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A Dry Spell at the Mill

Upstate New York has had a significant lack of rain during the past month or so.  The ground is dusty, the grass is brown, and water levels in the streams and rivers in the area are remarkably low.  Kortright Creek, the body of water that feeds our Mill Pond, is down to a slight trickle and is so dry that there is not enough water to flow into our headrace.  We continued to operate our Fitz Overshot waterwheel for as long as we could, but when the thousands of gallons of water that are needed for each demonstration are not replenished there comes a point where the level of the pond is below what is necessary to keep the forebay full, and at that point the waterwheel cannot be used.  It’s a situation that we haven’t dealt with to this extent since 1988 and it’s made us consider how the Hanford family would have dealt with a similar situation when they operated the mill.


The photographs above show the difference in water level from July of last year to this year.

First, it is important to realize that while the Museum offers demonstrations of power generation and woodworking machinery that last for short periods, the Hanfords would have been operating machinery all day long and would require a continuous power source.  It is also important to remember that the Fitz Overshot waterwheel, one of the highlights of any Hanford Mills Museum tour today, was only installed in 1926 and the Mill has a history that dates back to the mid-1800s.  From 1846 to the mid-1880s the mill was powered solely with water, using a combination of wooden waterwheel (for the up and down sash saw) and a turbine (for the gristmill).  During this time D.J. Hanford would have operated the Mill mostly during the spring when the runoff from winter snows allowed the pond to be refilled quickly.  As spring progressed into summer and the water level became less reliable, D.J.’s focus would turn to his farm, where a drought would be much more destructive than at the Mill.  During a drought in June 1895 the Delaware County Dairyman newspaper noted: “Rain is the one thing needful.  Pastures are drying up; water is very low; gardens are at a standstill and our well-kept lawns are brown and dying; the hay crop is already past redemption, and unless we get rain soon the result will be empty barns and storehouses…”

 From 1895 to the 1930s the use of steam power changed the way the Hanfords operated the Mill and increased the overall importance of it to their business.  Once the boiler and engines were installed the Mill could be operated year-round, however this did not mean that waterpower was abandoned.  While the records of how steam and waterpower were used in conjunction during this time period are scant at the Mill, it is likely that waterpower was used to supplement, or even in place of, steam power at times when there was ample water flowing into the pond due to its ease of use and relative safety.  Waterpower also acted as a reliable backup if the boiler failed or needed repairs, as was the case in April, 1922.  The dedication of the Hanfords to waterpower is illustrated by the fact that, even when gas engines and electric power were introduced to the Mill, Will and Horace Hanford felt it appropriate to purchase a Fitz Overshot waterwheel to replace the aging turbines. 

While the current drought continues, Hanford Mills Museum is looking back to the days of the Hanford family to understand how to interpret our current situation.  We are able to operate much of the historic woodworking machinery through electric power.  We recently experimented with using steam power generated by the Mill’s boiler and a restored horizontal engine to power the sawmill.  A large belt connects the steam engine to the main shaft in the basement, which transfers power to machines in the Mill.  This also causes the Fitz Overshot waterwheel to turn with no water flowing over it, which is an odd sight indeed.  Due to the staff and volunteers needed to tend to the boiler and engine whenever it is operating, we will not yet be able to make steam operation a daily part of Museum interpretation, but we will be sure to let everyone know well ahead of time when we plan to operate using our steam plant.  In the meantime, let us all wish for a bit of rain to replenish the Mill pond.

The following video shows the main shaft of the belt & pulley system being turned by the Museum’s boiler and restored horizontal steam engine, on July 3rd.  If you look closely towards the end of the video, you can see the Fitz Overshot waterwheel in the background, being turned without water. 


Scientific American Extras

Our newest edition of the Millwork newsletter has just been released, and in it you’ll find some interesting articles on pulleys & belts (the workhorses of the Mill) and on the history of Scientific American magazine, which was very popular with the Hanfords during the late 1800s/early 1900s.  We included many magazine images from our Museum’s collections, but not every image we selected made it into the newsletter.  Here are some interesting bits that hit the cutting room floor:



A late 1800s advertisement for Edison’s iconic incandescent light bulb, which also acted as a shrewd warning against patent infringers. 




A very interesting cover article from the January 18, 1902 issue highlights the debate about the best place to construct a canal that would connect the Atlantic to the Pacific: Panama, or Nicaragua?  Ultimately the magazine made the same choice as the government and chose Panama for its shorter route and need for fewer locks.











Before the Wright Brothers made their famous first flight in 1903, a great multitude of inventors tried their hands at inventing the flying machine.  Scientific American covered many of these attempts in its pages.

Operating the Gas-Powered Drag Saw

How we printed The Hanford Photographs exhibit

We decided to use 21st century technology to assist us with some 19th century images, in the interests of creating a print with maximum detail.

The Hanford Photographs: portraits, landscapes, and dancing bears?????

Our exhibit, The Hanford Photographs, is moving along nicely.  Most of the photographs have been printed (the details in some of them are just fantastic!), and Alan Rowe, our Collections Manager, is taking the measurements of the Feed Mill exhibit space and making decisions on presentation.  As we were going over the list of images to include in the show, however, we discovered that we may have left one of the most interesting photos out: an image that Horace Hanford took around 1915 that shows, of all things, a troup of dancing bears that performed at the Rexmere Hotel in Churchill Park, in Stamford, NY!  Horace would sometimes take his camera with him to events such as fireman’s parades, excursions to Otsego Lake, and the like, but this image caught our eye for obvious reasons.  We need to do more research, but if anyone reading this post knows more about these kinds of events in the region, feel free to “bear” your information here!

“Artificial Ice” competes with the Harvest

This is our first blog post since the amazing, busy, rainy, fun day that was our Ice Harvest event on February 5th this year.  Nearly 800 visitors showed up to help us cut ice from the pond and fill our ice house (overfill, actually.  There were so many blocks of ice that there are some still sitting outside!).  Thanks to all who showed up, especially after the weather turned nasty in the afternoon.  The one advantage that the Hanfords had in the 1800s was that, if the weather was bad, they could just wait until another day to cut their ice! 

Ice harvesting was done in some parts of the country well into the 1930s and 40s, but in the late 1800s a new competitor was developed: artificial refrigeration.  In 1894, the largest ice making plant of its time was built in Philadelphia for use by the Knickerbocker Ice Company.  The company owned very large ice houses along the Hudson River and in Maine for many years, but the shipping of natural ice to a growing market in Philly became expensive.  This particular plant used advanced (for the time) gas compressors to create refrigeration large and strong enough to produce 60 tons of “artificial ice” daily, year-round, which more than likely did not fully end the need for ice to be shipped to Philadelphia, but surely reduced it significantly.

The image below comes from the February 10th, 1894 edition of Scientific American, which the Hanford family subscribed to from 1860 through the early 1900s (and which the museum still subscribes to today.  Many things have changed with the magazine, of course, one of which is the cost!  In the early 1890s, an annual subscription to the magazine, which was a weekly publication then, was $3.00.  Today a single monthly issue costs $5.99!).

Measuring the ice, 1/25/11

Today we prepared for our first school group of the winter season.  The students of Andes Central School cut about 15 blocks today and put them in the ice house.  Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of room in there for all the ice we’ll cut on Feb. 5th!