Builder returns to Hillsboro to service milling marvel

Staff reporter

Paul Friesen came all the way from Reedley, Calif., to Hillsboro this past week to repair the Friesen Mill.

Why would anyone do that?

Well, Paul Friesen is no ordinary man and the Friesen Mill is no ordinary mill.

Both were united because of the late Tabor College professor Richard Wall.

Professor Wall was commissioned to design and construct a replica of the 1876 flour mill.

It all started when Jacob Friesen, a Russian Mennonite immigrant, built a windmill in the Mennonite settlement village of Gnadenau. Gnadenau was several miles south of present-day Hillsboro.

The mill was built to grind grain into flour.

Gnadenau was no more and the mill was all but gone when Jacob Friesen's family provided funding for a new mill.

That's when Dr. Wall became involved.

It began in 1994.

Wall had assistance from Vernon Wiebe and the two traveled to Long Island, N.Y., to see Dutch mills still in operation.

Using a 1904 photograph of the original Friesen mill and measuring the height of a six-foot operator, Wall designed the impressive architectural marvel.

"I would drive by and I saw Richard working on this project," Paul Friesen said, who is no relation to the Jacob Friesen family. "I wanted to help."

And help he did.

The group of men worked at Wall's shop on Washington Street.

"People would come by and wonder what we were doing," Friesen said.

Friesen's part of the construction was the machinery — setting the grinding stones and fitting the sails.

This past week, Friesen tested the equipment, checked the stones, and repaired the sails.

"Everything is running correctly because Richard did such a great job," Friesen said.

Friesen graduated from Tabor College in 1959 with an English degree. He went on to earn his master's and doctorate degrees and taught English on the college level, mostly literature.

He said he always had a woodworking shop which he considered to be his "second career." When Friesen volunteered to help with the mill, the outside structure had been built.

Wall, a biology professor, and Friesen were colleagues and friends. It was one friend helping another friend.

The structure is made from white oak which is resistant to rotting and splitting. A few boards remained from the original 1876 mill which are included in the interior of the structure.

The one-piece oaks stretch from the floor of the mill to the roof. A narrow staircase takes the operator to the massive slotted wheel that turns the gears for turning grain into flour.

Perfectly grooved notches on the large wooden wheel meet perfectly with the teeth on a second wheel which turns a 30-inch round, seven-inch thick, 450-pound stone that pulverizes wheat into flour.

And the wheels won't turn without wind power.

When the brakes of the massive windmill are released and if there is a strong enough wind, the mill paddles turn which turns the wheels and stones and grinds the grain.

Flour mills in the 1800s and 1900s were at the mercy of the wind. When the wind blew, the mills would operate, sometimes 24 hours a day. When there was no wind, workers stock-piled grain for the days when wind power was available.

"This flour makes the best bread," Friesen said, because it is ground so fine. Unfortunately, the mill cannot produce flour for consumption or sale, merely a demonstration of human ingenuity.

Friesen and his family moved to California in 2001. Dr. Wall died several years ago, taking with him his vast knowledge of the operation of the mill.

Friesen teaches part-time at Reedley College and heard that there was a need for someone to come to Hillsboro to service and operate the mill.

"I decided I needed to do this," Friesen said.

"When Richard died, we lost a lot of 'inside' information," Stan Harder, director of the Hillsboro museums, said.

Harder became the director of the mill and the other local museums four years ago and didn't have the opportunity to learn the workings of the mill until now.

"This is a fantastic opportunity to have Paul here," Harder said. "We're already seeing improvements since Paul started working on it Thursday.

"The maintenance list goes beyond basic maintenance," Harder said. "This is a very important visit and we're very grateful."

I'm very proud of this project," Friesen said.