Daily grind takes its toll

Decay: The Union Mills water wheel needs extensive repairs, but a debate is churning over what exactly should be done.

March 31, 2000|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

The water heater leaks, a plumber fixes it. The transmission dies, an auto mechanic repairs it. But when a full-size replica of an 18th century wooden water wheel needs fixing, a qualified handyman is hard to find.

Indeed, the Carroll County commissioners have for four months been searching for the right person and the right technology for mending the 15 1/2-foot diameter water wheel at the Union Mills Homestead, the site five miles north of Westminster where Union and Confederate soldiers camped on their way to fight at Gettysburg.

Powered by water from Big Pipe Creek, the water wheel transmits power through a shaft -- a beam of white oak 19 1/2 feet long and 26 inches in diameter -- to a series of countershafts and wooden gears. The small gears turn millstones that grind whole wheat, cornmeal, buckwheat and rye.

The beam has been rotting for a decade, and the water wheel itself is in rough shape. The eight wooden arms that hold the water wheel on the shaft also are in need of attention.

All that wood needs to be replaced, preferably with well-cured white oak.

"Ideally, for structural reasons, the wood should be completely air-dried before it's installed, a process that could take up to five years," said Esther Shriver, executive director of the Homestead, which attracts more than 6,000 visitors a year.

County officials have deemed that solution impractical. In December, they asked contractors for alternatives to using air-dried wood but received no formal responses. Last month, they asked again, and encouraged contractors to think more about cost and less about maintaining historic authenticity.

The Virginia millwright who built the water wheel is appalled.

"Anybody can repair a mill, but very few people can do it properly," said Derek Ogden, who built the wheel, gears and frame in 1982.

Ogden based his work on a design by Oliver Evans, an 18th-century wheelwright whose inventiveness extended to development of a high-pressure steam engine. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among the customers for his mill designs.

"You could build a shaft out of plastic if you wanted to, but it wouldn't be historically accurate," said Ogden, who has practiced his craft some 50 years. "When you use modern techniques, you totally destroy the ancient art of millwrighting." He said he would not bid on the project unless the county changes the specifications of the contract.

"I'm a traditional millwright," he said. "The contract is aimed at large construction companies."

The commissioners hope someone will propose a solution before their new deadline, April 19. Fewer than a dozen millwrights in the country have been trained in the traditional techniques, said Sidney Halma, archivist for the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills.

"Much of the milling that's done today is done by computer," Halma said. "There are very few people around who know how to work on wooden wheels and wooden equipment."

The water wheel meanwhile sits idle at the foot of a gently sloping hill, in the shadow of a weathered gray farmhouse. Brothers David and Andrew Shriver built the house in 1797 for the labor costs of $86 (about $820 in today's currency), and established at the same site a store, post office, tannery and the grist mill. Their descendants ran a cannery that gave local farmers a steady market for their crops.

The original water wheel powered the grist mill, which for the next century and a half ground flour that was packed in barrels and shipped to Europe through the port of Baltimore.

Built in 1797, the original mill cost $430 (about $4,000 today). Its restoration in the 1980s, including Ogden's replica of the water wheel, cost more than $260,000 and won several awards for restoration, said Esther Shriver, the wife of James Jr., a sixth-generation Shriver and descendant of the Homestead's founders. Although the water wheel is the centerpiece of the Homestead complex, most tourists come to learn about the site's link to the Civil War.

In June 1863, as Union soldiers besieged the outer defenses of Richmond, Va., and Vicksburg, Miss., Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee retaliated by marching his Army from northern Virginia directly into Pennsylvania. During the campaign, Lee's flamboyant cavalry chief, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, spent a night with his men at the Shriver Homestead. When the soldiers arrived June 29, 1863, the Shriver family fed them flapjacks.

The next day, the site was filled with Union soldiers from Syke's Fifth Infantry. The armies clashed at Gettysburg, about 15 miles north of the Homestead, on July 1, in the turning point of the war.

Thanks in part to a state grant, the homestead today looks much as it did when the Shriver brothers established it. "There are not too many places that are 200 years old and still have their artifacts," Shriver said.

The nonprofit Homestead Foundation takes care of the collection, and the county maintains the 14-acre property.

Recent improvements include a new shingle roof on the farmhouse, interior painting and windows that filter ultraviolet light. A tannery building that was lost in an unsolved arson several years ago has been rebuilt. Even the three-seat privy got a makeover.

Soon, officials hope, the water wheel, too, will be restored.

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