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Ohio couple is rebuilding 190-year-old Kistler Mill
Ohio Correspondent

SHREVE, Ohio — For 190 years, the Kister Mill has been environmentally friendly, using waterpower to turn raw products into saleable commodities.

Built in 1816 by a Gen. McMillen, the mill was primarily used to grind corn into corn meal, according to Rich Boyer, current owner of the mill. Boyer and his wife, Cyndi, bought the mill eight years ago after a long list of owners.

The short version of how Boyers acquired the mill is that they saw it; they liked it; they bought it. The longer version is that Boyer and his father, Arden, purchased and restored an old sawmill that had been abandoned for years. Rich also spent some time in Europe where he saw a number of mills and gained a new appreciation for them. After he returned from Europe, he took a trip to South Carolina to visit his sister and saw a water-powered gristmill.

That peaked his interest into looking at what they had at the sawmill. He considered building a waterwheel, but when he found out that the Kister mill was available, the Boyers decided to go that route instead.

The mill has changed hands many times through the years, and it was even converted to a woolen mill at one point. John Kister purchased the mill in the 1880s and operated it as a gristmill - producing cornmeal and whole-wheat flour.

“I think the presence of the mill promoted growth in the area,” he said.

Kister’s son took over the mill in the 1930s, and he continued to operate it as a water mill, powered by the original wooden waterwheel. By this time many mills had been converted to electric power. Kister kept the mill until the late 1960s and built a new waterwheel before he sold it. That wheel lasted for 35 years before it was replaced again.

“The building itself was in good shape and the equipment was in good shape, but we knew that we were going to have to replace the lead bearings,” Boyer said. “We replaced all of the components between the mill’s water run and all of the bucket components. Three years later, we built a new water wheel.”

The wheel, built out of white oak, is 18 1/2 feet in diameter, four-feet wide and rated at 11 kilowatts, more than enough to provide power for their house. From a technical perspective, there is 4,000-pound-feet of torque rated on the main shaft, and it runs at 8 RPM through a series of gears and pulleys.

Water flows down a 1/4-mile raceway to the mill pond into a pipe with a valve that controls the water to the wheel. From there the water flows back into the creek, much as it did when the mill was new. Initially, the raceway was lined with wood so that it was easier to clean out the sediment.

Boyer estimates that about 600 man-hours went into rebuilding the wheel. Boyer, his father and friends Jeff Kinsey and Randy Odenkirk did the work.

“We knew that we were going to have to replace the wheel, we just didn’t know how we were going to do it,” he said. “It was constructed with no blue print. We had a pattern, but we had to make sense out of it. We had to reverse engineer or copy the existing wheel. This was difficult because the wheel was dilapidated.”

Fortunately, Del Donahoe, a Cleveland-area television personality had a video taken when the wheel was new, so Boyer could see where the problem was and fix it. The wheel has eight shakes and eight run sections. As they put the pieces in place, they rotated the wheel to keep it balanced.

While the actual construction was a challenge, Boyer said the hardest part was getting the confidence to do something that everyone said was a lost art.

“Once I realized that I had no choice, I decided to go for it,” he said. “This was a wonderful challenge, I have made things that might have cost more, but I am proud of this. When it was finished, it ran as true in tolerance as any component for an automobile. That is phenomenal for wood.”

Boyer admits that he chose a career as a toolmaker so he could do woodworking.

“Now I have the woodshop of my dreams,” he said. “I have been able to utilize the skills that I have learned as a toolmaker to take care of the mill.”

Boyer’s woodshop includes a joiner, planer, table saw, spindle shaper, lathe and band saw as well as metal-working equipment. In its heyday, the sawmill could produce as much as 100,000 board feet of lumber per year, enough to do the floors of 100 30-foot-by-30-foot houses.

The mill also has a cider press that could process as much as 200 gallons of cider per hour. The gristmill’s original equipment had been sold, but when Boyer acquired the mill, he built two roller mills that were capable of producing 500 pounds of product per hour.

Boyer said that Kister built much of the three-leveled building with more than 5,000 square feet of work space, and he also built equipment and sent it to other mills. He built waterwheels for many mills around Ohio.

“John was a true millwright,” Boyer said. “He built every component needed to keep the mill operating. He even made furniture, baseball bats and barrels for the distillery in the area.

In addition to the work on the wheel, the Boyers converted the Blacksmith shop across the road from the mill into their residence. “The biggest key to preserving the property is to be on sight to take care of the mill,” he said. “You have to run things periodically to keep the wheel balanced. If it dries out, the wheel gets unbalanced.”

Boyer said his goal is to keep the mill alive and utilize it for his own hobby, but at the same time, he is trying to make the mill available to the public to keep the heritage of Ohio’s water mills alive. Boyer is also a member of SPOOM, Society for the Preservation of Old Mills.

“At one time, there were over 100,000 water mills in the U.S.” he said. “Today, there are just a handful of authentic mills in existence today. You would be hard pressed to find one as diversified as this one - most of the mills just had one function; this one has four. I think John Kister would be pleased that we have kept the mill as authentic as possible. I think he would be pleased with our stewardship.”

This farm news was published in the Oct. 4, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.