Thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers, this historical property in Beloit stands to see its 150th anniversary this year. Read about the determination it’s taken to preserve the structure and how you can explore it today.
One of the oldest operating mills in Wisconsin resides in Beckman Mill County Park, just six miles west of Beloit.
Thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers, this restored gristmill is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Beckman Mill is fully operational, with power coming from the original water-driven Leffel turbine, which was created in the 1860s. If backup power is ever needed, the mill can still be operated thanks to its 1920s-era Titan two-cylinder tractor engine.
“This mill has definitely been a labor of love,” says Jim Disrud, secretary of the Friends of Beckman Mill, a group of 30 to 35 active volunteers who worked to restore the mill. “Very few mills use the old, original equipment that we use. We have equipment that was brought here 150 years ago and never updated.”
Jim says the mill can grind any sort of grain, but corn is popular because it’s the easiest to break down and it’s easily available. The shelled corn is separated and grounded into corn meal, which is sold on site.
The mill remains intact thanks to the tireless efforts of volunteers from the Friends of Beckman Mill, who are responsible for the restoration of the mill, along with other attractions around the 50-acre park, including a new dam, a sawmill display and a gift shop.
“We really fell in love with the organization and we appreciated what was happening,” says Sheri Disrud, also a member of the group and Jim’s wife of 34 years. “It’s also fun to tell stories about the mill, and the kids seem to enjoy it.”
William Howe built the mill along Raccoon Creek in 1868, shortly after the Civil War, setting up on the former site of the Goodhue distillery, which was destroyed by a fire in 1853.
Howe ran the mill until 1872, when he sold it to Louis Hyde and Elias Teall. In 1882, August Beckman purchased the turbine-powered mill. He dubbed it Beckman Mill and ran it until his death in 1908. His sons, Charles and Henry, assumed ownership.
“Back in the ‘20s, the Beckman family was known for their buckwheat flour,” Sheri says. “But they could still grind any kind of grain on the millstones.”
The whole-grain buckwheat flour was sold in 5-, 10- and 20-pound paper bags, either at the mill or door-to-door.
Henry died in 1939 and Charles owned the mill until his death in 1966. The mill was put on the National Register of Historic places in 1977. A year later, the Beckman family sold the mill and accompanying property to Rock County.
Since the county didn’t have the funding to make necessary updates at the time, the mill sat idle and slowly deteriorated until 1990, when Friends of Beckman Mill was formed. The group entered into a lease agreement with Rock County, such that the county takes care of the grounds and Friends of Beckman Mill oversees the buildings.
“Before we first started this project, a member of the Wisconsin Historical Society looked the building over and said it probably couldn’t be saved,” Jim says. “But, we felt once we were able to install a new foundation, the building could be saved.”
After a property analysis, the group started fundraising before tackling the restoration. The original foundation was deteriorating, the floors were sagging and the roof had constant leaks. The milling equipment, at the time, was not functional due to wear and neglect. To make things worse, vandals were constantly defacing the building and stealing valuable artifacts.
Volunteers were undaunted.
“We restored the mill and made it operational again,” Sheri says. “When we first got out here, this was all a swamp with trees, bushes and weeds. The only thing that was here was a creek.”
Those who visit the mill today are usually impressed with the quality of the building’s restoration and its look of originality. The inside of the mill looks much as it did back in 1868. Interior additions include a corn sheller, a small burr mill and an auxiliary elevator.
Friends of Beckman Mill offers tours May through October, on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Sheri says the mill is full of learning potential for kids and adults.
“They can learn how a mill operates, and they can also learn about the history of milling,” Sheri says. “If you go out east, there are a lot of mills because they’re in the mountains. They’re still grinding and operating for businesses, but here in the Midwest, those mills are gone.”
The Friends of Beckman Mill continue maintenance of the old structure, but Sheri wonders how much longer they can keep up the momentum. After more than 30 years in existence, the group has welcomed very few new members. Sheri hopes a younger generation of volunteers can step up in the near future. To learn more about volunteering, call (608) 751-1551 or visit beckmanmill.org.
“Our biggest challenge right now is getting volunteers to commit to passing on this legacy, because there are too few of us to keep this going,” she says. “This younger generation doesn’t want to commit because they’re too busy, but when I started, I was working, I was the president, I did physical work on the weekends and I worked events. You can do this if you like it, and we have to somehow get people to fall in love with it and keep things going.”
Sheri says it’s hard to describe her passion for preserving this significant part of the region’s past.
“It’s really important that we continue to preserve history,” she says. “This is a really unique and special mill, and it’s been a community effort.”