Back in May, we had a rare chance to visit a local historic site that is privately owned, and not normally open to the public. Shepherds Mill is just one of many small mills in the area that were built in the 1800s (probably, I’m actually not sure of this mill’s specific history, although we do know it was operational in the 1890s). I’m not sure how we found out it was for sale at auction, but we somehow learned that there were a a few hours set aside on two separate days open to the public so prospective buyers could come look at the property.
Aside from general historical curiosity and love of all things small hydro, Kevin and I think it would be great to live near one of these historic dams and power our home with a micro hydro system, so of course we went to check it out. (Maybe one day, actually buying one of these sites will be more realistic).
We’ve driven past this property several times, but since its private and not right next to the road, we’ve never had the chance to see the dam or mill building up close. None of us were sure what to expect, but what we saw when we got there exceeded our wildest speculation.
Inside was an amazingly restored and preserved functional museum of the working mill from the 1890s. This….was not what we were expecting at all. Far from being a dark warehouse of overcrowded, dust covered junk under a leaky roof, the Mill is not only almost museum ready, its STILL FUNCTIONAL. Or at least it was until about five years ago, until the owner could no longer maintain that level of physical effort and time.
The turbines are still there, and all of the mechanical shafting, belts, gears, grain elevators, hoppers, chutes, mill wheels and lots of other equipment that I can’t name and have no idea what it does are all installed and in working condition (or close enough.)
We stayed quite a bit longer than anticipated, trying to take it all in, and get pictures in the difficult lighting.
(These last few pics were taken by my brother-in-law).
Some of the equipment is clearly very old, perhaps original, some has been modified at various times over the years, some is much more recent. A lot of woodwork showed signs of handcrafting and repair.
The property went for sale simply because the owner, who had spent so much of his life on this labor-of-love, is now too elderly to continue his efforts. Apparently he did not have any heirs, or heirs that wanted to deal with such an involved project. (This is fairly unique asset and difficult real estate challenge to say the least).
Kevin followed up on the auction a few days later, which ended in the sale to another private individual, who has hopes of one day opening the Mill to the public. I wish him luck. The site is an amazing piece of preserved history, but monetizing that asset enough to sustain it seems difficult to me. Other mills in the area manage to do ok by selling stone ground grains and local foods and crafts, but the market for that kind of thing is only so big, and this mill does not have the advantage of their locations. Shepherds mill is fairly remote, and not on the way to or from anywhere. (Which, as a side note, appeals to Kevin and me. If the mill came with more than 5 acres, and was a bit more affordable, we may have been in danger of making a very stupid decision. We have neither the time, money, or knowledge to take on a project of this size right now. The hydropower part would be easily handled, but maintaining the mechanical milling apparatus is a whole different field of knowledge.) However, I hope I am wrong. None of the other working mills I’ve seen have this much old equipment, and almost none are using the original mechanical power (there is one in VA that we’ve seen, but it has a BBQ restaurant next to it, so there is more of a draw). My hope is that this site remains well maintained, and becomes available to the public as a piece of living history.
Update Feb 2014: More photos from a second visit here.