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Wheel project makes grist mill complete

| Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003

PERRYOPOLIS -- This year's Pioneer Days will be extra special. The Perryopolis Area Heritage Society has reached its goal of adding a wheel to Washington's Grist Mill.

The original mill was built for George Washington by Gilbert Simpson, his business partner. Washington owned 1,600 acres that eventually became Perryopolis. His grist mill was started in 1774 and completed in 1776. A native uprising slowed construction.

The wilderness mill and one at Mount Vernon were the only two Washington owned.

He never made the profits he expected from his Pennsylvania property and he wanted to sell it. Washington wrote on June 16, 1794: "From the experience of many hears, I have found distant property in land waters, if I can obtain the prices which I conceive their quality." Washington still haggled over the price of his property when he died on Dec. 14, 1799. The property was eventually deeded to the heirs of Israel Shreve, who had rented the mill from Washington in 1789.

The mill was used up until 1918. The original building collapsed during a 1936 storm.

In 1992, the mill's foundation was rebuilt, using some of the building's original stones. Prisoners from Greensburg performed the work, through the Outward Reach project.

In 1999, hundreds filled George Washington's Grist Mill Park for the dedication of the reconstructed mill.

But the mill lacked something, a mill wheel.

Until now.

Perseverance and serendipity have lead to the construction of an 18-foot wheel, also of white oak, that was dedicated Aug.10, four years and one week after the mill's dedication.

In the intervening years, the society came close to commissioning a wheel, but high cost or builders having other projects prevented its construction.

Last winter, Heritage Society member John Martinak of Perryopolis was getting gas at a Perry Township station when he spotted a truck filled with old tools and old lumber. He asked the driver, Rick Komency of Wisconsin, what he did for a living.

Komency told Martinak that he dismantled old barns and rebuilt them in new locations. "I asked if he'd ever built a mill wheel and he said that he hadn't, but was interested," Martinak says.

Komency researched antique mill wheels on the Internet and began work in February. He and two others completed the wheel the first week of July.

It can't be seen from the main entrance of the mill. The original wheel on the original mill ran on water diverted from Washington Run Creek on the far side of the mill, and that's where the new wheel sits.

"It's quite an impressive sight, coming around the corner," says Heritage Society president Dan Coldren of Perry Township.

He's right.

Eight 18-feet oak spokes attach the wheel to an antique shaft obtained from a West Virginia grist mill. Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel in Allenport cut down the shaft to fit and built two self-adjusting bearings.

The new wheel cost $18,900 and has been paid in full. State Rep. James Shaner obtained a $10,000 grant, the society held spaghetti and pancake dinners and used its savings. State Sen. Richard Kasunic has promised an additional $5,000 for the park.

The Fayette County Commissioners have provided the society $1,000 annually for the past several years.

"Individuals and government have been very generous," Coldren says.

An electric pump will recirculate the water.

At least for now.

"Our dream is to eventually reconstruct this as a working grist mill to grind grain," Coldren says.

Two millstones, said to have been taken from the building after its destruction by the 1936 storm, have been donated to the historical society.

"We'd like to put them to use someday," Coldren says.

Perseverance and serendipity may bring the new Washington's Grist Mill back to fully functional life.

At the wheel's dedication, Kasunic praised the gift of the past given by the present generation to the future. He hoped "future generations will continue to preserve and protect the treasures of this county and the whole region.

"The roots of our nation, we're standing on the roots of our nation. George Washington owned this land. Our history is so rich, and we should be proud of it, and we should be proud of what the people have accomplished here."

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