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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The reconstructed Heerling sawmill on the Mullet River at Wade House. © Robert Queen

October 2001

Sawing a cleaner slice of history

A river was rerouted, mussels were moved and history was made...again.

Natasha Kassulke


The reconstructed Heerling sawmill on the Mullet River at Wade House.

© Robert Queen
To see the saw

They had to move a river to do it.

But the Herrling sawmill on the grounds at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin's Wade House in Greenbush (Sheboygan County) has been reborn as one of few working water-powered sawmills of its kind in North America.

On June 16, the long-envisioned sawmill was opened in the image of a mill that occupied the spot from 1854 to 1910. The re-creation culminated years of planning by various partners and was made possible by a $1.8 million gift – the largest ever received by the State Historical Society – in 1999 from Herbert V. Kohler Jr. and the Kohler Trust for Preservation. That gift was coupled with a $400,000 federal grant.

Today, the turbine-powered sawmill draws energy from a reconstructed millpond, fed by the Mullet River. In reconstructing the mill, the Historical Society provided a case study of how modern historical enterprises can sensitively portray cultural and environmental history.

During a tour, site director Jeff Schultz was excited that the mill along with the Wade House tells the story of how a pioneer town developed. The Herrling sawmill derives its name from the second of two mills that stood near the Wade House stagecoach inn. The mill operated on a seasonal basis mainly producing sawn hardwood lumber for local markets.

During the winter of 1847-48, Charles Robinson, son-in-law of Wade House builder Sylvanus Wade, built the first of the two mills that would occupy the site beside the Mullet River. When fire destroyed the Robinson mill, it was rebuilt in 1855 and sold to German immigrant Theodor Herrling. From 1848 to 1860, Greenbush was a stop for stagecoach travelers heading west along plank roads from Sheboygan. The roads were often made of oak and the mill may have sawed such planks.

Although Herrling died in 1885, his descendants operated the mill until 1910. It subsequently fell into disrepair.

Reconstructing the mill became a dream for Marie Christine Kohler and, later, Ruth De Young Kohler, who led the effort to restore and reopen Wade House as a museum in the early 1950s. Both women died, though, before seeing their vision fulfilled.

The Department of Natural Resources' involvement at the site began in 1952 when a predecessor agency (the Wisconsin Conservation Commission) signed an agreement with the Historical Society to co-manage the Wade House property that had been obtained by the Kohler Foundation. In addition to maintenance and property management, DNR staff completed drawings in the early 1970s showing what a reconstructed dam and impoundment could look like. The State Building Commission put the project on hold until archaeological work was done.

The Kohler Trust funded the necessary archaeological investigations at the site 10 years ago to determine what kind of a mill had stood there. At that time, a cofferdam was built around the area and Schultz recalls that he was in his office when an archaeologist from Northern Michigan Technological University (who had been digging in the riverbed under the direction of the State Archaeologist's office) told him they had made a discovery.

"The template of the building was in the mud," Schultz recalls. "Huge white oak beams. The sense of discovery was like finding a dinosaur's bones."

A second excavation in 1993 revealed the 20- by 40-foot foundation.

With that archaeological work completed, plans for the sawmill project proceeded including environmental impact studies and historical research.

Stephen Galarneau, a DNR water resources management specialist in Milwaukee, has been involved in the project for seven years and keeps track of the water quality on the Mullet – a warmwater sport fish stream home to bluegill and largemouth bass.

"There has been extensive monitoring here," Galarneau notes. The Department of Natural Resources surveyed the aquatic resources and collected chemical, biological and stream flow data. The fishery was surveyed and the stream classified in the vicinity of the proposed dam. DNR staff assisted the State Historical Society in identifying wetland boundaries.

The Department of Natural Resources also consulted with project engineers to protect the area's sensitive ecosystem, which included two threatened mussel species – the slippershell mussel (Alasmidonta viridis) and the ellipse mussel (Venustaconcha ellipsiformis).

DNR staff was concerned how the proposed dam and impoundment might change the river by increasing water temperature, lowering dissolved oxygen, raising suspended solids and increasing algae. They wanted to maintain river flow and riffles to sustain fish, keep healthy populations of invertebrates and protect habitat for threatened mussels.

The Historical Society committed to do as much as possible to mitigate these concerns and hired a consultant to work with DNR staff to address them. Project engineers were told that they would need to move the Mullet River to ensure that water and its aquatic life would continue to flow unimpeded around the millpond, dam and spillway.

"The DNR wouldn't allow us to dam up the Mullet River the way it had been dammed when the first mills were built," Schultz notes. "If we had, we would have wound up with a pond that would have eutrophied and potentially killed fish and two threatened mussel species. We had to create a new river channel."

In 1996, ownership of the Wade House property transferred to the Historical Society from the Department of Natural Resources. That same year, DNR staff proposed an alternative design for the dam and impoundment that appeared to meet the Society's historical objectives while addressing the environmental issues.

The new alternative did not involve damming the free flowing river. By rerouting the river, dam construction and sawmill reconstruction would not adversely modify habitat critical to the mussels. An environmental assessment (EA) for the project was prepared and public comments were solicited in 1998. Additional partners in the project included the Army Corps of Engineers, Sheboygan County and the U.S. Geological Survey.

DNR approved the project in 1999 and various stages were completed over the next two years. Among the components – relocating the Mullet River, forming dam plans and modeling hydraulics, providing supply line and building a weir, constructing a millpond, re-regulating water flow, excavating a turbine pool and forming a complex monitoring plan.

The threatened mussels were relocated two years before construction began. Lisie Kitchel, a DNR endangered resources specialist, was instrumental in safely moving the mussels. They were collected from downstream of the dam site and in the channel that was being relocated from the pond. They were then moved to three sites upstream.

"We didn't want to put all of our eggs into one basket," Kitchel notes.

Mussels – common and threatened – were collected under low water conditions by visual inspection. After those mussels were removed, the river substrate was carefully disturbed four to six inches deep using garden rakes and by carefully teasing mussels out by hand.

"The process is mostly sifting through handful by handful," Kitchel notes. "It is slow going, but necessary since we are looking for all mussels, including juvenile mussels, which are quite small."

The mussels will be monitored every year in October to ensure that they are reproducing and thriving at their new sites. In addition, DNR staff is monitoring for the presence of the Johnny Darter, a small fish that is the mussels' host species. In part of the freshwater mussels' life cycle they encyst on this fish's gills. These two threatened mussel species have a unique relationship with this darter.

"With no darters, the mussels eventually die out," Kitchel notes. "So conditions need to be appropriate for both darters and mussels."

Silt fences and turbidity barriers were installed to hold soft sediment in place along the riverbank and to allow plants to reestablish themselves. After a channel was constructed to contain the rerouted river, water was diverted to redirect the river's flow. A millpond was then constructed. With the pond in place, work crews lined the bottom with clay.

Dam construction to control water released from the pond began in the fall of 2000. The dam was built from cement strong enough to withstand a 500-year flood. When the dam was completed, water was piped from the Mullet to fill the pond. Water drawn from the pond powers a turbine to run the saw blade.

Modern construction methods and materials were used to meet current construction standards. But in keeping with the mill's history, crews covered modern components, such as the steel-and-concrete spillway, with period stonework.

Near the mill, the river travels underground for a bit. Below the dam is a small pool area to keep the water that is discharged from the mill from going directly into the river and shocking the river system. By allowing the water from the mill to slowly mix with river water, the pool prevents a large flush of warmer water that contains less dissolved oxygen, which could kill fish.

"The DNR did not compromise its standards and fought to see that the river environment will stay intact," Schultz notes. "In the end, they were able to accomplish their goals and we were able to accomplish our historical goals. It's a different area today. When the original mill was built maybe they didn't even know that there were mussels here. Our understanding of nature and its needs has grown since then."

About two years ago, an ad in a Society for the Preservation of Old Mills' publication generated a response for someone to do the mill replication work. Jim Kricker of Rondout Woodworking in Saugerties, N.Y. was hired.

Brett Edgerle of the Kohler Company became the project manager in 1999. Jeff Dedering, an engineer from Kohler, was the primary site engineer. Permits were needed from various government entities and Edgerle says the most technologically challenging part of the project was forming environmental models so the finished product would be designed to meet DNR's expectations.

The site has a five-year monitoring plan. The U.S. Geological Survey collects data (temperature, flow and dissolved oxygen) every day above and below the dam and keeps an operating log.

"This is the most difficult, complex and political project I've been involved in," Edgerle notes. "But at the end of the day, we joined arms and agreed that we had a pretty good situation."

Another challenge was finding a muley saw like that used in the original mill that works vertically instead of cutting in a circular motion. They found one in Ohio.

Mark Knipping, curator of the Wade House site, explains that historical photos, letters, newspaper clippings and other research provided a record of the mill's historic appearance. Research also uncovered that a turbine rather than a waterwheel powered the saw.

"Turbines were more efficient than the open style waterwheel," Knipping notes.

The technology that powered the original sawmill became antiquated by the late-nineteenth century, yet project engineers learned at least one manufacturer, an Ohio firm named The James Leffel & Co., still builds old style hydropower turbines. In April 2001, a Leffel turbine was hoisted into the sawmill's penstock.

Framing the mill structure with massive white oak timbers neared completion in May 2001. A 3,000-pound white oak beam supports the saw. The lumber came from Maryland.

Beams comprising the mill's skeletal structure were fastened with wooden pegs called trunnels and with mortise-and-tenon joints. No nails were used. The only metal supports were iron rods in the concrete foundation and oak timbers that support the structure to ensure the mill will withstand the ravages of time and the elements.

Kerry Perkins, a tool-and-die maker, was hired to run the saw.

"There is nothing like the smell of sawdust in the morning," Perkins beams as the saw slices up and down and sawdust forms on the floor. The floor shakes a little and the sound is loud but not deafening.

Rick Peterson cuts timber at the saw. © Robert Queen.
Rick Peterson cuts timber at the saw.

© Robert Queen.

One of his concerns is that the saw blade remains rust-free. Moisture quickly rusts a blade if it sits idle. When the original mill was working it's likely the blade rarely got a rest.

"You don't wear out, you rust out in this business," Perkins notes.

Crews worked on landscaping and fine-tuning the mill mechanics right up to the mill's grand opening. Schultz admits they hadn't even cut their first log until 36 minutes before the opening ceremony.

"I've had practical experience with the phrase, 'cutting it close,'" he says.

Wood sawed for demonstration is white ash from the Wade site. The saw can cut logs up to 4 feet across and 22 feet long. Logs roll into the mill on a rail cart-like system. The saw may operate once an hour for two minutes – dependent on water level and flow.

Rick Peterson, a logyard interpreter, recounts the story of the mill's rebirth for visitors and helps Perkins monitor for safety.

"People don't realize the power of water and what it can do," Peterson notes.

The project represents one of the most authentic re-creations of a historic water-powered sawmill in the nation.

"This is how much of the state got built," Schultz notes. "This is a great achievement, but what makes it more so to me, is all we had to go through to do it."

Natasha Kassulke is associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources.

To see the saw
The Wade House and Herrling sawmill are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily May 1 through Oct. 31. Admission is $10 adults; $5 children (5-12); $9 senior citizens (65 and over); $27 family (two adults and two or more dependent children 5-17). A season ticket costs $25 (adult) and $12.50 (children). Call (920) 526-3271. The Wade House is west of Plymouth off Highway 23 in Greenbush, 20 miles from Sheboygan and Fond du Lac; 60 miles from Milwaukee; 95 miles from Madison; and 150 miles from Chicago.