Years of work bring old mills back to life

Lumber was only one of the products produced at the water-driven mill in Claverack, It dates from the mid 1700s. Photo by Kate Mostaccio

CLAVERACK–Stephen Formel has owned two shipping companies. He now spends his winters aboard his boat, returning when the weather improves in the spring. And he’s spent the last 29 years working at restoring a historic water-powered mill on county Route 11.

The common thread: water.

Mr. Formel, a former Taconic Hills Board of Education member and one of 15 children, grew up in the Berkshires. He worked with his father in the family construction company in Puerto Rico before striking out on his own and starting a cargo shipping company.

After he sold the shipping business, he moved to Claverack and bought the old Barton’s Mills property. The building appears to be built right into the side of a rock face across county Route 11 from Pretium Packaging.

“There have been mills on this site since 1763,” Mr. Formel said, sitting alongside the running water from the nearby waterfall on the Agawamuck Creek. “It’s one of the oldest in New York state.”

Mr. Formel believes there may have been mills on the property even earlier than that, though undocumented, because the site was so easy to develop. “One problem with water power is that you have to build mills where there is falling water,” he said. “Waterfalls typically mean gorges. Here, it’s flat ground. It’s very likely there were mills here… maybe as early as 1720.”

The Van Rensselaer family was the first to own the mill property, purchasing it in 1630. It was sold a few times during the infamous Rent Wars, eventually coming into the hands of the Barton family–where it remained for 158 years.

The mill went by several names, but by far the most well known is Barton’s Mills.

In 1988 Howard Barton passed away and in 1990 Mr. Formel purchased the property from a relative.

The Mills at Green Hole were multi-functional. Photo by Kate Mostaccio

Mr. Formel has dedicated years of hard work toward reviving the mill site and is a wealth of mill knowledge. “There were once many small local mills in the area,” Mr. Formel said, estimating the number to be around four or five. Since horses were the mode of transportation of the time, people generally didn’t travel too far from home and a service like a mill “had to be close in proximity.” He estimates that each local mill probably only had two to four major customers.

Mr. Formel said he can usually spot where a local mill used to be, as that’s often where village centers developed. “Any town or village exists because of the small mills,” he said. General stores, bakers and blacksmiths would recognize the opportunity for business and locate around the mills.

But as transportation methods improved, many small mills were driven out of business. “A few, like this one, continued to adapt to transportation and population changes,” Mr. Formel said. “This mill was multi-functional. They would saw lumber in the spring with the spring floods,” which meant more water power for the mill. In the fall, they would run the cider mill. And the mill functioned as a grist mill all year long, because grain keeps well until it’s processed, he said.

“This was probably originally a grist mill,” he said. “Then a saw mill. And then the cider mill was added in 1904.” A blacksmith shop, located elsewhere on the property, was moved to the mill in 1880 to take advantage of the water power. They also replaced the waterwheel with two turbines and added a second dam, built at a higher elevation for more power.

Unfortunately, in 1938 the Philmont dam broke and the resulting flood destroyed that dam and the grist mill building. For a time, the water power was replaced by gas engines. In 1946, the saw mill was enlarged, and a shingle mill and a four-sided planer were added.

The mill was far from its prime when Mr. Formel arrived on the scene. “When I bought it, the mills had been going downhill,” he said. He built a new reinforced concrete dam and installed a modern water-turbine. “Now they’ve been restored to working water power.” The turbine is tied into the old power distribution system.

He worked on the mill for 29 years and now, walking along the old wooden plank floors, pulleys of all different sizes move in one direction or another, powered entirely by the water that runs alongside the old mill, just as they would have been in the 1700s.

Mr. Formel can explain the intricacies of how the pulley systems work, what it means if they are crossed in a figure eight or when one end of the pulley is bigger than the other. He can elaborate on how mill workers would handle oriented pulleys explain why it’s important to keep the dust out of the mill’s air.

Anyone interested can visit the mill for an open house 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 27 and learn the mill’s history. In addition to a brief history presentation and tours, a historic marker will also be unveiled during the open house. Mr. Formel said the mill and the property, which includes a spectacular green pool–which is why he named it The Mills at Green Hole–and stream in addition to the waterfalls. The site is also available as an event venue.

For more information, visit www.millsatgreenhole.com. For tours and mill demonstrations during the summer, email to arrange a visit.

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