More than a Mill
The restoration of the old mill in Freedom is as much about the restoration of a community as of a building.
Tony Grassi, the project’s champion, clearly cares deeply about local history and treating an old building with the respect it deserves, but in restoring this 1834 structure—which first ground grain and then turned wood—Tony’s eye was as much on the future as the past. He envisioned a repurposed building that could serve the people of Freedom for years to come. Through a combination of pluck and smarts, he’s making that happen.
Last Sunday, I attended the world premier of "Reviving the Freedom Mill", a film by David Conover which played to a packed house at the Camden International Film Festival. The film chronicles Tony’s restoration efforts. Tony first saw the old mill during a stroll with his family in 2006, soon after his son and daughter-in-law, Prentice Grassi and Polly Shyka, bought a nearby farm property. Tony was captivated by the haunting structure — vacant since 1967 — located at the source of Sandy Stream. He was not the first. For years, I’ve heard local people talk about what could and should be done to that mill. But Tony had the guts to act on it.
Tony’s vision was to restore the building in a way that respects history, while keeping it functional. One of his goals was to use the mill to generate hydropower. An ardent environmentalist, Tony had supported the removal of dams on the Penobscot River, where hydropower upset migratory fish and hurt the environment; but the idea of generating power on Sandy Stream was different. Here was a micro-project —generating power for about 10 homes — that could go forward without environmental harm.
Tony’s other goal was to use the mill building in some way that would support the local community, and ideally, in some manner that would support local agriculture. With Polly and Prentice farming nearby, Tony was fully aware of the agricultural revival occurring in this region. He wondered how a restored building might help further farming’s growth. He reached out to me in 2009. We discussed a variety of possible uses, including a bakery and a cold-storage facility that could take advantage of on-site power generation. Tony’s purpose and passion impressed me, and I promised to help him find a tenant if and when he purchased and renovated the mill. (In the end, he did not need my help.)
Tony obtained an option on the property in 2010. He then conducted a feasibility study, which gave him hope that maybe, just maybe, this could all work out. He assembled a team of talented professionals, including experts in timber frame restoration. Jay Fischer of Cold Mountain Builders would serve as general contractor. In 2012, Tony bought the mill and jumped into the project, unsure what lay ahead.
In the film, there is a wonderful scene where Tony and Jay are viewing the structure before any work has been done. They climb underneath and inspect the chaotic assortment of timbers supporting the floor above; you see the loose rock that was once a solid foundation. It is a scary site. Later in the film, Jay admits that he had real doubts.
But the project went forward.
I witnessed much of the progress as it occurred, because I pass close to the mill as I travel from my home in Unity to my office in Belfast. I marveled at the gaping hole created when much of the rock foundation was removed, at the obvious sag in the floor's timbers when the siding was stripped away, and at the clearly sloping angle of the sidewalls. And then I marveled at how artfully the mason rebuilt the foundation with the same rock, and how the timber framers made the old structure straight and true once again. I watched as the small additions were added again, and as new windows and siding were installed. More than once, I snuck in to see how the interior was coming along. The colors, the materials, the design, the workmanship — everything was just right.
The completed building is indeed a marvel and well worth a trip.
But the final product is far more than an impressive and beautiful building. Tony has infused new life into this community by how the building in being used.
He’s renting the upper floor to his daughter, Laurie Redmond, to operate a new school. Laurie is running programs three days a week catered to homeschooled children. Students will be outdoors half the day, engaged in various learning experiences, including time on Polly and Prentice’s farm. But that’s not the only connection to farming. Many of the families who have children at the Mill School are themselves homesteaders or farmers, as homeschooling often resonates with young couples who are committed to working the land. In this way, this school provides a direct service to local farm families.
Meanwhile, Tony is making a lot of Waldo County diners happy by renting the lower floor to Erin French, who ran the Lost Kitchen in Belfast until last spring. Erin grew up in Freedom and earned her stripes at her family’s restaurant on Knox Ridge. She has since blossomed into an exceptional chef and a leader in Maine’s farm-to-table movement. She creates extraordinary meals that are straightforward and fresh, just like the local farms that grow her ingredients.
A third tenant, the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets, is renting a small office in the mill. This organization, which is a force behind Maine’s growth in farmers markets, is capably led by Colleen Hanlon-Smith, who recently moved to Freedom.
It is an impressive collection: a community school with strong connections to the land and to local farms; a restaurant that celebrates and showcases local farm products; and one of the key organizations leading Maine’s agricultural renaissance. It is hard to imagine how Tony could have found better tenants.
The film makes the point that the mill was once a centerpiece of this rural community and that it could be again. I think that has already happened. Even before the tenants moved in, the simple fact that this building was being brought back to life had made a real impact on Freedom.
After the film screening, there was a panel of speakers which included Aaron Sturgis, the master timber framer. His comments have stayed with me. He complimented Tony for taking the risk and hoped that others would follow. There are so many old buildings across Maine worthy of this kind of attention. But then he added that the people who erected those buildings generations ago took great risks themselves. His point was that taking risks has always been part of building community, and perhaps was once more common than today. Tony’s efforts are praiseworthy in part because, sadly, so many of today’s building and business decisions are made without much regard for the long term, the big picture, or the broader community. It does not need to be that way.
Tony Grassi took on this project because he felt it was the right thing to do and because he hoped it would inspire others. Let us hope that many more local people across Maine and beyond will take the bold steps that are needed to help restore our rural communities.
John Piotti of Unity is executive director of Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.