Beckman Mill Restoration
The era chosen for the restoration of the mill was the 1920s partly because at that time business was at a high point and the additional floor space gained from Charlie and Henry’s renovation would be needed for a gift shop and orientation room for tours. When built in 1868, the mill was a standalone 30 X 40 foot structure shown at right.
Restoration Efforts Begin
The restoration effort began in 1990 at a time when the mill was in very poor condition and on the verge of collapse. The original foundation was deteriorating, the floors were sagging and the roof was leaking badly. Moreover, the milling equipment was inoperable due to wear and neglect. Making matters worse, vandals had been busy defacing the building and removing valuable artifacts. Because of that threat, the mill’s more portable items were placed in safe storage.
The task facing the then small Friends of Beckman Mill organization was a formidable one by any standards and many said that saving the mill was impossible. However, thanks to the group’s determination, the advice of their “advisors” was ignored and work on a Restoration and Site Development Plan was begun. Once that was accomplished, stabilization and restoration work proceeded.
The first step in the restoration process was the removal of the mill’s drive-through and south additions. Next, the building was jacked up and supported on two huge I-beams to provide access to the decaying foundation. Once the weight was off the limestone walls, they immediately collapsed due to their instability. To provide a sound base for the structure, extra wide footings were poured followed by vertical concrete walls on top of them. To retain the original appearance, the existing limestone was re-laid against the inner and outer surfaces of the walls creating a “sandwich” effect. The result was not only an authentic look, but a foundation system of unusual strength. The final step in this phase involved gradually lowering the mill onto its new foundation.
The foundation project was followed by the reconstruction of the flume components. This effort yielded a new water inlet on the pond side, a large diameter underground metal pipe, a collector box at the mill’s northwest corner, and a huge turbine enclosure in the mill’s sub-basement. In practice, water flows through the pipe filling in the collector box and the chamber where the turbines are located.
Moving forward, the work crew focused on the building’s floors, walls, windows, stairways, bins, elevators and other interior components. Thanks to the installation of a hidden heating system and portable units, much of this work was performed during the winter. The reconstruction of the drive through and the south side additions took place in the warmer months and was followed by the application of authentic new siding, windows and a new roof.
Another challenging task was the restoration of the mill’s power train and milling machinery especially the two turbines, one a Leffel and the other a Beloit manufactured Houston-Merrill. Because of severe wear and rust, several new parts had to be fabricated and machined to fit. Thanks to the crew’s ingenuity and the assistance of local machine shops and foundries, both units are now better than new.
Repairing the mill stone’s massive drive gears turned out to be complex and time consuming. For one thing it was common for mills to have one of the gears made of cast iron while its mate was a composite consisting of a cast iron unit with wooden teeth. This design served to reduce shock, noise, repair costs and the danger of sparks that could cause a fire. Crew leader Bob Fosler spent over 200 hours painstakingly fabricating the 119 wooden teeth required.
In the early 1930s, an International Harvester 10-20 Titan tractor engine was added to provide supplemental power when pond levels were low. It was located in the mill’s south addition replacing a worn out single cylinder Fairbanks-Morse unit. During WW II, that engine was sold for scrap making it necessary for the FBM work crew to locate a replacement. Luckily, an identical but badly rusted one was found in Illinois and brought to the mill. Following a meticulous restoration, the smoothly running power plant can now drive the millstones with ease.
One other significant upgrade implemented by the Beckmans was the installation of a 32-volt DC generating system. The generator, driven by flat belt and powered by the mill’s center turbine, supplied electricity not only for the mill but also the Beckman home and the dance hall across the pond. For demonstration purposes a replica of the generating system is being prepared. Other interior additions included a corn sheller, a small burr mill, and an auxiliary elevator.
Mill visitors are often impressed not only with the quality of the building’s restoration but also its originality. Other than the effects of natural aging, the interior of the mill looks very much like it did when it was new in 1868. This is in contrast to most other old mills which were modernized to increase output and efficiency. In those instances, roller mills replaced burr stone equipment, electric motors and diesel engines took over for water power, and modern sifting equipment replaced cylindrical bolters. Also, a large number of mills were converted from flour production to processing grain for animal feed.
One reason the Beckman Mill was not modernized is that the family did not depend on it as their sole source of income, especially during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. While the mill did provide some revenue from the sale of buckwheat flour and from shelling and cracking corn, the Beckmans supplemented that income with other endeavors. Among them were a general store, custom threshing, trapping, vegetable gardening, egg and poultry sales, carpentry and operating a dance hall and swimming pool. That diversity made major and costly mill improvements unnecessary.
While the exterior remodeling done in the 1920s changed the building’s original appearance, the interior modifications did not impact negatively on originality—a bonus for the visitor interested in an authentic trip back in time.