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The historic Excelsior Mill: a labor of love is a family legacy

Narrowsburg Logging Days offers rare tour and more

By SANDY LONG

NARROWSBURG, NY — For much of his life, Brendan Weiden has been piecing together a mystery, gathering clues as a child at his father, Peter’s, knee, and continuing to seek understanding of the operation of a historic mill that has been owned by his family for four generations.

For the first time, tours of the recently renovated mill will be offered on Sunday, September 6, during the Narrowsburg Logging Days on September 5 and 6.

Built in 1876-77, the mill was one of approximately six that operated along the East Branch of the Ten Mile River and were important sources of settlement in the area.

Brendan, a third-generation engineer, became its owner in 2001 when he purchased it from his father and two uncles, who inherited it from their parents. In 1904, Brendan’s great-grandfather, Herman, and his wife, Josephine, bought the mill and property. The couple were German immigrants and upholsterers.

“A century ago, there was no foam rubber in furniture; they padded it with wood shavings,” said Brendan. Herman and his son Mathias ran the mill starting in 1904, but by the time Brendan’s father was born in 1928, it was no longer an operating business entity. Today, the mill is believed to be one-of-a-kind in the state of New York.

“By the early ‘20s, mills that made excelsior powered by water had become obsolete,” said Brendan. “My family’s been keeping this as a historic relic.”

Brendan described the engineering marvel that he and the next generation of Weidens are working to preserve. “Eight individual machines are tied onto a header beam and anchored on a sill beam. The overhead truss supports not only the machines, but also the roof. This was probably a state-of-the art industrial plant specifically made to accommodate all this,” he said.

Water would enter through a large pipe and turn the turbine blades; a set of gears ran an axle system. “My father used to say that when he, as a young boy, would open the giant water valve that fed into the turbine, the wheels would start to spin and the whole building would shake, rattle and roll,” said Brendan. “Bearings weren’t oil-lubricated, they were packed tightly with lead. When you started the mill, it caused great friction when they began moving. It would melt the lead, which was a fantastic lubricant. Every bearing was floating on a pool of molten lead. Then everything would fly,” he explained.

Peter passed away three years ago, carrying some of the mill’s operational secrets with him. “I look at things and try to figure out what they mean and how they used it, said Brendan. “The mill was his baby. He said this was the emotional heart of the Weiden presence in this valley.

“My father treated the mill like sacred ground,” said Brendan. “It was preserved because he knew it was what brought his grandparents here and I think his father had a great affinity for it, too. In some ways, we’re carrying on that family mission. Luckily, my wife Kathleen loves all of this. I wouldn’t be able to do this if my wife didn’t love it, too.”

The project has called for a large investment of time and money. “It’s a continuing battle against mother nature,” said Brendan. “Putting the roof on was a major job. The north side of the roof was almost completely gone when we took ownership.”

The couple drew upon the skills of local craftsmen like Mark Kneppen of Toad Hollow Barn Restoration, Callicoon, for the extensive post-and-beam work and Rick Maloney of Narrowsburg Electric for extensive electrical work. “I can’t say enough about these craftsmen up here, everybody who’s helped resuscitate the mill,” said Brendan.

Other craftsmen who helped restore the buildings are Kevin Freda of Kevin Freda Construction, Blair Cooper of Straitline Roofing, Forest Darden of Darden Stoneworks, Greg Stevenson Plumbing, Floyd Campfield Bluestone and Jerry Jones Painting.

Tickets for the bus tour can be purchased at Narrowsburg Roaster’s Coffee Shop on Main Street. The tour will also feature the Tusten Settlement Church, where participants will be treated to the lively tunes of an all-female barbershop quartet and picnic provided by Jill’s Kitchen of Narrowsburg. A chorus of local women will sing songs composed by Caroline Steinberg inspired by headstones in the church cemetery. The tour bus will include a scenic drive past the nearby Stone Arch Bridge. Tickets are $20 each.

Narrowsburg Logging Days

The Sullivan County Bicentennial sealed weekend-long event was organized by the Narrowsburg Chamber of Commerce, the Tusten Historical Society and Fort Delaware Museum in celebration of the many ways in which logging contributed to the history of the region. According to chamber president Jane Luchsinger, “Rafting and logging sustained the area for over 160 years, from before the Revolutionary War to 1921 when the last raft went down the Delaware River.”

A collection of professionally mounted historic photos depicting aspects of the industry will be on display both days at the Tusten Town Hall on Bridge Street in Narrowsburg. Luchsinger described life in the region when logging and rafting ruled. “Everything started when the ice broke in the spring. They farmed all summer, logged all winter, rafted in spring then walked back up from Philadelphia.”

Although those days are over—when chainsaws didn’t exist, but rather one or two-man saws, when horses dragged logs with chains to the river’s edge—the industry continues today, with transportation by land rather than water.

Events will start on Friday, September 4 with square/line dancing at Tusten Town Hall on Bridge Street at 7:30 p.m., and continue on Saturday with activities like chainsaw carving and axe throwing at Fort Delaware, presentations at the Tusten Town Hall, a take-out barbeque and a country music concert at the Tusten Theater in the evening, among other entertainment. Sunday will start off with a Lumberman’s Flapjack Breakfast at the Tusten Town Hall ($6 adults, $3 children, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.), the ongoing photo display and special offers like free samples of Campfire coffee at Narrowsburg Roasters, logging pencils shaped like twigs at Jeff Bank and Wondrous Woodworks at the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance gift shop.

Visit narrowsburg.org for a full schedule of events.

TRR photo by Sandy Long
The historic Excelsior Mill on Swamp Pond Road in Tusten Township will be featured on tours during the Narrowsburg Logging Days this weekend. The mill produced excelsior, a shaved wood product made mostly from poplar, a white soft wood. The pipes at left penetrated the concrete dam which was built by Mathias Weiden in the 1920s at Weiden Lake (formerly Swamp Pond). Water passing through one of the pipes would spin a turbine, which powered the mill. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Eight machines fitted with knife blades were connected to the mill’s main support beams. The building’s structure was constructed around these machines. Logs were brought to the mill, cut to length, loaded into a trolley cart and fed into the machines. Each machine’s drive shaft was powered from the main axle by a belt. It rode up and down, shaving off slices of excelsior, which would accumulate on the back side. When 200 pounds of shavings had been piled onto the large floor scale, the material was loaded into the baler where it was compressed and tied into a bale in preparation for shipping. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
The Lachenmeyer-Braffit House, comprised of two wings, sits across the road and has been recently restored by the Weiden family. On the basis of a coin found embedded in the foundation, the Braffit wing is believed to have been built in the 1840s. Industrialist Augustus Lachenmeyer bought the property in the 1860s and built the newer, more decorative wing. One unusual feature is a bathtub located in the tower topped by the copper roof. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Bales of excelsior still rest in the mill. Blades could be adjusted on the machines to create different grades of shavings. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
The baler was filled with 200 pounds of excelsior. Its bottom would rise, compressing the bale, which was then tied and exited through the side door. Bales of excelsior appear at left. (Click for larger version)