Today I witnessed a product from the mid nineteenth century being made, with the original nineteenth century tools, machinery, and power supply. It is an original product.
How can this be, you ask.
Gwen and I revisited Frye’s Measure Mill today. It’s located in Wilton, NH and has been in continuous operation since 1858. I say revisited, because we had been to their gift shop on a previous occasion but never took a tour of the mill.
New England is a part of the country where old mills abound. At the beginning of the industrial revolution the region’s economy was driven by its fabric mills, grist mills, saw mills, and others.
As a kid in the fifties, I remember driving by the Faulkner and Colony Mill in Keene, NH and hearing the clickety clack of the carding and weaving machines. The mill windows were tilted open in an attempt to let some of the cool evening air in and allowing the broadcast of those great sounds.
Today, thanks to efforts of a few concerned folks, the Faulkner and Colony Mill remains a useful part of the community remade as a beautiful retail and restaurant location. As great as it is to be able to go into the old mill and see remnants of an earlier workplace, that experience is very different from what I experienced today.
Today, I walked into the 19th century. Inside the Frye’s Measure Mill looks as if the workers had just set down their tools in 1898 or so and gone home. The mill still makes commercially available products. It still runs on water using the original water turbine. Power from the water flow still drives the machinery through leather belts, iron and wood pulleys, and iron gears. Some bits have been repaired and maintained over the last 154 years, but those fixes were all done as they had always been done. No modern materials or conveniences have been substituted for what was there all those years ago.
Why is it called a Measure Mill? Before the system of weighing product came about things like flour, seed, and other dry products were measured out and sold by dry measure. Round wooden measures were made at this mill. They were sold in nested sets of five sizes, quart, two quart, four quart, single peck, and one-half bushel. Some had long, elegant handles and were called piggins.
When the national standard for measure switched over to weights, demand fell and the mill made more and more round and oval “pantry” boxes and curry and wool cards (for combing animals and wool respectively).
They designed and built a beautiful ice cream maker but were driven out of the market by a much larger manufacturer in the region who dropped their price dramatically so the Frye’s could not gain a foothold in the market. No rules against predatory pricing were in place, perhaps a good thing as it resulted in behavior more synchronous with natural systems. The Fryes adapted.
Some quick research tells me that there are other, original, water powered mills operating in the country but I doubt you would need more than your fingers and toes to count them all.
As I tour historic mills around New England, I have seen remnants of the old power systems of water wheels and turbines, belts and pulleys. I have read about their construction and operation and tried to imagine what it would be like to be present 100 years ago as these amazing systems drove the activities of these great mills. Never did I think that it would be possible to actually experience it… to hear the soft, more human sounds of those systems.
Harland Savage Jr. (Harley) is the current owner of Frye’s Measure Mill. Economic downturns related to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the latest, seemingly endless depression have combined with health issues to cause his business to decline dramatically.
I suspect if you could see and hear the old belts, pulleys, and gears whirring in unison and see the “elephant’s foot” press the bottom into a beautiful pantry box, you too might feel transported back in time. A simpler, more basic time with pure products manufactured from natural materials that are actually useful and not just some neat new unnecessary thing.
We completed this trip back in time by staying at an Inn that has been in continuous operation since 1789. These two amazing historic treasures have left my mind in a tizzy about how important it is to preserve them and places like them. Maybe it’s some retro thing in my brain, maybe, as a friend once said, I had a life in the nineteenth century and that has caused me to be drawn to anything left from that period like the 160 year old brownstone I lived in in Brooklyn or the 106 year old converted factory I now live in.
I would make this mill a bullet item on your bucket list or for the younger, your to do list. If you have the big bucks, call Harley and discuss with him how you might help him save this amazing treasure.