One of Middletown’s historic icons is getting an upgrade.
On Friday, a team with Shrake Construction and Santos Crane Service removed the entire sail complex and damaged windshaft of the Boyd’s Wind Grist Mill in Paradise Valley Park on Prospect Avenue. It’s the first time the eight sails have been off the windmill at one time since 1996.
In coming weeks, the windshaft and several of the sails will be repaired by Shrake Construction, the Brewster, Massachusetts firm that specializes in historic windmill restorations like the one overseen by the Middletown Historical Society.
Historical society officials said the windmill will remain open during normal visiting hours Sundays from 2-4 pm, but the sail unit is strictly off limits and subject to 24/7 monitoring by the Middletown Police.
“I think it’s pretty obvious, but we’re proud of our work,” Andy Shrake said during a lunch break from his firm’s work. “It stands on it’s own and what we do is pretty unique.”
The history of the windmill is a story all by itself. Originally located in Portsmouth, Shrake helped move the windmill to its current location in the 1990s after the property where it was based was being sold off.
According to historical society President Mary Dennis, the grist mill is the only windmill of its kind with eight sails in the country.
She said it hasn’t been run in a couple years after Shrake said there was something seriously wrong with the windshaft, which connects the sails to the rest of the windmill.
“I still remember Andy saying ‘I think we have a problem’ with the windshaft when he was doing some regular maintenance on the windmill,” said Dennis after dropping off grinders and drinks for the crew. “We haven’t run it since because we were afraid to make it worse.”
“You can tell there’s something wrong with it based on the sound,” Shrake said. “It’s not good in a windmill to hear a sound that isn’t right. “
Shrake said the tree used to make the driveshaft was an 180-year-old white pine from Cornwall, Connecticut. The same tree was used to carve a driveshaft for a similar project for a windmill in Jamestown.
While many of the sails are made from Holland mahogany — and extremely hard wood — Shrake said white pine was used for the windshaft because it doesn’t crack and is more widely available.
The windshaft for the grist mill was on site Friday on the back of a trailer, so large that it dwarfed Dennis and everything else nearby.
“Look at this. It’s like a work of art,” Dennis said, standing next to the massive wooden piece. “This was all shaped by hand. This is a beautiful piece of work and it belongs in a museum. You don’t see craftsmanship like this much anymore.”
In order for the project to come together, the first step was to build a temporary sand road into the park from Prospect Avenue.
Without such a path, Dennis said the heavy crane operated by Billy Santos — son of the late Councilwoman M. Theresa Santos — would sink into the ground because of the wet park soil.
After the sail and windshaft were disconnected from the grist mill, Dennis said Shrake and his team used a number of ropes to guide the assembly away from the main building before placing it on the ground without damaging it.
The fact there was no wind or lousy weather to deal with helped make the operation go as smooth as possible.
Watching the action unfold, Dennis said she couldn’t help but marvel at how history was unfolding before her eyes.
“We are saving history,” Dennis said. “Other places have waterwheels, but we have windmills because we don’t have rivers that can generate the necessary power. Windmills are so unique and I can’t help but draw a parallel to what’s happening off Block Island (with the wind farm) and how everything is coming full circle.”
Thinking back to the first tour she ever gave of the grist mill, Dennis said everyone who visits on Sunday afternoons comes away amazed.
Whether it’s the original bill of sale for the windmill in 1810 from John Peterson to William Boyd etched into a piece of wood inside to the gears and smell of the place, she said history is everywhere you look.
“The first tour I gave was to a Naval officer from Holland, where there are a lot of windmills,” Dennis said, laughing. “He asked what made windmills in America different from windmills in Holland and I didn’t know, so I handed him a copy of a diagram we have here and asked him to try to figure it out.”
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