Old mill inspires dream of power

Harford: Henry Holloway hopes to use the long-dormant water-powered turbine in the mill on his property to generate his own electricity.

May 11, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

It wasn't necessarily the old green generator in Wilson's Mill that sparked Henry Holloway's attraction to the 18th-century property on Deer Creek and Route 161 in Harford County, but the idea of creating his own electricity there is firing his imagination these days.

The old grist mill, which local historians think was built in the mid-1700s, was outfitted with a water-powered turbine decades ago by a former owner to generate electricity for the farm. But by June 2000, when Holloway - a seventh-generation Harford County farmer and an owner of several farm-supply stores - bought the property, the equipment had been silent for years.

"What I would like to be able to do is use our own power," he said one recent afternoon as he surveyed the long shaft and pulley on the mill's main floor that are turned by the turbine below.

Decades ago, privately owned mills that generated electricity were a more common sight. They faded after World War II as rural electrification spread and old mill buildings and dams fell into disrepair.

Today fewer than a dozen mills in the United States still generate power, said Kevin Johnson, president of the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, an international group of mill aficionados.

It seems easy enough to imagine that happening at Wilson's Mill, because the equipment still works, as Holloway demonstrated, knocking a wooden chock away from the pulley and allowing the greased belt to quickly whip up to a steady hum, spun by the turbine.

What would happen if the attached generator were allowed to create a spark of electricity leaves Holloway guessing. "Where would it be going and what would it be doing?" he wondered aloud, then paused.

"I would be scared to death of the ramifications," he said, laughing.

It's a tricky process, said Al Lintz, a retired mechanic who has worked for 40 years on his family's mill in northern Baltimore County.

The former paper mill, a small 19th-century factory on the Little Falls, has a water wheel that for decades powered his parents' home across the road.

Regulating electricity is the biggest challenge, Lintz said. He recalled how his father and mother juggled power demands. "If she wanted to iron, he would unhook the freezer," he said.

In the generating room beside his water wheel, Lintz has a 10,000-watt generator he can use in a pinch to power a few lights and a radio at his house (he switched to public current in the 1970s because he traveled frequently for work).

Beside the generator, an old house lamp's 60-watt bulb glows, its brightness depending on how fast the wheel is turning.

To increase electricity output, Lintz opens a gate that feeds water to the wheel. That gets the wheel and water churning, and produces a sound like that of a steam engine leaving the station.

Today, juggling electricity among the myriad appliances in most homes would be too taxing, he said, adding, "You can't run a household as modern people would like to do unless you have a gigantic operating outfit, at least 100,000 watts."

Holloway hasn't started thinking about those kinds of numbers.

After all, he and his wife, Brenda, didn't buy the mill, its homestead, miller's house, barn and other stone buildings so that he could tinker with the old mill. "We were just buying it as a place to live," he said.

Their 85 rolling acres contain fruit orchards; stands of the kind of centuries-old trees that dwarf people walking among them; a host of birds, including immature bald eagles, gliding high above Deer Creek; and animals, from cows to horses to a goat that is more likely to take walks in the woods with the children than the family dogs are.

The property has been home to farming families since the 1700s and helped power the East Coast wheat-processing industry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, said Baltimore County historian John McGrain.

"It's a beautiful mill," said McGrain, who has written extensively about mills and counted them around Maryland. His inventory in the 1960s yielded almost 150, he said. "There are still plenty to be seen, but some of the nicest ones have disappeared," he said.

McGrain said the mill closed in 1931 and that the property was bought soon after for a summer retreat by Francis Stokes, who installed the generator.

At one time, the tract was owned by a group of Asian investors who hoped to turn the rolling land into a convention center, Holloway said.

By the time Holloway, his wife and four children came on the scene, repairs seemed to be needed everywhere, he said. So Holloway did what farmers have done for generations: "We called in every favor," he said.

He and some fellow farmers, and family members, did most of the work, repairing the washed-out millrace - which channels water into the mill - and pouring 110 yards of concrete to repair a damaged dam upstream from the mill.

Inside the mill, the millstones were hauled up from the basement, and the turbine was cleaned and repaired.

Now it's just a matter of figuring out what to do with it.

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