After restoration, New London mill turning again

The water wheel turns for the first time in decades during a ribbon-cutting ceremony after renovations to the Old Town Mill in New London on Saturday.
The water wheel turns for the first time in decades during a ribbon-cutting ceremony after renovations to the Old Town Mill in New London on Saturday. Tim Martin/The Day

New London - A little piece of modern technology helped bring to life one of the city's oldest landmarks Saturday, as 12th generation John Winthrop Jr. descendent Mary Winthrop Muscarella pushed the electronic button that opened a valve and sent water cascading downwheel at the Old Town Mill for the first time in decades.

Cheers erupted from about 50 people on hand to witness the grand reopening of the 1650 mill after a four-phase, 15-year restoration effort by the city's Office of Development and Planning and the volunteer group Old Town Mill Preservationists.

The project, estimated to cost about $250,000, isn't quite done yet, said Barbara Dixon, city neighborhood coordinator.

The group next will get expert advice from Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts on how to get the millworks - grinding stones and gears used to grind grain into flour - working again.

"It will just be for demonstrations," she said.

No matter. Participants Saturday could purchase a sample of that result courtesy of the 1696 Kenyon's Grist Mill in West Kingston, R.I. Kenyon's Mill allowed its New London counterpart to place its label on bags of stone-ground johnnycake white corn meal. They sold for $8 as a fundraiser for the mill Saturday.

The grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony turned into a mini festival on the shaded grounds of the mill, with the loud, busy Interstate 95 Gold Star Bridge traffic directly above.

The band Brothers St. Pierre, featuring brothers Robin and Randy St. Pierre, played for the crowd before the official ceremony.

Dixon cheerfully invited a group of young children into the small, musty room in the mill to watch a 2½-minute video created as part of the restoration project.

The narrator described the working parts and the history of the Old Town Mill.

The mill dates to 1650, but the original building was burned to the ground by the British during the 1781 raid conducted by Norwich native and famous turncoat Benedict Arnold.

It was rebuilt and has been renovated numerous times over the centuries.

The boys' attention quickly turned elsewhere.

"Are you the mayor?" one of them excitedly asked of Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, who had just entered the room.

They crowded around him, asking questions and shaking hands before all - including the mayor - returned their attention to the video screen.

"This is what it's all about," Dixon said. "The goal is to preserve this site as a tourist attraction and to teach kids the history of it. They think bread comes in a package from the grocery store."

Outside, the formal ceremony had to await the arrival of a bunch of "mice" marching to the mill grounds from nearby Riverside Park to launch the ceremony.

As the mill held its first open house, Riverside Park hosted the first of what will be six Art Jam events. Children made paper mouse masks with Flock Theatre for the Pied Piper Parade to the mill opening.

There, they danced in a circle around a rainbow-colored round banner, mimicking the mill's water wheel and enjoyed the cake and lemonade provided by that ceremony.

Finizio called the mill "one of the hidden gems" of New London that should be promoted as a tourist attraction. He said the Yale Design Group told New London officials that more people walk the Freedom Trail in Boston each year than visit Disneyworld. New London could attract historical heritage tourists to sites like the Old Town Mill, he said.

New Terrace Avenue resident Jamie Ford needed only a yellow flier in the mail to draw her to Riverside Park for Art Jam and the mill grand opening.

Ford and her husband James moved to New London just a month ago with their seven children, ranging in age from 14 to the month-old girl in Jamie Ford's arms.

Ford said the park is just a block from her new home, and she is thrilled to learn that regular activities, including evening basketball games, will be held there. Art Jam programs will run weekly on Saturdays through Aug. 18 and are free to participants.

The Old Town Mill will hold four additional open houses through the summer and fall and will host a harvest festival on Oct. 27.

The mill is open for tours by appointment. Call the city Office of Development and Planning at (860) 437-6394.

c.bessette@theday.com

Help the Old Town Mill

Volunteers and donations are being sought to continue the renovation of the Old Town Mill.

Donation checks should be made out to the City of New London, with "Old Town Mill" in the notation, and sent to the Office of Development and Planning, 111 Union St., New London, CT 06320.

For more information, call (860) 437-6394.

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