Essays, Hydro power, Industry, The Old Days

My Roots

In the marshy oak and locust woods of North Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard sits the old Doctor Fisher Mill. It’s a large, stark, shake-shingled edifice, hidden from the road by a grove of trees and a house. Its stone-and-earth dam holds back Crocker Pond, the middle child of a family of ponds running along North Road in the Mill Brook watershed that winds its way down into Old Mill Pond. First opening its sluice gate in or around 1858—some reports give it as 1860—this gristmill was built by the Vineyard physician and patrician Daniel Fisher. It supplied high-quality flour to his Edgartown bakery that produced hardtack biscuits for the Vineyard’s venerable whaling ships. It was state of the art for its barely-antebellum day; rather than a waterwheel, the mill was driven by a high speed, vertical-shaft turbine, and “contain(ed) every appliance known in those days for perfect milling,” according to the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society. Circa 1880, with the death of Dr. Fisher, the mill switched to corn grinding, and it’s unclear exactly when it fell into disuse. It’s reported that it ran as recently as 1964.

Around 1984, John G. Early Contractor and Builder moved into the Fisher Mill. By then it was owned by music producer Ted Cammann who rented it to the company. It became their workshop and base of operations, full of band saws and jointers, old blueprints and sawdusted photos from the good old days. My father was one of the founders of this ragtag group of master framers and woodsmiths. I was mere months old when they took up residence in the old mill. The Shop, as they called it, was Heaven for my young self.

I relished every chance I got to go there. All of the mill’s original machinery remained in place, frozen in the rusty amber of decades of disuse. I was in awe of it. The massive millstones, the long-dormant turbine, driveshafts, and bevel gears, the leather belts, pulleys, arbors, and flywheels that once sang the clattery chorus of Industrial Age prosperity sat as they did when the mill foreman closed the valve for the last time.

On the eastern side of the mill where the tailrace ran, you could walk down into the boggy moss and peer underneath the building into the frozen machinery. Pop would bring me down there and explain how it all would have worked back in the Doctor’s day. Sometimes I would wander downstream towards the next pond, Priester’s, but the undergrowth quickly became too thick to traverse. No matter, because in the front yard lay the greatest climbing tree I have yet experienced. Inside the mill, the treacherous staircase leading from the shop floor to the office ran up through the dark and ominous milling room, where sat the great granite grindstones and the main driveshaft from the turbine to the gears and pulleys that distributed power throughout the building. I did harbor a slight fear that the mill would one day spring back to life on its own amid a catastrophic deluge of noise, rushing water and whirling gears, but another part of me longed to witness the great orchestra on song. For better or worse, that day never came.

The Early boys moved out of the Fisher Mill in the early to mid ’90s. Their new home was a more spacious, but extremely generic, aluminum building on the aptly named Breakdown Lane in Vineyard Haven. The lot was home to Packy Parris’s old garage where he kept an orchard of engineless Plymouths, picked-over Datsuns, and the odd golf cart. The new shop also laid in the shadow of the old Darrieus wind turbine, that great white eggbeater that provided power for the Tisbury Water District for about twenty minutes back in 1981, then sat motionless until it was unceremoniously sold for scrap twenty years later. My friends and I traversed the landfill it stood on and threw tennis balls at it, sending great reverberating waves up and down the mummified machine’s hollow aluminum blades.

The new shop was no Doctor Fisher Mill, though. That creaky, spooky building nestled in the trees and brambled wetlands was where machinery and I came to our eternal understanding. The mill was my first love, my second home—and it was all mine. See, my older sister was already comfortably into her teens by the time the company had moved in there, so school duties and her A-list social life precluded her spending much time there. My younger sister wasn’t born until 1989, and by the time she was old enough to appreciate it, the mill was but a memory.

They say you can never go home, but once or twice in the years since John Early moved out, I snuck onto the mill property and revisited it. I peeked at the guts of the turbomachinery and gazed at the whooshing waterfall, feeling five all over again. The building still stands, and Pop recently mentioned that there was talk of Early and Co. renovating it. Now I’m thinking, perhaps in this age of renewable this, sustainable that, and locally-sourced the other, Dr. Fisher’s mill could be pressed back into service with a little love and a healthy dose of axle grease. I can see it now: artisanal flour. Maybe hardtack is the new pita bread. Wouldn’t that be something? It would certainly mesh well with the trendy Americana/vintage/what’s-old-is-new-again ethos. But perhaps it’s better to let it rest, let it age gracefully without undue stress, let it remain a quiet monument to its era with so much left to the imagination. Let it stay mine.