Wood, metal and dust: a resurrection from rust
Equinunk Historical Society opens new museum
The Joel Hill Sawmill was in operation continuously for about 90 years from its beginnings around 1783 to the cessation of work in 1974. Then, in 1988, it was donated to the Equinunk Historical Society (EHS). Under its care, the mill comes alive again a few days out of every summer to remind locals and tourists alike of the days when sawdust flew and harvested logs rolled in one end of the building and came out the other side as finished boards.
The building itself is a monument to the industrial age gone by and good old American ingenuity. The mill houses large saw-blade apparatuses that cut the logs down into rough hewn boards as well as a large planer that is used to finish the boards. And now, thanks to a recent donation and much work on behalf of the EHS’s volunteers, visitors can see what happens after the lumber is produced.
Thomas Cleveland, a teacher of 30 years at the Hancock school and member of the Peace Corps in Africa, recently donated his vast collection of antique industrial equipment to EHS. Over the years, Cleveland accrued four barns worth of such equipment. Rather than seeing them lost to scrap yards and broken up and sold off, Cleveland sought to see these oily treasures preserved. He contacted several other museums in search of a facility that would value his collection, only to be met with interest for his finer pieces, but not the collection as a whole.
But after visiting the Joel Hill Sawmill and seeing a presentation of the milling process by Robert Wood, Cleveland approached Wood about the possibility of making his collection a part of the existing museum. Although it didn’t all fall into place from that first meeting, Cleveland inquired again, and with Wood’s support, the EHS began doing the legwork to make this happen.
Of the process that ensued, Wood says, “When you get a project started, people wanna jump on the moving train.” He praises the Mee Foundation for the grant they awarded to the EHS to make this all possible. “First we had to get a survey of the property, look at setback lines and get two permits from Damascus Township—then it was only two weeks before the MEE Foundation approved the grant.” Vicky Bradshaw, a long-time volunteer for EHS, wrote the grant application—her first experience grant writing. Wood happily jokes, “It was beginner’s luck.”
Bill Pykus of Bill Pykus & Sons Excavating prepared the ground for construction, leveling it off, as a donation to the new museum. Construction took another three-and-a-half days before Cleveland’s collection finally had a new home. Luke Harrie Trucking donated its services to move the equipment from Cleveland’s property to the new museum. J.R. Wells and his machines also assisted by maneuvering the old machinery into the building.
“It took four trips with a flatbed to get it all here, and some of it had to be dismantled to fit through the doors,” Wood says. The EHS and various volunteers then spent the winter placing the equipment around the building and beginning repairs on some of the larger machines. Although not all of the machines are currently running, restoration and research on their origins and functions continues.
On June 30, the day of the dedication, Wood made his way around the room from one machine to another, explaining how each one worked and how they were restored. He even gave live demonstrations of several of the machines that had been brought back to functioning order. After the tour, at 11 a.m., Cleveland arrived for the dedication. Before the ceremony, he said, “I had a dream last night of the brotherhood of the millwrights building a ramp from the sawmill over here down to the new museum and giving demonstrations of cutting wood with these machines with wood milled from the sawmill.” Wood, who was sitting next to him, explained that the bench they sat on was built using functional saws from the new Cleveland museum and wood from the old sawmill.
Cleveland said that he had been searching for a suitable home for his collection for over 10 years, and then he realized, “Why not go someplace local?” As he admired the building he said, “Got it finished; I’m tickled to death.”
The EHS now hosts live demonstrations of equipment in the new Thomas Cleveland Museum as well as live demonstrations at the sawmill. Some of the equipment to be seen in the museum includes band saws, jigsaws, mortise machines, drill presses, molding machines, shoe-making machines, a plethora of hand tools and much more. Over time, more of the equipment will be brought back to life, and visitors will be able to experience something different anytime they return. Donations for the museum and other projects by the EHS can be made by contacting them at www.equinunkhistory.org.