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Reinventing the wheel


Reinventing the wheel

They came from local farms in horse-drawn wagons and later trucks loaded with field crops such as co
Reinventing the wheel
James Swartout, left and his son, Chris Swartout, check out the metal buckets on the metal water wheel beneath the Bunn-Tillapaugh Feed Mill. They, along with two other members of the Richmondville Historical Society, restored the operation of the wheel,

They came from local farms in horse-drawn wagons and later trucks loaded with field crops such as corn, oats and buckwheat to be ground into livestock feed at Bunn’s Mill in Richmondville.

That was in the 1890s after C. Arthur Bunn purchased a former three-story carriage factory and converted it into a feed mill.

The mill equipment was powered by a water wheel built beneath the 12,000-square-foot building. The wheel was powered by water that flowed downstream about four miles from Bear Gulch Lake into the millpond, dammed to ensure a steady flow.

The original water wheel was made from hardwood, with wooden cogs and gears, and later replaced with one made of iron and steel.

Maynard Tillapaugh purchased the mill in the 1950s. The water wheel stopped turning when he replaced his power source with electric motors in 1967. He continued operating the mill into the 1980s.

Once again, however, the water wheel is turning, thanks to the efforts of members of the Richmondville Historical Society. They purchased the mill in 2002, made the building its home, and opened it to the public as a museum. In 2006, the Bunn-Tillapaugh Mill was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Recently restoring the wheel, which had not turned for nearly 50 years, was somewhat of a challenge, said James Swartout, who took on the task, along with his son Chris Swartout, Phillip Butler and Charles Bilby. All are members of the Richmondville Historical Society.

Restoration involved replacing 24 feet of the deteriorating 18-inch steel pipe that drew water from the millpond and dumped it into steel buckets attached to the wheel, creating an overshot flow, so that as the buckets filled with water, their weight and force caused the wheel to rotate.

Two valves above the dam control the water flow; one allows the pond to drain, the other diverts water to the wheel through the pipe.

“A valve inside the mill allowed the operator to throttle the amount of water flow onto the wheel,” Swartout said.

Swartout and his son had to maneuver along a rock ledge and tangled foliage to insert a 24-foot, 10-inch plastic pipe with a reducer on the end into the damaged 16-inch steel pipe.

Bilby repacked and greased the bearings on the wheel. However, one of the bearings was difficult to reach in the tight enclosure surrounding the wheel, he said, so the task was given to the crew’s youngest and most agile member, Chris.

James Swartout and Bilby also cleared dirt and debris that blocked the outflow of water — after it went over the wheel and filled the buckets — back into the stream.

Because the wheel is beneath the building and isn’t easily visible outside the mill, a small section of the wood floor over the area of the top of the wheel was removed and clear Plexiglas installed along with a flood light so that visitors can see the moving gears and watch the water flow over the rotating water wheel.

Bilby who created a fact sheet for museum visitors noted the water wheel diameter is 22 feet and circumference 69 feet with 75 steel water buckets attached. The drive pulley attached to the wheel’s drive shaft is 15 inches wide and 7 feet in diameter.

A 70-foot, 10-inch wide canvas-and-leather flat belt had been attached around the drive pulley on one end and on the other upper end to another pulley on the line shaft. The line shaft includes pulleys of various sizes, which allow attached belts to operate grinders, blowers and cleaners at varying speeds. A rubber belt has been installed on the drive pulley to replace the worn original belt.

Most of the equipment used at the mill to grind and to process the grain is still in the building, said Harold Loder, Richmondville Historical Society president.

“We’re hoping to get some of it working again so people who visit the museum can see what it was like in those early years when the mill was operating,” he said.


The museum also features other items from that earlier era of producing and processing crops. Many of the items have been restored and donated by Bilby, including an 1886 feed cutter for chopping up corn stalks, a 1911 corn husker and a late 1800s hops stove for drying hops that was manufactured by Stevens Foundry, which had operated in the village.

Loder, a former dairy farmer, recalls the early years when the mill was “the only place you could take your feed crops to be ground. The whole building would kind of rock when all this machinery was running.”

He added, “I feel it’s very important for people to see how things were done years ago, which is the reason we’re trying to restore the mill equipment. It was a very important process in this valley. Water that came down from the Bear Gulch ran about a half-dozen industries along the flowing creek. Richmondville was a very prosperous town at one time.”

Situated on High Street in the village, the Bunn-Tillapaugh Feed Mill Museum will be open Sundays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on July 15, Aug. 12, and Sept. 9. Musical groups will be performing at the mill on those dates. The events are free to the public.

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