This column continues with an interview from Ben Hassett, an expert on the restoration of watermills and windmills in the United States.
A native of Iowa, Hassett began his career with an apprenticeship from British wheelwright expert Dereck Ogden. Hassett went to Louisville in 2012 to restore a mill on a farm in Prospect owned by Sallie Bingham. With encouragement from Bingham, Hassett has now moved his family to the farm and brought his business to Louisville. The conversation continues as Hassett discusses his early years as an apprentice with Ogden and the creation of his own company.
“When working for Dereck, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I stayed with Dereck for four years. Then I began my own company. There are really only a very few companies that do what I do in the U.S. I work on genuine mills basically although I will do other type of projects because I am in business.
“Gristmills are the only places you can go to see giant gears. They are great educational tools. Today mechanics have become an appliance – you drive a car but you don’t see how it works like most things that you use each day. Mills are simple and you can see their inner workings. It is basic, raw mechanics. Mills are almost like a material science; a deconstruction of mechanics. You have water that has gravity, a natural source you are harnessing. And then you have to adapt to the site. Your watermill can only be as big as how much water you have in a stream, very organic. You have to figure out everything in the beginning.
“The structure of a watermill is like a cover to a machine, to protect the gears; simple, utilitarian. They constructed the structure of the watermill out of stone instead of wood because it could withstand flooding. The first watermill dates from the second century. The mill is built on the edge of waterfalls, of cliffs. Any stream with white water is the perfect stream. As pioneers walked a stream they could ‘hear’ a potential mill site.
“Millwrighting is a lost trade. I don’t have a typical project. I work on several projects at a time. It can take a long time to work on some of these projects. I am working on a project that I started in 2004. Sometimes you have to wait for materials you work with, like wood, to dry out before you can work with it. Everyproject is doable and for big projects you have to have a longterm vision. It is a labor of love for everyone involved. You have to have a long-term vision to keep costs under control. Sometimes the old structures were very elaborate because labor and materials were cheap so you have to figure out what and how you are going restore it.
“I have done enough restoration on mills and pretty much can see the forensics of the mill, how it was changed and was used over time. I recognize the gear trains when I visit old mill sights. I know exactly the building style. The gears and ratios are the same but the way they were built, how they fixed the arms to the shaft, will be different.
“I will come into a project, for instance, of an 18th-century mill that was initially wooden and then adapted to cast iron gearing but the initial structure was built around the mechanism. You have to work through the mechanism and gear ratio. ... There is a different ratio for the particular material you use, for example each wood species differs; the quality, the grain orientation. The same goes with castings. The problem with old cast gears, like metal, they may look okay but they expand over time and they corrode. Old shafts, if they have flaking or scaling, they will fracture the castings.
“After the mill was done on Wolf Pen Branch, Sallie Bingham asked if I would like to move my family on the farm to manage the farm and run the mill. My wife had always said to me, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to live and work by a mill that you restored?’ So my family moved from Virginia to live here and I have moved my office and warehouse to Louisville.”
The restored mill now operates for special occasions and private groups and, according to Bingham, reminds us of our roots: “Wolf Pen is the way many people in this country lived, when we were still agrarian and made do with much less, in the material sense, than we consider essential now. We lived in a few small rooms, we farmed, milled,carpentered, built, ran cattle or horses – managed to survive.”