Labor of love restoring Freedom grist mill that was built to last

Posted Jan. 30, 2013, at 6:02 p.m.
The mill and dam at Freedom Falls are owned by Tony Grassi of Camden. He is having it restored to its original look and aims to preserve as much as possible. Grassi hopes that his example may help revitalize small agricultural towns like Freedom.
The mill and dam at Freedom Falls are owned by Tony Grassi of Camden. He is having it restored to its original look and aims to preserve as much as possible. Grassi hopes that his example may help revitalize small agricultural towns like Freedom. Buy Photo
Restoring the Mill at Freedom Falls has become a labor of love Tony Grassi of Camden. He bought the run-down building and successfully had it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now he is overseeing the historically accurate restoration and hopes to attract commercial tenants when the work is complete.
Restoring the Mill at Freedom Falls has become a labor of love Tony Grassi of Camden. He bought the run-down building and successfully had it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now he is overseeing the historically accurate restoration and hopes to attract commercial tenants when the work is complete. Buy Photo
Tony Grassi stands in the basement of the mill at Freedom Falls. This area used to house the original turbines. A modern water turbine will be installed to produce electricity for the building and several homes.
Tony Grassi stands in the basement of the mill at Freedom Falls. This area used to house the original turbines. A modern water turbine will be installed to produce electricity for the building and several homes. Buy Photo
Some of the old belt drive system was preserved in the mill at Freedom Falls. The mill was built in 1834 and served as a grist mill until the late 1890s. It was then converted to a wood turning mill that produced tool handles and dowels until the late 1960s.  The mill was powered by water turbines.
Some of the old belt drive system was preserved in the mill at Freedom Falls. The mill was built in 1834 and served as a grist mill until the late 1890s. It was then converted to a wood turning mill that produced tool handles and dowels until the late 1960s. The mill was powered by water turbines. Buy Photo
Old handles that were found in the walls during the restoration work of the mill at Freedom Falls date back to the time when the mill served as a wood turning mill from the late 1800s to the 1960s.
Old handles that were found in the walls during the restoration work of the mill at Freedom Falls date back to the time when the mill served as a wood turning mill from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Buy Photo

FREEDOM, Maine — Nearly two centuries ago, the original builders of the grist mill at Freedom Falls over-engineered the granite and wood structure so that it would stand up to the rattling of the millstones and the pressures from the torrents of water that would tear through the building.

That’s why — after decades of neglect — the building that was built with care over Sandy Stream is still standing, according to a retired investment banker who is restoring it.

“This is clearly a work in progress,” Tony Grassi of Camden said this week as he moved around workers from Belfast-based Cold Mountain Builders, who are making the mill look as it did when it was first built.

Hammers pounded, a generator thrummed and sitar-spiked tunes from the Beatles’ filled the chilly January air as the crew continued on the task which they had begun last summer. Outside, water from the stream raced past, beneath a delicate veil of ice.

The new wood, square walls, solid appearance and bustle of activity in the structure already are quite a change from how the mill has looked in recent years, though Grassi estimates the work won’t be done until the end of April.

“It was literally a rotting mill,” he said. “It was terrible. We walked by and thought, ‘What a beautiful structure. And what a tragedy.’”

So Grassi — whose son, Prentice Grassi, runs the nearby Village Farm in the once-thriving heart of Freedom — several years ago began to mull over his next move with the input of family members, a historical architect and others.

“I didn’t want to own it if it was going to fall in the river,” he said.

The verdict was that the building was solid, the possibility of installing a 39-kilowatt turbine on the stream was good, and no migratory species would be adversely affected by running a dam there again. Grassi said that he continues to await approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the turbine, which would produce about 65,000 kilowatt hours per year.

“Enough to run several homes or so,” he said.

He said that some of that power would be used for the businesses that he hopes will become tenants for the restored mill. One of the possible businesses could be The Mill School, which his daughter Laurie Grassi Redmond will run in the upstairs portion if there’s enough interest among 6- to 10-year-old children and their parents.

Other desirable tenants include businesses that would somehow be related to the surrounding agricultural community — such as a grain miller or a baker.

“Part of my objective was not just to save the building,” Grassi said. “If we can attract some commercial activity, maybe in time we can help re-invigorate the village.”

He said that the project has been an education for him. In order to have it listed last year on the National Register of Historic Places, Grassi had to carefully do research in order to “prove it’s worthy,” he said.

“There are great records from the 19th century, and lousy ones from the 20th,” he said.

Consequently, he knows much more about the grist mill, which was running from 1834 until just before the turn of the 20th century. Then it was a wood turning mill, before that business failed in 1967. He and work crew members have been finding artifacts from both the mill’s incarnations — including tools used to make wooden handles and two massive millstones found buried off the northeast corner of the building.

“In part it’s this great learning venture,” Grassi said. “It’s like peeling the onion.”

After the building is restored, many of the artifacts — including a giant iron turbine from the early 20th century — will be put on display to the public in a museum in the basement level.

Next door to the museum, diverted water from Sandy Stream once again will flow through the guts of the mill, turning a turbine and generating power, provided that FERC agrees with the project. The water will tumble 25 feet from the height of the mill pond and exit through an intricately-built stone wall.

“This is the most incredible part, in terms of physical characteristics,” Grassi said. “We had to deconstruct and save the stone. In the 1830s, with cheap labor, oxen and leverage, they knew how to build this stuff.”

All the careful restoration work can not come cheap, but he declined to put a price tag on his project, which does qualify for historical tax credits.

“It’s larger than I thought it was going to be,” Grassi said. “It’s become a sort of a labor of love.”

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