The Bisbee Mill Museum; Diversity Supreme
by Nan Clark of Chesterfield, MA
“The Bisbee Mill Museum is to educate the larger public, especially young people, concerning the history of Chesterfield’s Industrial and Agricultural past, through exhibits, demonstrations, pictures, mock-up models and other methods of presentation as the Board of Directors and membership deem appropriate.”
The following is my attempt to make the above mouthful more palatable.
Although the history of this interesting building dates back to 1823, I have chosen to write about what I have gleaned from conversations with three living generations of the Bisbee/Brisbois families, now closely involved with the museum. The memories I am about to share are from folks age 35 to 85. Hearing from each of them brings this museum into focus as an important part of the agricultural/industrial history of Chesterfield, Massachusetts. Their stories connect, their memories offer clarity and humor, their hopes inspire. The Time Line, so carefully researched by Kathie Brisbois, establishes an unbroken thread spanning nearly 200 years. I hope my story will entice readers to visit this museum in Chesterfield or on the Internet where you can learn so much more than from this sneak peek I am offering.
William (Bill) Bisbee reconnects with history:
“In the 1880’s my grandfather, Horatio Bisbee, was operating a gristmill and a sawmill in Chesterfield. He was advised to diversify – buy up land and go into farming – because all the trees were being cut off in this part of New England. Farming would give him something to fall back on, besides operating a sawmill. The clear cutting had left many pastures for the 1000 to 1200 sheep in town. Also, everyone needed a horse for transportation and horses needed hay. Plus, there were dairies. Our family farm barn was built in three stages, the first being on one level. After the Civil War, the Baptist Church on East Street in town had been abandoned and Horatio used the framing timbers from that church to make section #2 on the barn. Later, section #3 was added for storage.”
Eventually, Horatio and his wife, Louisa, had two sons, Charles and Homer, who inherited their father’s property in 1918 and formed the firm named Bisbee Brothers. Over the years, the farm was a large percentage of the whole Bisbee Brothers operation. The gristmill/shop, which is now a museum, was added onto four times from 1854 to 1954. Visitors are able to see these improvements.
Growing up, both Homer and Charles must have worked on the farm, as well as in the mills. Charles, who was born in 1873, was a sawyer as a young man.
Bill and sister Mary Lou Bisbee Curtis recall this story:
“Charles was very popular with all the young crowd when they had social activities like husking bees, maybe even square dances. One day in the sawmill, an alligator hook (shaped like a C) let go and hit young Charles in the throat. It had gone right through the skin of his neck into his windpipe. No one knows how the hook was removed, or what kind of follow-up treatment there was, if any. The story goes that Charles did not speak out loud for many months to a whole year. When he did finally talk, his voice was not normal, but harsh and raspy. Evidently, he had been a good singer, but now he turned to whistling. He was only in his late teens. Imagine!”
Mary Lou believes that the Lord used that accident to keep her father single until her mother was old enough to marry him. Charles became so selfconscious about his voice that he didn’t even date. Still, at 17, he knew who he would marry. Her name was Emily Baker and she was born in 1889. Here is their story:
It just so happened that Charles was near the Baker’s Store in the center of town on the very day that Emily was born in an upstairs room. He told people right then that this baby was the girl he was going to marry. (You can do the math.) Emily grew up in Chesterfield, went to local schools and in 1912 she graduated from Smith College in Northampton. In 1917, when Emily was 27, she did indeed now refer to the father and son as Charles, Sr. and Charles, Jr. Although Charles, Sr. died in 1960, his dear Emily lived to be nearly 92 and was much loved by Chesterfield folks. In the 1970’s she told me the following story about her early years married to whistling Charles:
It seems her father-in-law (that would be Horatio) gave the newlyweds some land, which definitely needed to be cleared. It was a lovely spot enclosed by historic stonewalls; but it was like most of our hill town land – filled with hidden rocks and stones. So the smart couple introduced a few pigs to their property and left them there to do the thing that pigs love to do most of all – root around in the dirt. Once the rocks and stones had been uprooted, Charles, Sr. went in with a stone boat and a pair of trusty oxen to clear the land. (Farm animals to the rescue!)
Although this energetic young couple lived with Horatio and Louisa, their own family soon came along, in this order: Charles, Jr. in 1918, Robert in 1920, Russell in 1923, William in 1926, Mary Lou in 1927 and Henry in 1930.
Here’s another story from Mary Lou about her whistling father:
“Dad belonged to the Kiwanis Club in nearby Northampton. One man, who did not know him, heard he was from Chesterfield and asked him, ‘What ever happened to that Emily Baker from your town who used to teach in the Northampton Vocational School? I hear she married some old hick up in the country.’ Dad said, ‘Yes, I’m the hick she married!” Dad had a wonderful sense of humor. (A good way to cope with his accident.) He could tell stories – always good ones, nothing off-color.
Bill offers this story from his mother Emily:
“When my mother and father married in 1917 they wanted to make Graham Flour in the gristmill. It was quite a lot of effort to get the appropriate stone and the appropriate distance to grind wheat instead of corn. Graham Flour requires a different configuration than corn. That’s why I recall there was a gristmill, from my mother’s story.”
Mary Lou remembers her childhood home:
“My parents were both interested in music, which they passed on to their children. Mother encouraged all of us to learn to play the piano. Russell played not only the piano but also the accordion, and he was the local church organist for many years. Bob played the banjo and the mandolin. He left town in 1938 and went off to Parks Air College in East St. Louis, Illinois. This happened just a week after the hurricane hit New England and caused so much damage. Many bridges and roads were washed out, so Bob had to travel by train. He never came back to live in town, but has remained close to the family. Bill had the best voice that has enhanced the church choir as well as local singing groups for many years. He also played the cornet. I took some violin lessons but was never very good at it. I made a lot of sour notes in the Williamsburg High School Orchestra! However, I did learn to play the piano well enough to play the right hand for my classes when I taught school. With a degree from Oberlin College in Ohio, I taught school from 1948 – 1988. Actually, all of us kids learned to read music in grade school and we played records at home on a Victrola with a wind-up handle.
Being the only girl in this family of boys, I tried to do everything my brothers did. We climbed trees and we built shacks out in the pasture. One of our favorite games was Kick-the-Can. The boys played catch and horseshoes but I was not good at those. Dad built a shuffleboard in back of the house and we played there. Mother tried very hard not to spoil me. There had not been a girl born into the Bisbee family since the 1860’s! My middle name is actually Louisa. There were others named Mary and others named Louisa on both sides of the family, so I was named Louisa on both sides of the family, so I was named for four people. This was too confusing so I was called Mary Lou. When I was little, I never wore slacks or shorts – not until I was way into high school. My dad had only one girl, and he didn’t want me to wear boy’s clothes. I did, however, have to help the boys drive the bred heifers to pasture on Bryant Street. Sometimes my brothers had to run on either side of the cows where there was no fence, so I drove from behind.”
Farming and 4-H:
They were all in 4-H. The boys did woodworking and Mary Lou made a little dressing table out of an orange crate and sewed a cloth skirt around it. (My sisters and I did the same thing in the 1930’s) Mary Lou put a piece of glass in the indentation and made a picture to go under it, like a silhouette. She also stenciled a pillowcase. They had 4-H gardens.
Mary Lou and Bill:
“We grew carrots, beets, lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. During World War II mother and Mary Lou did a lot of canning, but ours was not actually a self-sufficient farm. Mother bought some groceries at Baker’s Store, such as molasses from the store barrel for our own gallon jug. Saturday nights we usually had baked beans and graham bread for supper with applesauce. Bread trucks came right to the house. Also, a man brought meat and another brought fish. There was ice on these trucks for cooling. Really, we were not self-sustaining. Bull calves were picked up by George August from Northampton. He would buy the calves on Sunday, which was a workday for him. Dad was not too happy about this, because it made it hard for dad to get chores done and get to church. George would sell the calves at the animal auction the next day. Heifers were kept to add to the milking herd.”
Other 4-H projects were connected with the one-room school all the children attended – Bofat School. The teacher taught all these projects. The girls learned sewing, the boys, who out-numbered the girls 2 to 1, did all kinds of handicrafts at the school, everything from letter holders to bread boards and bird houses. Bill feels this was the beginning of his carpentry experience, but that he was never a skilled cabinetmaker like Russell is.
More farm memories from Bill and Mary Lou:
“There were about 20 milking cows, mostly Holstein, in one part of the barn. In another area were the calving pens and also a section for the young heifers. Sometimes we kids would sit on a stone curbing and drink fresh, warm milk out of a quart milk cup. Yum!” In another section of the barn was a one-horse stall. In the middle barn were kept two big teams of horses. They were used for drawing in logs and for haying. The single horse was used for the raking. Mary Lou never drove the horses, but her older brother, Charles Allen, did. She says, “There were no pigs on the farm then, because we were selling milk. At one time Henry had a goat named Easter. And once he had a little lamb for a couple of years. Bill had chickens, which he kept in Uncle Homer’s barn. The day-old peeps came to the post office and one year Bill had to keep them in the kitchen by the stove to keep them warm. Brother Bob had rabbits sometimes that he showed at the Cummington Fair.”
More from Bill:
“Harold Knight was our herdsman, but at the ripe old age of six, my father’s five boys (and Mary Lou?) learned to milk cows by hand. Harold, my dad, and my Uncle Homer milked in the mornings; we kids did the night shift. The first week of May we had to take all the bred heifers to pasture for the summer, some distance away. That took about an hour, walking of course. Once over there, we ate our lunch. We stayed there the rest of the day to help the herdsman fix the fence. That was our Saturday in May in the 1930’s. My dad paid Mr. Knight once a month $80.00, plus free cord wood, milk and ice. The Knight family rented a house across from the barn for $15.00 a month.
“Before electricity came to the farm, dad and Uncle Homer had a Delco System. This was a gasoline operated 32-volt generator that ran all night to charge the batteries that supplied electricity to the barn and several houses. The system was kept in a small building we called the Delco House. There were several Delco Systems in town.”
When electricity did arrive in Chesterfield in 1928 there was very little demand for a gristmill to be operating on a profitable basis. There were no large farms to provide the raw materials for the grain. The farm part of Bisbee Brothers became even more important. However, there was work for Mary Lou in Bisbee Brothers office when she was in high school. As a bookkeeper, she kept track of everything – sawmill, grain store and shop (former gristmill.) She learned just by doing. Later on, others were hired. In 1943, when Bill went off to school at Stockbridge – the agricultural section of the University of Massachusetts – his sister milked his three cows by hand. There was a big cooler upstairs in the barn for the 40-quart milk cans. When Bill finished school and came home, he was instrumental in getting milking machines for the farm. In 1944, the men rebuilt the barn and put in a small section for the milk house.
Russell takes us back to the 1920’s and 1930’s before electricity:
“Before electricity came to Chesterfield, there was a necessity for ice. Lots of it! Especially to cool milk. Nearly every farm had an Ice House. The ice would be cut in the middle of winter from the millpond. Lester LeDuc cut the ice and hired someone to truck it to the different farms. Lester had a little Chevy truck that he would back out on the frozen pond. He then used a chute with a pulley and tongs to load about six cakes of ice up onto the truck. This usually happened during Christmas vacation from school. I was six or eight years old, standing on the edge of that open water where the ice had just been cut. I would play with the little wedge handle that was used to split off the cakes of ice. Why I didn’t slide off into the water, I don’t know, I’m sure my mother didn’t know where I was.
Lester had made a saw rig to cut halfway down the block of ice that was about 18 inches thick. You couldn’t do this now with our warmer winters. He also had a scratching tool to line out two or three cakes width. Then he would use his saw rig on runners and follow that score mark, cutting halfway through. Next he broke the section away with the wedge-shaped tool that I liked to play with. A gasoline engine powered the saw rig. Before that, people used a handsaw that is now in the museum. In fact, all the ice-cutting tools are in the museum.
The marker was a stick of wood eight feet long, with iron pins that went down and were spaced whatever width the cakes of ice should be. It had a handle you just pulled along on the ice for scoring. Of course, first the snow had to be removed! Ice Houses were old, dilapidated buildings where ice blocks were packed tightly and then covered with sawdust. This insulated the ice so that it didn’t melt in the summer time. As soon as the weather got warm, every farm had a tank filled with water. The fresh milk was put into 40-quart cans and immersed in the water tank before being shipped to Springfield, MA, 35 miles away. To keep this water really cold, the farmer would get three or four cakes of ice from the Ice House, put them in a wheelbarrow, and dump them into the water tank. In the morning the milk truck would come by and pick up the cans from various milk stands in town, where the farmers had left them bright and early. This happened every day because there was no way to keep the milk cool on the milk stands. People had to think ahead about how much ice was needed for the year – not only for cooling the milk on farms but also for cooling groceries in the homes in Ice Boxes. Ice was an important part of every day life before electricity came along.”
(In my 1930’s childhood our kitchen had a dark brown Ice Box made of oak. My mom would place a card in the kitchen window that told the Ice Man how big a cake was needed. We kids had great fun begging the Ice Man for the tasty chips of ice on his horse-drawn ice wagon.)
Russell, Bill, and Mary Lou with some museum history:
“The museum has gone through several names: Gristmill, Shop and now Museum. The Hardware Store across the road was once referred to as the Storehouse. It was a building in which to store the grain, nails in kegs, roofing shingles and barbed wire which were brought up to town, from a train in nearby Williamsburg, and stored on the first floor. Local farmers could then pick up a bag or two of grain whenever needed. At this time the gristmill was no longer working. People came with horse and buggy to pick up supplies. A few even had cars and filled the trunks. Here’s how people paid: One man who worked in the shop (former gristmill) across the road was designated to watch the storehouse. When someone came for supplies, the watcher left the shop, went across the road and waited on the person. Either he collected the money right then or wrote it down in the book. There was no telephone service connected to the business!”
Russell’s first connection with the hardware business had to do with the telephone. When it would ring in the family home, his mother, Emily, would answer it. Then she would direct one of the kids to go get their father, (whistling Charles), and tell him he was needed on the phone for business. “It was a party line with Uncle Homer and Aunt Elizabeth. We would get my dad from the shop or the barn and he would go to either of those houses to answer the phone and take an order. My dad was still in charge of the whole operation – Barn, Shop and Sawmill.”
More from Russ:
“When I was about 10 or 12 years old I was permitted to go into the shop and use the lathe on occasion. The second floor of the shop is dedicated to the memory of Horace Rhodes, a long time employee of Bisbee Brothers. I used to follow him around, and soon got to know a lot about the many machines he ran and what they were supposed to do. Horace could sharpen just about anything in the shop. He was also a woodworker. He made thousands of pine boxes that were needed to pack buggy whips for shipment all over the world from Westfield, MA. Also, when someone in town died, he would stop everything and make a pine box that was placed in the ground to protect the casket. He made door frames and cabinets, using only simple hand tools. I know that my love for woodworking came from watching Horace Rhodes make things from wood. At a young age, I leaned from him to turn wood. I had to pay for my ability because the men at the sawmill needed handles on their logrolling hooks (cant hooks.) When the handles broke, I was asked to turn new handles for them. My first experience with woodworking! The very lathe I used is in the museum now and I hope to get it working again with help and the expertise of my nephew, Jeremy Brisbois.”
Mary Lou in the Shop:
“When I was little I went in to the shop a few times, but not as much as my brothers. Once I went upstairs and saw Horace Rhodes filing the saw by hand to sharpen it. He worked for my dad all through my memory. I also saw men working with the rip saw that is still in the museum. They made novelty siding that was loaded onto a truck and delivered to various local houses. Mr. Rhodes also ran the doweling machine to make rake handles. These were sent to Rugg Lumber Company in Greenfield, MA where the rakes were attached.”
Bill recalls the Great Depression:
“During the Great Depression, the only thing that kept the workmen going was the feed store in Williamsburg. This helped meet the pay schedule every week. Instead of laying off the men, my dad kept them on, and the top person was paid $21.00 per week. Many others were getting $16.00 for a sixday week. Dad wanted to invite his Kiwanis Club friends up to the country for a picnic so he needed to make a good picnic spot. He kept his workmen busy making trails up along the canals which once powered the gristmill. At the top they cleared a good picnic area, using a horse and wagon to carry materials and tools. They built a stationary picnic table with planks for seats, and also built some seats circling trees. With brawn and brains they constructed a stone pit for bonfires and cooking. Some 500-pound pre-cut stones were brought in on a stone boat, maybe with one strong horse. The remains of this picnic area are still visible and worth seeing.”
Young Russ becomes a hero!
“In 1929 or 1930 when I was six or seven years old, I was walking to and from our Bofat one-room school every day, about one mile. In winter the roads were not plowed and, no matter how bad a storm was, school was never called off. If there was ice on the roads, there was great sledding! There were not too many sand trucks back then and kids everywhere did their best to protect the super sledding areas. One day about 4:00 p.m. I was coming home from school with a friend, and we decided to slide down the very long hill above the shop. We had little, single, belly-flopper sleds, and down we zipped! At the bottom of the hill, I turned and looked over at the shop. Smoke was coming out from under the clapboards around the windows on the south side of the building. I said, ‘Whoops! That’s not supposed to be!’ I peeked in the window and saw no one there inside, but the place was full of smoke. Several men were working over in the sawmill, so I ran over there, hollering all the way. The sawmill was running and no one could hear me. Once there, I told them, breathlessly, the shop was on fire and they all came running.
In those days, there was no Fire Department. The town bought and gave every able-bodied citizen a fire extinguisher – the old copper tanks. These were maintained and kept available in the homes. Uncle Homer’s basement opened right out onto the driveway above the shop. He had all of the Bisbee’s extra fire extinguishers because there would be a lot of men available in case of fire. That was our Fire Department! As the men ran across the bridge from the sawmill to the shop, they could see the flames had just started out through the side of the building. They got the fire extinguishers out of Uncle Homer’s basement – maybe six – and that was enough to put out the fire.”
What Mary Lou saw at age three:
“It was December and I was watching my dad pile wood in the cellar. The stove wood was kept in the back cellar and the winter vegetables were in the front cellar. Russ and his friend went to tell Aunt Elizabeth about the fire and she phoned our mother on the party line. Mother alerted dad and he went down to the shop to help put out the fire. I heard later that dad went on his hands and knees to check for any places where there might be hot spots still smoldering. He searched the whole shop that way, even crawling up the stairs. That was my first safety lesson about fires: always get down close to the floor where there is apt to be more oxygen to breathe. This would keep me from dying of smoke inhalation.”
If Russ hadn’t seen the smoke and acted quickly, no one else could have seen it in time. Everybody was conscious of the possibility of fire, but every body working there also smoked. There was a great big wood stove, potbellied and six feet tall that heated the shop. Near it were three different saws with sawdust all around. The fire didn’t start near that stove so, probably the fire was caused by a cigarette, carelessly thrown. The men had been in the shop for lunch because it was warm. No one knows for sure what happened to cause the fire, but everyone knows that a little boy saved the shop.
I asked Jeremy and Kathie if they worry about fire now. They said:
“A bit yes, and if there was a fire, nothing in the museum could be replaced. So the museum has only liability insurance. We do warn everyone who comes in that this is an old building, with uneven floors, so be careful walking. Fire and flood are both hazards. The canals have been disconnected so the water does not come right up to the building, like at a typical mill. That’s one good thing. In severe weather, the building could be endangered. So far, we’ve lost only a picnic table, that‘s all. It wasn’t 200 years old, but it might have looked as if it was!”
Charles Bisbee, Jr. (Charles Allen) died in 2004; however, he was the mover-and-shaker of the family whose determination brought this museum into reality. His daughter, Kathleen Bisbee Brisbois, eagerly shared with me her recollections from the vantage point of her generation.
Kathie Brisbois remembers her dad:
“My father had two names – Charles and Allen. As a State Senator he was known as Charles. Locally he was called Allen. As a child this confused me; however, when I got older I could identify who was calling for him on the phone by the name they used. If someone asked for Charlie, I knew it was a political call. If the caller asked for Allen, I knew it was somebody local. But I didn’t know how to introduce him. I even asked him, ‘Are you Allen or are you Charles?’ In his later years, he became more often Charlie, except from my mother (Vesta Thomson) who always called him Allen. Probably, Allen was used locally while his father, Charles, Sr., was still living, in order to tell them apart. In some families he would have been called ‘Junior.’ I would never have a ‘Junior’ among my kids, and I don’t!” (Kathie married James Brisbois and their children are Jeremy born in 1973, Nathan born in 1976, and Shannon born in 1978.)
When Kathie was in sixth grade, her grampa Bisbee died, which put an end to the long years of confusion about names. (Until I started this research!) In the barn once with her grandfather, Kathie thought he was a very tall man. Later, she realized he only seemed so tall because she was so little and the barn had some very low ceilings. (I have the same illusion about the enormous yard of my childhood home. It is actually quite small.)
Kathie moves us toward the present day:
“The shop (former gristmill) was transferred by the Bisbee Brothers to the Chesterfield Historical Society in 1995. My dad kept talking about the old mill building at the time that Bisbee Brothers Hardware, across the road from the mills, went out of business. Another historian from town had once suggested that the building would be a great museum. This seed kept coming back to my dad. At this time, he had retired from another in-charge job as Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. He began looking into what legal steps might be required to begin such a museum project. The Chesterfield Historical Society was not very active, so my dad got involved there because he knew such a connection was necessary. As soon as I heard my dad talking about this adventure, I knew I had to jump in and be a part of it. Then most of my family joined the society – Jim, Jeremy, Shannon and I. All except Nathan who lives too far away.
My kids and I were curious about the canal that had once brought power to the building. So the four of us walked up beside the canal in the spring because we knew there would be no leaves on the trees to make it hard to see things. We didn’t know what to expect as we explored. We found the place where the canal had breached and, above the breach, there was still water in the canal! At the breach, the water flows right back into the Dead Branch of the Westfield River. My dad had said that there were low, low dams, but we were not sure what to look for. Even though it looks like a small area on the map it is really very wide up there. We could see where the dams probably were, but we couldn’t get to the place because of all the water. So we came back down and then went up the canal by the pond on what is called the Cardinal Trail. My grandfather, Charles, Sr., named the trail for the many Cardinal flowers along the way. (They are also known as Scarlet Lobelia.) Apparently, my grandfather loved them. Jeremy tried to restore the trail but a lot of the old trees had fallen, which made restoration very difficult. He actually made some bridges that got swept away with high water.
The reason for the trail originally was so that the workmen in the mills could check on the dams and make sure they were in good shape. These dams were put in to direct the water down to the sawmill and gristmill for power. Today, at least one of the dams can be seen clearly. Eventually, we did find signs of the upper dams – piles of rocks put there. According to my Uncle Russell, these dams were mostly wood with cement poured around them. They were very low – just high enough to guide the water where it was needed. When necessary, the boards, in there on end, could be removed. That way you could drain the water out of the upper pond and feed power to the gristmill. The water was fed in from nearby Lake Damon and the Boy Scout Pond. These two streams come together to feed the Bisbee Pond. All the power in the area was water until electricity arrived in 1928.”
Kathie feels her heritage:
“I was so glad we walked up those trails because it gave us a chance to see what it really looked like up there. We found an old picnic area! Apparently, the folks used to walk in with picnics to this very lovely spot. I thought that was strange because it was off the beaten trail. Well, for us it would be; but for them it was a good trail, well used. I’m talking 200 years ago! I can just imagine someone saying, ‘Let’s pack up a lunch and go up the Cardinal Trail to the picnic area.’ Everything we discovered: the dams, the trails, the picnic area, connected me with my ancestors. I could easily imagine my early family being there. I was walking in their footsteps.”
Aunt Mary Lou remembers:
“When I was growing up we had a young people’s group at church called Christian Endeavor. Sometimes we had our Sunday night meetings up on the Cardinal Trail at the picnic grounds. My brother Russ would take his accordion to play for the music. It was very beautiful with all the red flowers along the trail.”
Kathie talks about cleaning the Shop:
“Cleaning out the old building was dirty, difficult, surprising, exciting, and even sometimes funny. Usually it was we women doing the cleaning, because the men were busy with the heavy lifting and moving of tools, etc. All of us often joked a lot. I could remember some of the men who had worked in the building during my childhood and I would start laughing. I could just hear those workmen saying,’ what are these women doing? Why are they dusting in our workplace? You don’t dust the workplace!’ But, there we were, dusting. We were finding stuff that we had no clue what it was. We did have some books in which we could look up some of the equipment and discover what it was and how to use it. One day Uncle Russell found a picture of a wheelwright instrument and how it was used. Turned out I knew where the stand was. It was exciting to get items together. We felt like anthropologists discovering things in our dig. Pieces might be in five different places in the building but, slowly, we found them all. Once the museum opened, other people sometimes could identify an item for us. The visitors are often knowledgeable and helpful. Great fun! I still like being there, but it is very time consuming. It can be frustrating to know you just don’t have time to do all you would like to do.
I have a sister, Carolyn, and a brother, John. As kids we were told, ‘You don’t go into that building!’ So we didn’t. However, I did go into that building with my dad and watched him saw some lumber on a long machine toward the front of the building. Visitors can see that rip saw. The rest of the building, to me, was just a storage area; I saw lumber everywhere. Years later, when my dad began talking about the gristmill being in there, I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. What the heck is a gristmill? I had never seen a sign of it. When we began cleaning, none of the equipment you can see there now, connected to the gristmill, was in place. Pieces were scattered all over the shop, upstairs mostly. While we cleaned, somebody would find something strange and say, ‘what IS this? Oh yes, this must be part of the gristmill.’
Uncle Russell went to a museum in New York State where he spotted a crane, the large arm used to lift and move the grindstone. Suddenly, he realized he had a seen a similar crane upstairs in our mill. Once back home, he and my son, Jeremy, brought the crane downstairs and were able to put it in place as part of the gristmill. A lot of the reconstruction happened like that, accidentally. Of course, Stuart Harris, who did the restoration, was very good at knowing what the pieces were and where they fit. He had experience doing other gristmills.
In our shop, the grinding stones were covered over by floor. When we began to open up that area, it was packed with sawdust. While we dished out the sawdust, it felt like an excavation. I was sticking my hand deep into the sawdust – can’t imagine why I even did this – and I got hold of something strange and pulled out a pair of old coveralls. Wow! What was this doing in an area full of sawdust? A real mystery! I was so excited with my great find, and all of us were guessing who might have worn them. Checking the well-worn pockets, I found a piece of paper that was an order for some lumber. When I showed this to my dad, he recognized his own father’s handwriting. Now we knew that these coveralls belonged to my grandfather. Today, these very coveralls are hanging up on display in the museum. (Kathie would enjoy telling you the explanation she thought up.)
As we uncovered more and more stuff, it was very exciting, especially since I had no idea any of it was there. My Anthropology Professor at the University of Massachusetts would have been proud of me. But I had graduated in 1971 and this was more than 20 years later. We continued to dust and discover, and my dad cautioned us not to throw away anything that might be important. Since we weren’t really sure what was important, we kept nearly everything we found and asked my uncles and my dad what to keep.”
More of Kathie’s humor:
“Between 1850 and 1930 one of the Bisbee Mill products was whip butts, which were shipped off to Westfield, MA, to be finished in a place still called Whip City. Dad kept telling me to look for a whip butt that we could display. I had no idea what they looked like, even though dad said that it was just a piece of hardwood, cut at a couple of different angles to complete a buggy whip. None of this made any sense to me. I should have asked him to draw me a picture. Time went on. One day I was cleaning out something with a stick I had found, and along came my dad. He said, ‘Do you know what you’re holding?’ Just his tone of voice told me it must be a whip butt. Turned out, that stick was one of only a few whip butts we ever found. And I now know just what a whip butt looks like.
Actually, it was hard to figure out what to save and what could go. All this decision-making was happening in the mid 1990’s. We are not usually finding things now, but I’m not sure what is in the attic – maybe mostly patterns. Early in our cleaning, my brother, John, was brave enough to go into the attic, and he found two caskets that had been made for children.”
In 2002 Kathie’s father, with some assistance from his other daughter, Carolyn, researched and wrote “The History of the Bisbee Mill Museum and Gristmill.” The following information is from that important book: “Coffins were made in the mill for many years – possibly from 1835 until 1950. According to newspaper history, one Ezra Barker, who listed himself as a carpenter and joiner, produced custom-made coffins that were produced in Bisbee, and that he made large numbers out of curled maple.’ It is easy to believe that Mr. Barker made the small caskets now on display in the museum.”
A study of Kathie’s well–researched Time Line will identify the many products from the mill and the dates they were available. The world history she added makes it even more interesting.
Kathie recently resigned as curator of the museum, and the officers of the Historical Society elected her son Jeremy, age 35. His sister, Shannon, is pretty much involved, as well. She has sort of adopted the gristmill part. She gets down underneath the stones, doing stuff that her mother will not watch her do. Shannon has learned how to do all the oiling and she is excited that she can do this at age 29. An amazing interest for a young woman! Shannon takes pride in knowing how to run a gristmill. I wonder how many women can do her job. Good for you, Shannon! Still, when the gristmill is running, Kathie can sometimes hear her son and daughter clash a bit as to who is really in charge.
“My primary role is to be up by the stones, being very watchful as to what’s happening to them. After a while, you can tell by hearing, whether or not things are running as they should. I can be talking to someone, but really I’m tuned in to the sound of the stones. I know immediately when something’s not right. At first, I thought my job wasn’t all that important, but my dad would tell me that I was actually doing the miller’s job. That made me feel better. So, if Jeremy and Shannon were arguing, I would tease them that I was actually the miller!
Dad told us that one person can run a gristmill, or could early on. Now you need someone else to make sure the engine runs properly. No longer powered by water, one person COULD run it, but I’m not very comfortable with that idea. I am amazed when something does go wrong and we have to shut down. I just stand there and chat with the visitors who are watching, while Jeremy, Jim and Shannon get it fixed. So far, whatever happens, those three are able to fix it and get it running again. If something just doesn’t sound right I will say, ‘something’s wrong, raise the stone.’ They raise the stone and then disconnect the elevator that’s running the corn. Whoever is throwing in the corn has to stop, also. In the past, we have done various things wrong: overloaded the elevator which then gets clogged; overloaded the stones, so we have to be very watchful with a flashlight, looking down to see what’s happening; quite often a belt will slip or the engine will stop for some reason. Then we know we need to raise the stone. That’s the first thing to do; then stop the elevator.”
(I asked Kathie if she thought it was this complicated for her ancestors who once ran this gristmill.)
“I’m sure it was, because they were running with water power. They must have had to be tuned in and keeping an eye on how much corn was flowing in. Raising the stone would have cut off the flow of water. Down on the floor, there is a circular handle, which must be turned to raise or lower the stone. eE also have an emergency lever, which we can press to flip the belt off the gears, causing everything to stop. It could be a safety feature in case clothing, hair or fingers got caught in the mechanism. We have used that lever a couple of times. I’m not sure what the old-timers did for safety. There seems to be no history of accidents in this mill; however, Jim and I have read about someone getting killed in the sawmill long ago. My own grandfather was hurt seriously in the sawmill as a young man. (That would be Charles, Sr.)
Evidently, safety was not a top priority in those days – in the mills, in the barns in the fields. When I see, in the museum, the equipment they used long ago, whether plowing fields, cutting lumber, or caring for farm animals, I realize these men and women had to be very strong. Still, many of them got hurt using dangerous tools or handling a team of horses, oxen or mules. People worked so physically hard that it’s no wonder many life spans were shortened.”
The present sawmill is in the same location as the original one, which burned down in 1946.
Kathie remembers the old sawmill and some of the men who worked there:
“We kids would go down to the nearby pond, and we’d hear the sawyers whistling. (Maybe started by Charles, Sr. long ago.) Currently, the pond is stocked with fish in the spring for the local Fishing Derby for kids – a very popular event. I recall the canal from the pond to the sawmill. It had a certain smell. Probably a combination of fresh water and sawdust. If I catch that odor today, I’m taken right back to my childhood near the pond and canal. I did swim in the pond once; however, I discovered the pond was home to blood suckers, and that killed my desire to swim there.”
Because Henry died in 2004, I was unable to interview him for this story. However, I was able to glean these memories from other family members:
Yes, he was the baby of the family, but I suspect he was not babied, and he must have helped with the farm chores, just like his siblings. Although he had an education in the trades, the family farm was his main interest. As a boy, he had several pets, including a pony. The adult Henry had no problem driving the farm horses. In fact, he was more than willing at age 15 to take the big farm team to rescue Bill and Mary Lou who had managed to get the family Reo car mired in mud. (It is worth a visit to the museum just to hear Bill expand this story. Bill can also tell you how he and brother Henry teamed up, after World War II to get their farm more mechanized. Find out how they bought a brand new Farmall H tractor for $2500.00!)
Like his brothers before him, Henry served his country in the United States Army. Allen and Russ served during World War II. Bill and Henry did their part in the Korean War. Bob was in the Air Force Reserve where he trained airplane mechanics.
Eventually, Henry married Lillian Robbins, and they raised three children in town. For 25 years Henry was a well-respected Town Constable, and he was honored for his long years of service. In later years, Henry’s illness made it difficult for him to be physically active in the transformation of the shop into a museum; however, he was there every weekend showing his pleasure and support. His wife, Lillian, is currently actively involved with the running of the gristmill.
Kathie remembers her Uncle Henry and Aunt Lillian:
“When I was about eleven, Uncle Henry gave me a new-born Holstein calf to take care of. My brother John had raised some money and bought a cow. Together we joined a 4-H cattle club where we learned how to raise and prepare our cows for the country fairs. Uncle Henry took us with our animals to several fairs for a few years. He and Aunt Lillian helped us by getting the fair books, transporting us with all our supplies and then hanging around for many hours with us. It was a great experience and we appreciated their interest and help. Just prior to our first fair, I fell from a hay wagon and broke my arm. This must have caused Uncle Henry some stress because he was quick to get my folks. Still, he kept right on helping us at fairs.“
Jeremy Brisbois shares his connection:
The son of James and Kathie Brisbois, Jeremy is the sixth generation connected to the mill. He is married to Rebecca Smith, a capable Vermonter, and they have two children who are often at the museum with their parents. Maggie, age 6 and Andrew, age 3, represent the seventh generation in this saga. The Bisbee/Brisbois union allows the tradition to be carried forward. It is unique that Jeremy’s paternal great grandfather, Felix Brisbois, worked as a sawyer for the Bisbees at the sawmill across the stream from the gristmill. So, one great grandfather worked for the other great grandfather! Jeremy couldn’t escape this connection, even if he wanted to, which he definitely does not. He hopes his kids will also feel this connection when they are old enough to understand.
Jeremy tells what drew him in:
“This museum is my way to have some involvement with a family tradition, even though it happened through the Historical Society. That was my first motivation to participate. Then, of course, there’s the connection between my two great grandfathers and the mill. Once in the 1990’s, I was in the turbine pit, standing on the turbine with my Uncle Russell. We were looking up at the gears, trying to figure out how this whole thing goes together and works. At one point he stops, looks right at me and says, ‘Jeremy, you realize this mill is in your blood from both sides of your family!’ He certainly was right about that.
When the mill was being made into a museum, I had moved out of my parents’ home and was living on my own in an apartment. I never even knew the building was a mill, just knew it was there and used by Bisbee Brothers to store lumber. In 1991 Bisbee Brothers had gone out of business, and were selling off land and buildings. There were a lot of ideas bouncing around. We even talked about, and walked along, the Cardinal Trail that ran beside the canals. That summer, I worked at trying to clear the trail and made a couple of bridges. During that time I also got pulled into the Bisbee Mill and started moving sawdust, lumber and equipment. The third floor was like a catch-all, with all kinds of odds and ends. There were some antiques, but also flyers, posters, and promotional things from the Hardware Store. The gristmill area was in the basement, but you wouldn’t even know it was there. This is really two buildings put together, so the floor had been evened out, which ended up boarding over the stones. The turbine pit was also boarded in, so you couldn’t see any water at all. The gears were all hidden. When a trap door was pulled open on the main floor, I remember looking down and seeing a huge wooden-tooth gear sitting there. It has steel framework, but the teeth are wood. I think there are two reasons for that: 1.With no metal-on-metal there are no spark problems; 2. It being such a large gear, if you break a tooth, it’s much easier to replace one wooden tooth than trying to weld a new metal one.
All of this excited me, as well as my grampa, Charles Allen Bisbee, who was President of the Chesterfield Historical Society. Most of my family then became members: my mom (Kathie), dad (Jim), sister (Shannon) and myself. Nathan lives too far away.
At that time, I was working in Greenfield, MA, as a machinist on the 2 to 10 shift. I wasn’t able to attend the many meetings in town that were necessary to legally approve turning this old shop and warehouse into a museum. It involved the Planning Board and the Board of Appeals as well as a final vote at Town Meeting. Finally, this old building, this antique treasure, had a new life and new name – Charles A. Bisbee, Sr., Agricultural and Industrial Museum.
Before the Historical Society owned the mill many things were done: foundations were shored up, timbers replaced (the original Chestnut timbers had become rotten and they were replaced with White Oak), the leaking roof repaired, and the whole outside painted to match the original color as closely as possible. Most of this work was done by local professionals; however, more than 6,000 hours of volunteer effort have been recorded! Although painting seemed to be the safest place for amateurs, it soon became evident that some real expertise was needed. Probably, it had been more than 50 years since the last paint job, and the new paint was being sucked up faster than the speed of light.
The restoration of the gristmill didn’t happen right away; the museum came first. In order to make this building a museum, a lot of labeling was necessary, and I wasn’t doing much of that. My mom, Kathie, did most of that, and some others may have helped. She catalogued about 200 items right away and is probably not finished. I did help with the layout and moving items.
The gristmill part was originally meant to be a static display. At some point, we had someone look at the turbine and later the whole gristmill operation. The cost to give the mill new life was deemed reasonable – $20,000 to $25,000 in 1999 plus labor at $30.00 per worker, per hour. So, a contract was signed by Charles A. Bisbee, Jr. and Harris and Gray. The work was done by Stuart Harris and John Gould.
They ripped the whole thing down to the foundation, and then built it right back up, replacing timbers and shoring up areas. The grindstones are original! There were two sets in the building, and the better set was used for the rebirth. These stones (1500 pounds each) were probably brought in by oxen, in the good old days!
The turbine itself had been replaced in 1919 so it is still considered old by its own standards. It’s new as far as water power goes. The canals were put in about 1823. I’ve seen pictures of the outside of the building with no water wheel on the back. So, the water would have come through the building to a tub wheel. This is a big wooden tub with something like a fan inside. The water would hit these fan blades and turn the center shaft, which would run everything else. Then the water would leave the building and go back into the stream. This is the way the turbine actually works, with the shaft doing the same job. Since nothing was there for us, all this history is just my guess.
Evidently, there were two industries happening in the mill at the same time. The pulleys and belts that are upstairs were also run by water power. According to my grandfather, the electric motor didn’t have enough torque to start up everything. The men would actually get the equipment spinning with the water power and then turn on the motor. The motor could KEEP everything going, and then they could shut off the water power.
Right now there’s an antique, seven-horse Hercules gas engine used to run the gristmill. It’s an old farm engine. My dad, Jim Brisbois, has found his niche working with this engine. He sometimes gets help from knowledgeable friends. They disconnected the shaft that ran from the stones to the turbine. One joint up, there’s a bevel gear which changes direction. If the shaft coming off the turbine is going vertical, this bevel gear will make it go horizontal. The horizontal shaft once powered all the woodworking equipment. My dad and his helpers cut a hole in the back of the building and ran a belt from the seven-horse engine to that big pulley that would run a saw or something upstairs, and then back-feed it. Now, when they run the engine, it powers the pulley which goes to the shaft, runs the shaft, hits the bevel gear, and powers all the gristmill mechanism above it, without having to turn the turbine mechanism below.
Now you could do something else besides the gristmill. The third floor has the lathe, the drill press, and the jig saw. There is a belt right now that connects the two areas. We have talked about getting an electric motor to power that third floor. In the future you might just walk upstairs and throw a switch that would power all the third floor equipment, without powering everything else. Sure would be easier!
Stuart Harris is very knowledgeable about gristmills so he was quite helpful. This Gristmill was used primarily to grind corn. My grandfather Bisbee had a memory of sitting on the steps as a little boy and holding out his hand to catch the corn that came down out of the chute. It meant a great deal to him to have this part of his childhood working again during his senior years.
I think it was my grandfather Bisbee’s idea to start opening the museum on summer Sundays for the general public. He had a vision of what he wanted it to become, even before he died in 2004. To make this vision a reality required money, and that came from donations and fund-raisers. Such as: demonstrations of various crafts, like making ox equipment; portable sawmills; a local spinner using various kinds of wool; a young ox teamster giving folks rides in his own rebuilt ox cart pulled by a Holstein team he had raised and trained. There were several pig roasts, tag sales, craft fairs. My grandfather was really good at selling tickets and getting donations. There is the Fall Festival and the July 4th celebrations which are well attended. A quilt raffle is a huge success. My mother has made two or three quilts and my wife’s sister has made at least one. Plus, there have been other items donated for the raffle like four tickets to Historic Deerfield in Deerfield, MA; two passes to the Norman Rockwell Museum; Boston Red Sox gift item; two tickets to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA; half-hour hot tub for two people at East Haven Hot Tubs in Northampton, MA; and many, many more. For just $5.00 you can get six tickets and hope to win something worthwhile. All these money-raising projects are big and take a great deal of effort and time to arrange. We have a website, bisbeemill.org, and we advertise in brochures and local newspapers. This outreach has brought people from far away to our museum.”
Besides the working gristmill, this museum offers visitors the opportunity to see a woodworking shop on the third floor, with all its pulleys and belts; a wood lathe; a drill press; a wood framing jig saw; a lot of block planes; wooden planes; wheel making equipment; and also a small blacksmith shop, probably used for small repairs – NOT to make horseshoes and such. There are displays of certain trademark tools: Healy’s Mill in West Chesterfield made all kinds of useful wooden handles; also from West Chesterfield, Chandler C. Bicknell was famous for his intricate, hand-crafted tools, boxes, and small picture frames; (Bicknell, born in 1861, was a kindly man, a homespun poet, ingenious inventor, skilled craftsman and an erudite eccentric. There is a replica of his shop, The Nutshell, in the museum along with a display of his handiwork.) In town, Ben Higgins was in constant demand for his popular, pounded Ash baskets; James Kitchen currently constructs interesting sculptures from old, rusted farm equipment donated by local farmers. All this and so much more is waiting for you in this fascinating museum.
I asked Jeremy where some of the big items came from – such as the hearse. He said:
“Mostly from the Bisbee family of yore.” The hearse was horse-drawn, as was the sled for gathering maple sap. The hearse was probably used in the Bisbee funeral business many years ago. That business was owned and operated in town by Charles, Sr. and Charles, Jr. Historically, many funeral homes were started because the owners were in the furniture business. This one started because there was a carpenter shop and a pair of horses! It began in 1877 and continued until 1995.
A local historian, Peter Banister, is often on hand to talk about displayed items and some of the characters who crafted them. Pete also has countless old and new photos to share with anyone interested in agricultural and industrial history.
One of Kathie’s favorite pieces is the old jig saw. “The wood on this saw is so old and was used so much, it is smooth as glass and just beautiful to see and touch. With main strength and awkwardness, Jeremy was able to move the belt, which ran from the third floor to the basement, and was sort of frozen in place over the years. The jig saw now works! Also, Jeremy and his Uncle Russell hope to get the old wooden lathe running again. These two clever fellas found a wooden handle that can be adjusted slightly to move the belt from one pulley to another, and thus shut down only the lathe.
Jeremy dives right in:
“When this project started, it was a three generation effort – my grandfather, my mom and me. We three did most of the actual physical labor of moving out the junk, although some town folks did help. Still, somebody needed to take charge and decide just what it was we wanted to do. Three could do that better than a crowd. My grandfather would go home for lunch after doing a lot of the physical work. I worked in the shop from 7:00 a.m. till about 1:00 p.m. and then went home to get ready to go to my regular job. Five days a week!”
Afternoons, Charles, Jr. spent doing paper work, coordinating materials and ideas. A painting crew of volunteers, family members and friends, worked long hours outside. Probably, every single member of the Bisbee/Brisbois clan had a hand in some phase of this enormous undertaking. Although this museum might have been originally the vision of Charles, Jr., it has taken the interest and expertise of the whole extended families to make the vision a reality. Kudos to everyone involved in any way! Personally, I have been present at several museum events when brothers Bill and Russ were entertaining visitors with fascinating stories of times gone by in the business and farming history of the area. These stories come from ancestors, and are being kept alive and passed along to the youngest generation. Another brother, Bob, who now lives in Virginia, did some work in the mill long ago. He made a ripper with steel runners and also a boat. He sometimes shows up to watch the grinding of the corn and share his stories. And, you have heard from Mary Lou who is still very interested in the museum and in family history.
I asked Jeremy, “When you got married, did your wife know you were going to be this involved with the museum?” He said this, “When Rebecca and I were first dating, I wasn’t this involved because there wasn’t a gristmill to run. She did know I was interested in the mill because the museum part was open and we did have some events. The gristmill was being put together by a good company, Harris and Gray, so it was not my specific project. My wife is from a small town in Vermont and she’s interested in local history. So she is enthusiastic about the mill. She also helps me realize when I need a break from the many facets of the museum and then we do something else. (Good idea!)
Rebecca has retail experience and my grandfather once envisioned the museum having a gift shop run by my wife! Grampa was a very in-charge kind of man and I grew up with that. I was used to it; my wife was not! So we have a good compromise – if I need help with some particular mill project, I will ask her and she helps me willingly. I do not volunteer her services. This works well for us and our two kids.”
(Nowadays, your grandfather would be called a ‘micromanager.’ Those folks do accomplish a lot, but they are hard to work for or with, especially if you are related!)
Charles, Jr. had a lot of trouble working with volunteers. His position as a State Senator and as an officer in the military led him to expect that, when he told someone to do something, they did it. With the volunteers, they might or might not! Charles sometimes expressed his frustration about this to Kathie. Charles’ wife, Vesta Thomson, was very supportive of the museum vision, but she had trouble with allergies. The dust factor in the mill made it hard for her to spend much time there. She would come with cookies for events and she may have helped paint. Vesta’s love for history and Chesterfield has kept her interested, even into her 83rd year.
“My father, Jim Brisbois, has a relationship with the museum that is about like my wife’s. He is involved and really enjoys working with the engine. My mom and I feel much alike – that the museum is part of the family. I especially feel that this time right now is ‘my watch’ and I want to do all I can to keep things going well, or make them even better. I’m 35 so I have a ways to go!
Some of the most actively involved members of the Bisbee and Brisbois families have been given lifetime memberships in the Historical Society, in appreciation of their devotion to the idea, as well as the gift of the building. The museum stands today as a living tribute to the many brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, and cousins who have a connection to the many generations of Bisbee and Brisbois families. However, the museum need not be seen as only a Bisbee/Brisbois enterprise. And should not! Many items on display are connected to various other families in town.
Bill recounts some discoveries:
“The inside architecture of this old building would give a person pause, trying to analyze it. For instance, there were notches cut into the stairway – inches wide – and we wondered what they were for. We discovered that the tapered hoppers we had found upstairs fit those notches perfectly and were lined up right over the stones. A light came on in our brains! The stairway must have been put in after 1928, when my father (Charles, Sr.) decided to put in a four-sided planer over the mill floor which covered the stones. The only thing we could see above was the top of the cracker, which takes the corn cob, breaks it up into little pieces and dumps it into the elevator, which carries it up overhead. This works much like a silage cutter, maybe not quite as small. The elevator carries the broken cob pieces up to the third floor. From there the pieces come down by gravity into the aforementioned hopper above the pair of stones. Once we removed those stairs, everything else fell into place. We then built new stairs off to the side.
Upstairs was the so-called Carpenter Shop where you did hand work, and where the wheelwright was set up to make wagon wheels. We kids often went up there to do a little carpentry. There was a workbench, a wooden vice, a metal vice, a bunch of hand augur bits overhead, and lots of patterns for things, including ox bows. To the left of the stairs, you can still see clapboard siding on the inside wall. This tells you that a building was added on at some point in time. Everything told us a story, if we could decipher it. In front of the building are the hay scales. As kids, we thought it was great fun to jump up and down on these scales. We were probably not supposed to do that, but it didn’t hurt anything.
Another interesting fact about this whole building is that my grandfather, and probably his father, had to adapt as things changed in their particular businesses. The building began as a Wheelwright/Gristmill/Carpentry Shop. They made whip butts, rake handles, and shovel handles. In the mid-summer, there was not enough water for power to run things. In the deep-winter the canals would fill with ice. I recall the men would chop a hole in the ice with a Spud (spade-like instrument) at the entrance to the tube that fed the water to the wheel. This hole would let the air in between the ice and the water. If the ice collapsed, it would plug the grates, which were in front of the penstock to keep leaves out. The fallen ice would block off the water flow completely. Years and years ago, there were telephone poles laid out along the canals every 20 feet or so, to support the ice while the water was drawn out from underneath. Our generation had to change when it became unrealistic for us to plane our own lumber and ship it, because you could buy it cheaper coming in from Canada, kiln dried! After World War II we were selling green lumber for houses, in the 1940’s. People often said that you needed windshield wipers on your glasses, because you could get spattered with the sap from the wood when you cut into it!”
Bill says that his favorite part of the museum is the gristmill itself, because it was “something that just grew as we worked there. Late in 1998 or 1999, John Otis, who does a lot of work with old buildings, jacked up the center section because it had fallen in. He replaced the rotten timbers with new ones and leveled the floor. I think Charlie Nugent poured some concrete in the basement where the stone foundation had started to collapse.”
Russ says that he knew about only one gristmill stone and was surprised to find more. When he was in a New York museum, he saw a shaving horse, which is used to smooth out wood shingles. The shingle is held by a foot pedal. Russ knew there was a shaving horse in the old mill.
Frank Munson, from nearby Westhampton, found, in an antique shop, the actual school desk he had at Bofat School in the 1930’s. He had carved his initials a certain way into the wooden desk, so many years ago. That desk is now in the museum!
This historical treasure is now open to the public just one weekend a month from June to October. However, everyone involved knows that the gristmill shouldn’t just sit. Use it or lose it!
Jeremy reminds us of maintenance:
“For the winter, we clean out everything, raise the stones up and vacuum in between them. The stones are not perfect. They have little pockets in them and the corn gets stuck in there. We have learned to clean them out as best we can. There’s a cover that goes over the stones. We take that off and clean that all out. This seems like a lot of work, but it really doesn’t take too long. The clean-up is harder in the spring because there are always surprises! One year we had over 20 mice in the building, and another year we found a raccoon. Once, a couple window panes got broken and the birds just took over the place. Bird droppings were everywhere! This year it was chipmunks waiting for us. Originally, when the gristmill was functioning every day except Sunday, it must have been a lot easier to keep clean. The activity kept the critters out.”
The future of the Museum:
Jeremy hopes it is never a millstone around the neck of the Historical Society. “Buildings always require a lot of maintenance. As with all museums, there is only a small segment of the population interested in that sort of commitment. Bigger places have problems, too – getting funds and volunteers.”
Some of the present grandchildren have shown interest, including Bill’s son, David. He had done a lot with the genealogy and with family reunions. Emily Bisbee was a genealogy buff and her interest has shown up in David. These later generations have moved around much more than the folks before them, so the connection is not so close; however, a lot can be done on the internet.
There is a yearly reunion called the Bisbee Connection which meets somewhere in the USA. David Bisbee often attends. One year they met in Plymouth, MA, and David encouraged them to make a trip to the museum. Arrangements were made and local relatives gathered at the museum. Along came a big tour bus bursting with Bisbees eager to meet relatives and take pictures aplenty. Just like David’s sister, Donna, said they would! Such a jolly group of people – 30 or more, from all over the country.
Mary Lou is glad to have the old building preserved. She is glad that some of the younger generation are interested and she hopes they will keep it going, because it is very worthwhile. She calls it “Diversity Supreme.”
I am deeply indebted to all of the family members who have brought this exciting story into focus for me and for you, the readers. I would only add that I am pleased to observe the ways in which the women have progressed in their connection with this building. Even the women who have married into these families – Vesta Thomson, Dolores Wegener, Alice Curtis, Norma Bourne, Lillian Robbins and Rebecca Smith – have been very supportive of this project. Originally, the workers were all male; whereas, now we have Kathie, Shannon, Rebecca, Lillian and sometimes other females involved. There is also little Maggie of the 6th generation coming along. It’s exciting to wonder how she will connect to her heritage.
Not surprising!! On March 31, 2005, The Bisbee Mill Museum was accepted into the National Register of Historic Places.
For more in-depth information I suggest you visit the museum yourself. There is also much more to glean from the book, “The History of The Bisbee Mill Museum and Gristmill” by Charles A. Bisbee, Jr. Enjoy!