Preservationists aim to make Drew Mill in Union a working museum
UNION — The paint is chipped and the windows bordered up, but signs of life are apparent at the historic Drew Mill and Dam where preservationists are hard at work, especially behind the scenes.
The Union Village Community Association (UVCA) is championing efforts to refurbish the mill and dam, located in the Wakefield village of Union, for use as a working museum of antique mill technology — water, steam and electric powered engines — that was once used to run manufacturing equipment.
Built in the late 1870s, the Lower Falls Dam was one of five dams on the Branch River in Union Village, and one of two dams still standing. The dam was first used to power a woolen mill that burned down in 1908 and soon after, Lyle Drew erected another mill building where a variety of wood products, including children's toys, railings and drumsticks, were manufactured. In 1977, a new owner took over and refurbished the mill and dam to generate electricity. Eventually, a New York-based furniture company — Charles P. Rogers Company — bought the property but was unable to upgrade the mill and it fell into disrepair.
UVCA Director Richard House and UVCA Engineering Committee Chair Richard Mauser escorted a tour of the property on Wednesday when they explained that the Charles P. Rogers Company of New York City donated the dam and mill — and $2,500 in seed money towards preservation efforts — in 2011.
Soon after, the UVCA acquired its nonprofit status from the IRS, enabling it to accept tax-deductible donations and raise money to cover many aspects of renovations, including engineering studies, state fees and local taxes. The association has held a number of volunteer work days at the site, where community members have most recently scraped the exterior paint.
"It doesn't look like much, but we have one third of the building scraped on one Saturday … by the time the snow flies we'll have the front of the building painted," said House.
Yet one should not judge an old building by its cover. The Drew Mill and Dam was selected by the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance for its 2012 "Seven to Save" list. The list focuses attention and resources on significant historic properties in New Hampshire that are threatened by neglect, deterioration, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, and/or insensitive public policy, according to the "Seven to Save" website.
Most recently, it was named eligible for certification to the state's Register of Historic Places. House credits esteemed state historian James Garvin, Ph.D., with advancing the association's efforts to protect the mill and dam as a heritage site. Garvin, who retired after serving as the State Architectural Historian for the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources and who also worked as curator for the New Hampshire Historical Society, consults on many projects around the state.
"He took a serious interest in this project," said House. Garvin prepared much of the history on the property including the "Drew Mill Individual Inventory" now on file with the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources.
In that document, he noted that the Drew Mill is one of nine water powered woodworking mills that survive in New Hampshire out of many hundreds, and probably thousands, that once occupied nearly every available site on every perennial stream in the state.
"As one of the last to operate commercially, producing turnings, wooden novelties and toys, the Drew Mill represents a paradigm of a long tradition of water powered manufacture of forest based products in the state," he wrote in the inventory.
Mauser is a retired engineer and specialist in hydroelectric power who helped build dozens of plants during his working years. Another unique fact about the Drew Mill, he said, is that it is a rare example of a mill that used three power sources throughout the years — water, steam and electric — to operate its lathes and equipment.
"We would like this to become a demonstration site of antique technology," he said. While many of the tools and machines have been sold for scrap over the years, the largest piece remains — The Fitchburg steam engine takes up its own room in the basement of the mill.
House and Mauser invite the public to assist in renovation efforts or to donate to the cause. Middleton Lumber has donated lumber towards the project, and engineer Don Woods has also provided free on-site consultations.
For more information, visit www.uvca.org or email the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org.