Calais mill enthusiasts strategize renovation
By Eric Blaisdell
STAFF WRITER | September 01,2014
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Elliott Morse, of East Montpelier, checks a pulley wheel at the historic Robinson Sawmill in Calais. Morse’s ancestor Joel Robinson built the mill in 1803.
CALAIS — The progress to get the historic Robinson Sawmill in Calais up and running again is slow going, but those involved have one message: They aren’t going anywhere until it’s done.
The Aldrich Memorial Association, a volunteer nonprofit, is working to get the 1803 mill back to peak performance so students can come see it in action.
At the association’s annual meeting this week at the Calais Town Hall, the group of about a dozen discussed what the next steps should be. Two issues are in their way. The first is that silt runoff from the surrounding roads has filled in much of the pond that is used to power the mill. What once was a body of water spanning 3 acres has shrunk to around an acre.
The silt is also an issue for neighbors of the mill and those who own property downstream, because they don’t want all that silt washing through their land.
Elliott Morse, vice president of the association, said the effect on neighbors is something they need to consider.
“The last thing in the world we want to do is have any animosity with our neighbors,” Morse said. “I’d rather never do anything (with the mill) than have bad feelings with any of the neighbors.”
The second issue is that the penstock — the pipe that feeds water to the mill to power the saw — needs to be replaced, because it leaks about 40 percent of the water needed to turn the saw.
To fix those issues, the association wants to dredge the pond to remove most of the silt, and buy a new feeder system, including new piping and a new valve to control the water, essentially the on/off switch.
All that takes money, something the association doesn’t have a ton of at the moment. According to the budget report presented at the meeting, the association has a shade under $29,000 to work with. Reed Cherington, the association’s treasurer, said that’s not half enough to do the whole project.
The association has been focusing on getting the permits it needs and communicating its plans to neighbors. The project hasn’t been designed yet, so the group doesn’t know how much it’s going to cost.
Donations are the name of the game when it comes to the association bringing in revenue. One of the major topics of the meeting was raising awareness of the project and getting more publicity to drive up donations.
Cherington said it wasn’t practical to start asking for large donations until they know what the project looks like and what the cost will be. He said hopefully by this time next year, they’ll have the permits and a good grasp of the cost.
They’re off to a good start, however. Due to publicity the mill received last year, a man from Illinois learned of the project and decided to give $10,000, said Gail Graham, the association’s secretary.
Washington County Sen. William Doyle, who attended the meeting, said he’d be happy to have someone from the association on his public access show. The association is also improving its online presence to attract donations from outside the state.
In the meantime, the group plans to take some smaller steps to help bring the mill back to life.
David Newhall, the association president, said he has access to a small gasoline engine he could hook up to the mill to get the saw to spin. It wouldn’t reach cutting speed, but he said it would still show how the mill works.
The association also gave the go-ahead to reach out to local schools to see if there is a shop class interested in building a model of the mill. The model should be transportable to different areas and events to help raise awareness for the mill. They didn’t specify if the model would be a scale replica or simply a model that showed the physics of how some of the mill’s gears work, electing to leave that up to the class.
“It would certainly be a nice little engineering project,” Morse said. “They would learn a lot, we’d learn a lot, and finally the public would learn a lot.”
The association voted in favor of giving $200 for the parts needed to build the model.