The following is excerpted from “The Workshop Book,” by Scott Landis. First published in 1991, it remains the most complete book about every woodworker’s favorite place: the workshop.
“The Workshop Book” is a richly illustrated guided tour of some of the world’s most inspiring workshops — from garage to basement shops, from mobile to purpose-built shops.
Note: Ben Thresher died in 1995; his mill has since been restored and is now a museum. Find out more at bensmill.com.
Falling water has powered mills and machinery for several thousand years. Until the Civil War, when it was eclipsed by steam, water was the principal source of stationary power in America, spawning tens of thousands of small mills all over the Northeast. Several Shaker communities piped water great distances underground to run their machines.
For a brief while at the end of the last century, water and steam lived side by side. But the eventual decline of water as a primary source of local power parallels a similar transition between craft and manufacturing. (The recent revival of both craft and small hydro projects may be more than coincidental.) In today’s “post-industrial” society, water power is a comforting reminder of an age in which craft was more than a luxury.
Collapsed mills and breached dams flank the rivers of New England, but on a winding road in northern Vermont, one old woodshop clings stubbornly to its bank. I first saw “Ben’s Mill” in a film of the same name, which was produced in the early 1980s. When I visited the mill (shown above) in East Barnet, Vermont, last spring, I drove right past it, never thinking it might house a working shop. With its broken windows and overgrown yard, the haggard structure looked even more disreputable than it did in the film. Clinging to the clapboard beneath the eaves were traces of rust-colored paint that the mill’s owner, Ben Thresher, figure are original. “Modern latex wouldn’t last that long,” he says, and he’s sure he never painted it.
The mill has become a Vermont institution and Thresher is a local legend, doling out sturdy country woodwork and droll humor in equal measure. For half a century, he has served the seasonal needs of his farming neighbors – building cordwood sleighs for the winter, wooden cattle tubs in the spring and tool handles all year. The fall before my visit, Thresher pressed 6,000 gallons of cider. It’s a no-frills operation, and Thresher would certainly be more at home in the Dominy shop than in many modern furniture studios I visited.
In the film, Thresher notes, “I was just a johnny-come-lately. The real history of it came way before me.” Ben’s Mill is situated about 2-1/2 miles up Stevens Brook from the Connecticut River, New England’s major inland artery. At one time, there were at least four mills in Barnet – including a gristmill, a sash and blind factory and a sawmill on Thresher’s side of the village – and three more in West Barnet (two more gristmill and a woodshop like Thresher’s).
Ben’s Mill has been running since 1848 on the site of an earlier sawmill, and it is the only survivor. The mill hasn’t run off water since 1982, when a flood swept away one end of the dam and part of the penstock. Thresher installed a concrete foundation the following year to keep the mill from sliding into its own stream. He calls it his “monument,” and says, “it wouldn’t be there now if it hadn’t been for me. I’m just that stubborn.” Although electricity was installed on Thresher’s road in 1903, he uses it to power only three bare bulbs, an electric drill and a small motor. In the early days, he recalls, the lights in the shop dimmed when the farmers down the road began their evening milking.
The machinery is now powered by a small tractor, which is belted to the mill’s main lineshaft. Apart from having to oil the wooden bearings (which used to be lubricated with water) and not having to drain and clean the penstock, operation and maintenance of the mill is about the same as it was when it was water driven. “Of course it’s different work,” Thresher says. “It comes out about the same … except you have to buy gasoline.”
In the beginning, Thresher put in 16-hour days at the mill, adding, “Maybe I’d be able to do more now if I hadn’t done so much then.” He relates one particularly chilling episode about an ice floe that jammed the gates open. Thresher waded into the waist-deep water and chopped the ice out with an ax until he could pound the gates shut with a sledge. The next morning, it was -27° F but the dam was full and the mill was running. “I wouldn’t do that now,” he says.
Nowadays, Thresher doesn’t work much in the mill in the winter – it’s dark and the walls are uninsulated. But sometime around April (or on an occasional warm winter clay), he shuffles down the hill from his house across the road, rolls back the front door and fires up the tractor. For the last ten years, Thresher has worked alone. “I’m used to it,” he says. “No arguments that way.” On a more serious note, he adds, “I do so many different things that you pretty well lose your time to do [an employee’s] work.” Shrugging at the triphammer in the corner of the blacksmith shop, “That’s the best man I ever had,” he says. “It won’t talk back.”
Over the years, the river has proved company enough. The water may be high or low, frozen or flooding, but it’s never the same. When the mill was running, water flowed through a gate at one end of the wooden dam and into the penstock. Ben built the penstock in 1949 out of hemlock and tamarack, tough softwood that lasts about as long as oak. In its construction, the penstock resembles a horizontal wooden silo, with metal spline in the butt-jointed ends of the boards to keep it from leaking. As the wood swells, the joints seal “just the same a a tub,” Ben explains, “and as well.”
At the end of the penstock is a horizontal turbine, built in 1911, the year before Thresher was born. The flow of water is controlled by a cast-iron “cheesecake” gate inside the turbine or by boards shoved in front of the penstock. Next to the penstock in the basement is an old boiler, which Thresher uses to fire a steambox to bend wagon wheels and sled runners or to evaporate cider jelly.
The tailwater beneath the turbine is 16 ft. below the top of the mill pond, a drop (or “head”) that generated 29-1/2 hp, or enough to run all the shop machinery at once. (According to Thresher, the 2-ft. long draft tube beneath the turbine added almost as much power as the drop from the pond.) “You could nun a 1-/2-in. dia. bit in the drill press and slow it right down,” Thresher explains, “and you’ve still got the torque.”
Thresher pulls the wheel on his bandsaw to jump start it in motion and explains that the machinery “is pretty much like it was 100 years ago.” In the last 40 years, he has purchased only two machines – a drill press and a lathe – and the drill press was older than the one it replaced. A horizontal boring machine, more than 100 years old, was moved into the shop from another mill. The elegant cast wheel on the Carey jointer is stenciled “Lowell Ma. 1870.” He has two table saws: a sliding saw for crosscutting and a hinged saw for ripping. (The depth of cut is controlled by lifting one end of the hinged top.) “Boy, if I had the lumber that went across that table it’d be quite a pile,” Thresher says.
Most of the machinery is situated in the middle of the first-floor workspace, and Ben works across the width of the shop. That way, the material is less likely to interfere with other machines, and he can open a window or the large sliding door to accommodate long stock. There’s hardly a tool guard in the building. “OSHA would shut me right down,” Thresher says, “only I don’t hire anybody.” Over the years, the machines have caught him only once, when he snagged his sleeve in the table saw and lost the first digit of one thumb.
What OSHA never got around to doing, time is taking care of. Between spring floods and winter frosts, upkeep on the dam and penstock is enough to make anyone think twice about generating their own power. (Thresher has rebuilt the dam four times.) Still, water is more efficient than just about any other source of power – including electricity, gasoline or wind. It’s 90 percent efficient, according to Thresher, and he hated to see it go. Sometimes he still talks as though it hadn’t. As I left, he told me, “If it keeps raining, we’ll have a good year.”
8 thoughts on “‘Ben’s Mill’ in Barnet, Vermont”
I love that guy! There is another reason why old timers and a “take back Vermont” person/s (not saying he is one of them, but there are plenty in the N.E. Kingdom) don’t paint or maintain the property and that is taxes. We even get taxed of our property has a “view”…
11 drawings and 25 photos of the building and its contents from the 1979 Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record report are available for free download from the Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/vt0013/
The video “Ben’s MIll” is still available and is great. It includes following Ben as he constructs a large wooden tub for watering cattle and a simple wooden sled for moving logs.
Fascinating piece. I have only browsed Landis book a little bit. I need to buy it at some point.
The illustrations of the mill remind me of those in the books on tools and early Americana by Eric Sloan.
When this book came out, I spent way too much time studying these illustrations.
Ben’s Mill what a great article.
I own a three story mill building built in 1840. It was powered by hydromechanical energy up until the 1920s when it was converted to hydroelectric power. I purchased it n 1987 and upgraded the controls to state of the art systems. It houses two stories of my woodworking shop and continues to generate over 1.1 million kWH of energy per year.
Methuen Falls Hydroelectric Co. , Methuen MA
If you make the pilgrimage to Ben’s Mill, there is another (quite different) woodworking wonder in Barnet you might wish to check out. It is the Main Shrine Room (or Meditation Hall) at Karme Choling Retreat Center. If you Google it, look at “images,” and the most colorful with lots of gold leaf is the Main Shrine Room. All of the details at the tops of columns, or the canopy over the shrine, started as wood carving. To reproduce them in quantity, molds were made from the originals, and they were cast in some sort of plaster, then gold leafed. The gentleman who led the project (mid 1970’s) is my dear friend Richard John. If you Google his name and add “music stand” and “Smithsonian,” (or some combo thereof), you will see a music stand he created that’s part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian. Cheerio! Peter
I learned about this from reading Landis’s Workshop Book, and then went on the Internet and fell down the rabbit hole. I stumbled into this while googling:
PBS did a documentary in 1981, and it can be watched for free on Folksteams.
As a fresh-out-college salesman in 1985 I stumbled across a line shaft powered molding plant in Walla Walla that was built in the 1890’s by the lumberyard across the street. Both businesses still owned by the same family. The restoration of The Walla Walla Hotel had been completed a few years earlier and all the same molding patterns were able to be run on the same machines using the original knives. The line shaft had been converted to electric power from steam in the 1950’s I believe but the boiler still heated the building. Their maintenance man showed me how to scrape a babbitt bearing while I was there. Great place, a few years later someone from back east bought the whole works and moved it to the east coast. The pattern knife inventory alone would have been worth a small fortune.
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