I stumbled upon a listing for the Beckman Mill as an attraction near Janesville when I was updating my recommendations on Trip Advisor. I grew up in Janesville and had never heard of it! A spot of research later, I discovered that about a half hour away I would find a Civil War period grist mill, restored and open to the public for tours on Saturdays and Sundays. Jetsy was inspired!
My timing was good – I had a free Sunday afternoon to make the drive down. It was a beautiful day and a lovely drive through southern Wisconsin in the early summer. There is a lot of standing water in the fields after all the rain we have had for the last month, but the corn is also green and growing – definitely “knee high by the 4th of July!”
Gerry and I found the mill visually before Siri sent us off claiming it was an abandoned barn not far away. It is in the Beckman County Park (Rock County) just west of Beloit. The site is very pretty – the mill is picturesque, and the park was full of people who were there for a Sunday afternoon of classical music.
Tours of the mill are pretty informal. We just showed up at the door and a guide immediately started forming a group for us. We and another couple were there specifically to take the tour; the others were just killing time until the concert began. In a way that was good, because when the music was about to start, about 6 people left the tour, leaving just the 4 of us who really wanted to see it. Our companions on the tour were a farming couple from Brodhead – and he knew a lot about machinery and engineering. What an asset to have on the tour. Just by looking at the various machines, he could explain to all of us, including the guide, why the machines worked the way they did.
The machinery was the highlight of the tour for me. This mill was built in the late 1860s and, with no updating of its “technology,” can run as efficiently today as it did back then. Not only run, but be run by a single individual despite the fact that the mill stretches over three floors.
The mill was not run on an external water wheel. (Our guide explained that the distillery that was on the site prior to the mill probably did.) Instead, the Beckman mill runs on water turbines located underneath the building. They look like much smaller water wheels laid on their sides, but can mechanically be opened and closed to start and stop the power to the mill. Power from the turbines and gravity accounts for the movement of the grains through the mill, from sack to grind to sack.
The tour covers most of the first and second floors. The third floor is still unsafe for visitors. The restoration story is remarkable. The mill functioned up until the late 1940s-50s and was then abandoned to the elements. It was in such a seriously dilapidated condition that in the early 90s an historic preservation consultant said it should just be demolished. However, a grass roots committee of local people, spearheaded by the youngest son of the Beckman family, put together a plan to restore the building to its heyday in the 1920’s. With about $250,000, this group of people donated hundreds of hours of volunteer labor, and rebuilt the mill and the dam (!) that creates the mill pond. The result is beautiful. (Be sure when you think about the rebuilding of the dam that you figure in the costs associated with WI DNR restrictions on what can and can’t be done. In fact, they had to build a special water course around the dam so that an endangered minnow could swim back up stream…The dam alone accounted for $150,000 of the total cost.)
In its day, the mill ground grains, like buckwheat, oats, and wheat. The Beckman’s ground for all the neighboring farms, and also ground for their own label flour, which was distributed as far as Milwaukee.
I won’t regale you with all that I learned about the milling business of the last century, but I learned a lot, and all very interesting and enlightening. I certainly hope you will make a trip to see it. Take a picnic and enjoy the park, too! Tours are between 1 and 4 on Saturdays and Sundays only, though you can visit the park and see the outside daily from 8 am-10 pm.