Second in a series
By M.E. Jones
PEPPERELL — When the Sturbridge Village Museum put out a call for a 19th-century mill complex to add to its expanding model town in the early 1970s, town historian Lyman Robbins submitted three from the area, including the Blake Brothers Mill in East Pepperell.
Although the Blake Brothers Mill — one of 1,400 entrants — wasn’t chosen, the entry Robbins submitted for it caught the eye of the museum’s acquisition agent, who was interested in the Blake Turbine Water Wheel, a machine invented by the mill owners that apparently had brought them a degree of fame in the early 1900s that extended far beyond the “thriving manufacturing concern” in Pepperell.
In a March 1979 article in the Times-Free Press, Robbins said the museum agent had been trying to track down the origin of two Blake turbine water wheels installed in a sawmill and an iron foundry in his hometown of Lancaster, N.H.
In 1871, the Blake brothers’ turbine water wheel was billed as a “new and improved water wheel” sold to satisfied customers “near and far,” according to a May 1970 article Robbins wrote for the Times-Free Press.
Citing their 25 years as “practical hydraulic engineers, millwrights and machinists,” the Blake brothers attested in an advertising booklet that “no other Water Wheel in use” at that time performed as “admirably” as theirs. They said it was simple, durable, stable and steady and “ran in back water without losing power,” all of which were “essential points of true economy in the use of water as a motive power.”
Testimonials at the time confirmed these claims, Robbins said. In the process, the Blake brothers’ invention made Pepperell famous 100 years ago.
Blake Brothers Mill
The Blake Brothers Mill was at 52 Hollis St., now a bucolic site with the Nissitissit River running through it and a picturesque but problematic dam that once powered the mill and its predecessors.
With the mill complex long gone, an antique house and barn on the property remained there until recently. Over a five-month period, the structures were painstakingly taken down and removed by The Restored Homestead at the behest of a client who plans to have the historically correct builders reconstruct them on his estate.
The way they were
The late Shirley artist Sandy Farnsworth captured a bygone era in which all of the structures stood in her charming period painting of the mill complex, barn and houses. The painting once hung in the house. Formerly the mill owner’s family residence, the antique cape is shown at the far right, with a large barn next to it. Further to the left is the mill complex. In the center is the millpond, rimmed with a post-and-rail fence. Outside the fence, a couple of one-horse carriages trot round a path leading to and from the mill and out to Hollis Street.
The mill and its owner were long gone by the time the nostalgic scene was rendered, and it’s unclear what Farnsworth used as a model. Perhaps a vintage photographic negative on glass found in a box in the attic. The picture looks strikingly similar.
Whatever her source material was, the Farnsworth original may have been a “commission” for Millie Turner, who was one of her art students and who lived in the house from the late 1940s, when she and her husband purchased the old mill property, until her death several years ago. The painting hung in the house while Mrs. Turner lived there.
When the Turners purchased the property in the late 1940s, it consisted of 17 acres, the house, a big barn, mill buildings and the dam that once powered them. Mr. Turner subsequently tore down the mill complex and sometime in the early to mid 1950s may have repaired the dam with help from local volunteers.
The Red Mill
But there was once another building associated with the dam on the other side of Hollis Street. In a February, 1971 edition of the Times-Free Press, Robbins recounted the history of the “Red Mill.”
One of Pepperell’s oldest landmarks, the Red Mill stood at the corner of Nashua Road and Hollis Street and was razed in the mid-1900s to make way for a new stretch of road and a “modern” bridge.” Part brick and part frame construction, it was built around 1720, shortly after the “Parish” settlement, Robbins said.
The Red Mill housed “numerous business ventures” over the years and even had a “witch story” attached to it, according to the article. Charred by fires and plagued by failed enterprises, the original gristmill was its only success story.
Joseph and E. Appleton Lawrence, sons of Dr. Eben Lawrence, conducted business there for many years, Robbins said, and they made good use of their “mill privileges” to the Nissitissit River. But it was unknown, he said, when those rights of use were granted. Most likely, that would be the date the dam was built.
Most of the mill buildings the Turners would later tear down date before the Blake Brothers owned the establishment, including a sawmill and machine shop.
In 1835, Dr. Lawrence sold the “privilege” to Deacon Lemuel Blake, who, with Luther Ballard, established a machine shop on the river above the Red Mill. When Ballard sold out to his partner in 1840 and moved west, the owner’s eldest son, Deacon Gilman Blake, took over the saw and gristmill, both of which were housed in the Red Mill building.
In those days, Hollis Street wended its way toward New Hampshire via a different configuration than today. The road’s location was altered when it was rebuilt by the state.
But although the course of the Nissitissit River was not altered, the dam restricts its flow: a single, manmade stop along its 10.5-mile journey from New Hampshire.
In 1884, after Deacon Blake died, the name of the firm was changed to “Blake Brothers.” Besides the machine shop, they manufactured a “belt fastener” that they invented and patented. That, and the Blake Turbine Water Wheel. Also patented, the water wheel eventually became the property of Edgar Blake.
In another installment in his “A History of Pepperell” series, written in January, 1971, Robbins said that Charles M. Smith bought both Blake’s Machine Shop and the Red Mill in 1922, aiming to secure “complete control” of the waterpower for the machine shop. From that time until Smith died in 1942, the Red Mill changed hands several times.
As for the “dwelling” next to the machine shop, and all of the property on that side of Hollis Street, Robbins said Mildred Turner owned it then.
In a period photo showing Blake’s Machine Shop that appeared with the article, Robbins cited two dwellings adjacent to the machine shop. One was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Farmer, the other by Gardiner Willey, he said.
Today, most of the acreage the mill complex once occupied is owned by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. It was an intervention, really, according to F&W Land Agent Anne Gagnon, a combined effort that also included a local group called the Nissitissit River Land Trust and The Restored Homestead, a private firm that specializes in mission-specific tear-downs of historic structures with the intent of rebuilding them elsewhere.
Next: The Restored Homestead project, start to almost finished.