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‘Ben’s Mill’ in Barnet, Vermont

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Published on May 18, 2022
Ben Thresher and his line-shaft mill are among the last of their kind. Once driven by water, Thresher’s machinery is now run by a tractor and power take-off 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 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. These meticulous drawings of Ben’s Mill (shown above and on the following pages) are the product of a joint undertaking, begun in 1976 with an engineering survey conducted by Earl MacHarg and Arthur Nadeau under the auspices of the Vermont Folk life Research Project of the Woodstock Foundation. Work was completed in 1979 by a team of architects, a photographer and a historian, employed by the Historic American Engineering Record. According to Ben Thresher, no effort was spared to make the drawings as accurate as possible. When he pointed out that a 1-15/16-in. dia. shaft had been drawn at 2 in., they immediately corrected the error and apologized profusely, saying, ‘You see any other mistakes, you let us know.’ 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 i...


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