The last time anyone paid much attention to the Rock Mill in Fairfield County was nearly 13 years ago when the property was donated to the Fairfield County Historical Parks Commission in a state of disrepair.
Built in 1824 on the cliffs of the Upper Falls along the Hocking River, the mill churned out products until 1905, but then it stood empty for 80 years.
In October 2016, the mill will be fully functional again after ten long years of scraping together funds and resources, fending off critics who wanted to bulldoze it into the gorge and sustaining hope through a few dedicated historians who had a passion to save it.
The man leading the effort is David Fey, Director of the Fairfield County Historical Parks Commission, who was steadfast on preserving this important piece of Ohio history.
“I know I can do this,” Fey said he kept telling himself as he recounts the enormous undertaking of the project. “We stopped and started restoration over time depending on how much money we had. People began to fall in love with it and made donations.”
The $1 million restoration process that spanned a decade involved a bit more than just hauling in equipment and making repairs. The effort was much more calculated. Fey did not just want to make a working grist mill again; he wanted to restore it to its original state. That meant using original hand tools like chisels to rebuild the structure and finding antique equipment in order to maintain the mill’s authenticity.
The power floor of the mill sits on a cutout section of the cliff. Fey points out to me the timber framing of the structure as we compare the original sections to the renovated sections. I am struck by the attention to detail. The nicks in both the original and restored large wooden beams are virtually identical.
The prehistoric gorge below the mill provides a breathtaking ambiance when you look out any one of the 36 windows. I walk with Fey down into the gorge to witness one of the first turns of the wooden wheel at the base of the 60-foot high facade.
This piece of history that could have easily been replaced with a plaque, gets new life in a way that is so meaningful for the people who stop here for photographs or a picnic lunch.
“Experiencing the mill first-hand brings in an important reality and appreciation as it impacts all of the senses,” said Fey.
For those who are looking for a great Ohio road trip, a visit to Rock Mill, the largest mill in Ohio, is one of the most magnificent treasures I have seen on back roads in the state.