund projects at the mill, Disrud said. Grants from the Department of Natural Resources were supplemented by matching funds from Rock County. Disrud said the grants and donations are essential in maintaining an annual budget of about $22,000.

But it's the volunteers who are the backbone of the operation. Disrud estimated rebuilding the dam alone, without volunteer labor, cost about $150,000.

Friends of Beckman Mill just signed a 10-year lease with Rock County, which still owns Beckman Mill Park. County workers mow the park grounds, installed outdoor lighting and helped in the creation of a visitor center in 2006.

"It's been a true partnership between the county and the Friends group," said Rock County Parks Director Lori Williams. "We could not have had the kind of park we have without them."

Williams, who became director in 2007, credits former parks director Tom Kautz as one of the visionaries who worked with Friends of Beckman Mill on the park.

Going for authenticity

The mill has been restored to a period of the 1920s, and many of the outbuildings have period styling.

"For a modern museum, you have to have electricity, fire extinguishers and telephones," said Friends of Beckman Mill volunteer Dick Dunagan, a retired history teacher. "But in general, the group has done very well in maintaining the authentic touch."

Plenty of small details abound, like visible square nail heads in the walls, reproduction Edison light bulbs, and even artificial shingles that look authentic but are safer than wood.

There also are the mill's massive mill grinding stones -- each about the size of a truck tire -- that came from France.

"They were shipped to New Orleans, then shipped up the Mississippi River and carted up here by oxen," Dunagan said. "If you had the money, you got the best stones and the best stones were from France."

Earlier this summer, the millstones drew the attention of a group of geologists who inspected the stones and verified that the fossils in them could have been found only in France.

The working millstones still annually grind cornmeal that's sold to raise money for the mill.

Volunteers did their research on reproductions too, adding a tractor engine that would originally have provided an auxiliary source of power for the mill in the 20th century when pond levels were seasonably lower. And there are batteries like the ones the Beckman family used, which, when powered by the mill, let them become the first area residents to have electricity.

Friends of Beckman Mill's volunteers, now grown to about 340, have helped expand the tours to include the Beckman House Museum that shows -- in photos, displays and even video screens -- how the family lived and the mill grew.

"It's rare that you pull into the parking lot and don't see a car or two," Disrud said. "We're part of the Rock County Bike Trails, so you see cyclists. People go fishing or come out for a Fourth of July picnic. They hold weddings here and even take prom photos at the park."

"I don't think we realized at the time -- myself anyway -- how much this could become," said Friends of Beckman Mill volunteer Jim Disrud, who is Sheri's husband. "It's developed into more than I ever thought it could be. Now people who come here are just amazed at what we've got. A mill like this with the original equipment we've got that's still working, there are very, very few around. We've really got a treasure here."

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