What is now known as Ben Thresher’s Mill was built in 1872 by Alexander Jack. A previous mill was erected on the site in 1836 but was abandoned and demolished sometime around 1855. There were several other industries that operated around the original 1836 mill, to include a tannery, blacksmith shop and sawmill. The current mill was used by Jack as a woodworking shop and Dye and Print Works. Jack, like the mill owners before him, used hydropower from the Stevens River to operate their equipment. The mill still has the ability to operate via hydropower once its breached dam has been repaired. After passing through the Judkins family, the mill was purchased by Ben Thresher in 1947 who operated it until his death in 1994. It has since been restored and is now operated as an industrial museum. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
Backstory and Context
Stevens Village (now Barnet) was first settled by Europeans, primarily the Scottish, in 1770. They brought with them Presbyterianism and a knowledge of sheep herding and milling. In 1836, Bartholomew Carrick purchased 150 acres of land that included some waterfront property along the Stevens River. That same year, Carrick also built a sawmill and dam across the river to divert water onto his mill’s waterwheel to provide power. He later sold his farm and leased the mill and water rights to James Goodwillie. Carrick’s sawmill was soon joined by other industries using the river to power their various ventures. By 1850 there were over 30 industrial sites along the Stevens River.
However, after the railroad arrived in New England and didn’t pass close to Barnet, those businesses were abandoned, to include Carrick’s Mill and by 1855 the mill was gone. For almost 20 years the site sat vacant until Alexander Jack built a new mill in 1872 and purchased a nearby residence soon after. Jack operated a woodworking shop on the mill’s first floor and used it to produce dye frames and wooden dying vats for his Dye and Print Works on the second floor. All of Jack’s woodworking tools were powered by the Stevens River via a waterwheel, a large penstock (sluice or pipe), pullies and an elaborate belt system. Prior to Jack’s death in 1887, what would become the cider press was added to the mill around 1885 and a blacksmith shop was moved and attached sometime around 1880.
After Jack’s death the mill was sold at sheriff’s auction in 1888 and passed through several owners until it was purchased by the Judkins family in 1893. They operated various industries from the mill to include a cider press built by Elmer Ford, blacksmith shop, wheelwright and carriage shop and produced electricity for the town for awhile. All the machines used in these operations were still powered by the Stevens River.
In 1941, Ben Thresher began working for the Judkins in the carriage shop and purchased the mill in 1947. Thresher continued to operate the cider press into the 1960s and provided milling and smithing services to the community into the 1990s. As a result, Thresher became one of the few people in the late 20th century who fully understood how a water powered mill, cider press and blacksmith shop operated. Because of that fact, Thresher and his mill were featured in a 1982 PBS documentary called Ben’s Mill.
The dam that provided water to the mill was severely damaged during a flood in 1990 and Thresher was forced to use a John Deere engine to power the machines. Thresher died in 1994 and the mill was then purchased by Steven Holden and then Hiram and Lois Allen in 1999 who hoped to restore the mill as a historical site. In pursuit of that goal, they and other residents of Barnet created a non-profit, the Ben’s Mill Trust Inc. which now owns the mill, and restoration work began in 2000. Since that time, the mill has been resided, the roof replaced, the foundation stabilized, the original cider press re-created, and the penstock rebuilt. However, at the time of this writing, the dam has not been repaired and all the machinery is still powered by a gasoline engine. Restoration work on the mill is ongoing and efforts to rebuild the dam continue.
Redmond, Dennis. "A labor of love in Barnet: The restoration of the historic Ben's Mill along Stevens River." Burlington Free Press. June 10, 2017. Accessed November 3, 2019. https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2017/06/10/history-space-labor-love-barnet/102708682/
Noble, Deborah. "National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Ben Thresher's Mill." United States Department of the Interior/National Park System. June 14, 1995. Accessed November 3, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/96000386_text
Chalufour, Michel and John Karol. "Ben's Mill (film)." Public Broadcasting Service. 1981. Accessed November 3, 2019. http://www.folkstreams.net/film-detail.php?id=187