Raising the Wind

Posted Nov. 20, 2008, at 8:38 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:58 a.m.

PITTSTON ACADEMY GRANT, Maine — While its history is steeped in a bygone era of log booms and lumberjacks, remote Historic Pittston Farm earlier this month took a giant leap into the future to ensure its survival as a four-seasons resort.

That leap into the air— with two 100-foot-high wind towers — brings the former Great Northern Paper Co. logging settlement of the early 1900s into the 21st century.

Going green and reducing dependency on fossil fuels will help ensure the longevity of the historic settlement, according to Jen Mills, who co-owns the property with her husband, Bob Mills.

Located at the confluence of the North and South branches of the Penobscot River and surrounded by wilderness, Historic Pittston Farm is a gem that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“To our knowledge, it’s the most extensive farm complex that was designed and built to serve the logging operations in the North Woods,” Kirk Mohney, assistant director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said Monday. Its historic value is considerable in light of its central role in the logging operations of the early 20th century, he said.

Located about 20 miles from Rockwood, Historic Pittston Farm includes a main lodge and restaurant, a carriage house that has been converted into motel units, a private home, the Potato House Chapel, a blacksmith shop, a barn, several small cottages, a campground, and a museum that has a photo history of those long-ago river log drives and lumberjack camp life.

Extensive improvements

After purchasing the business in 2005, the Millses, along with their son and daughter-in-law Guy Mills and Jenn Mills and their three young children, began work to improve the physical plant. They made repairs to the exterior of the buildings, added a cupola on the museum building, installed new septic systems and bathrooms, and improved communications by installing satellite television, wireless communication and even pay phones.

“We didn’t get anything we didn’t expect. … Our eyes were fully open. We knew the challenges,” Jen Mills said.

Last year’s spike in fuel costs, however, prompted more serious thinking, according to Mills.

“Bob and I looked at our budget and at the fuel usage at 48 gallons a day 365 days a year, and it was not a pretty sight,” Mills said recently. While the business had an excellent snowmobile season last year, the profit was consumed by the $5-a-gallon fuel costs, she said. “We had to stop and think of what we were doing here and how we were going to curtail our costs and make this a profitable business for us.”

Last fall, the couple installed an anemometer on the barn to see whether there was enough wind to supply power. The device recorded an 8 to 13 mph wind about 90 percent of the time, according to Mills. Armed with this information, the couple decided that wind, along with solar power, appeared the way to go, she said.

With the Land Use Regulation Commission’s blessing, two 10-kilowatt wind generators on tilt-up guyed towers were hoisted earlier this month into place on a high knoll.

Brent Wakefield of BRJ Inc. of Winthrop, the general contractor who installed the towers, said the farm’s three-phase system is like none other in the state.

“There is nothing like this, not of this magnitude, anywhere in the state,” he said. The two wind towers, along with 60 200-watt solar panels, 80 large, deep cycle batteries and four outback inverters, should provide 72,000 to 73,000 kilowatt-hours annually, he said. The system is integrated and all of the wiring is underground.

“The maximum potential would be about 32,000 watts per hour for all three,” Wakefield said, referring to the wind towers, solar panels and generators. He predicts the farm will get 12 to 15 mph winds annually based on the topography. Since the settlement is at the intersection of the two rivers and given the fairly open expanse to the north and northwest from where the prevailing winds blow, the farm should do quite well, he said.

If there isn’t enough wind or sunlight, one of the farm’s three large generators — two 1,000-watt and one 60,000-watt — will automatically kick in to charge the battery bank to feed the power to the settlement.

Based on the Millses’ calculations, the three-phase system should provide about 75 percent of the settlement’s electrical load. “We feel with the calculations that we’ve done that we can curtail our costs and have the payback with this system in five to seven years,” Jen Mills said.

The profit made will go back into the upkeep and improvement of the resort, including conversion of the cellar of the quaint Potato House Chapel — a place near and dear to Jen Mills’ heart — into a conference room.

“This, in particular, was the selling point for me because I’ve always been involved in church work at one time or the other,” she said.

On Sundays and on Christmas Eve, informal church services are held there among the dark pews and stained-glass window. Mills, an accomplished pianist and organist, provides musical accompaniment for the parishioners as well as for weddings and corporate functions.

‘A new awakening’

Historic Pittston Farm is like a magnetic draw, according to Mills. That draw is what captivated Dick Cairns, who helps with chores and lives in a cabin on the property. “I tell everybody I came up for a cup of coffee and never left,” he said.

Mills appreciates the help the family receives from its employees since the seasonal chores are numerous and never-ending — such as snowmobile trail grooming, keeping the buildings in top condition, serving lumberjack meals in the restaurant, guiding snowmobile trips and wildlife tours, tending vegetable gardens, caring for the animals, mowing lawns and traveling for supplies.

“Every season of the year is like a new awakening up here — it’s all different,” Mills said. “There is no other place like this in the state of Maine. This is a unique location, it is a unique experience, it’s entrenched in history. It’s all right here on this 40 acres, and we’re surrounded by 329,000 protected acres of recreation land,” Mills said.

Visitors must pay a $1-a-day access fee at Twenty Mile Checkpoint on the 20 Mile Road to reach Historic Pittston Farm. The gate is operated by North Maine Woods, an organization that oversees privately owned land in the region.

North Maine Woods does plan to move the gate north of the farm, according to the group’s Al Cowperthwaite. He said the current state administration does not want day use fees charged to reach state-owned land surrounding the farm. He expects the move will be made next year.

The removal of that gate will allow Historic Pittston Farm to open its property to all-terrain vehicles, Mills said. The ATV trails on Plum Creek land stop about four miles short of the farm. Mills said her family would be working with the state to connect the ATV trails, which will offer another recreational opportunity for visitors.

That sport would join hiking, fishing, snowmobiling, wildlife watching, white-water rafting, hunting, cross-country skiing and horseback riding. There is something for everyone at Historic Pittston Farm, according to Mills.

“It’s a place where you can do what you want or do nothing. It’s a place of respite, a place of reflection, and it’s a family place where you can be proud to bring your kids and enjoy the outdoors,” Mills said. “You’re not going to miss anything here other than the traffic.”

On the other hand, the Millses will not miss having to spend as much money on heating oil and gasoline as they did in the past.

“We’re a year-round recreational business, and we need to go forward into the 21st century, take care of ourselves, be independent in our thinking and in the operation of our business, and we’ve done that,” Mills said.

For more information on Historic Pittston Farm, call 280-0000 or e-mail www.pittstonfarm.com.

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