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Joshua Thomas
These stairs from the ground floor of the former mill are equipped with a baffle, a piece of wood installed to hide the passageway to the layer beneath it.

Joshua Thomas
This hole would provide access to the underground chamber where slaves would hide prior to their transportation to the next location along the Mohawk River and Erie Canal.

Joshua Thomas
This still-functioning turbine system was installed in 1898 at the removal of the three-story water wheel.

Joshua Thomas
Along this wall originally existed the three-story water wheel that would allow the stone grist mill to remain operational through the winter.


A single stop on a grand journey: History comes to haunting life in 19th century mill

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 - Updated: 9:50 AM


C-S-E Editor

ST. JOHNSVILLE -- The current Inn by the Mill, a converted stone grist mill originally constructed in 1830 over the course of five years, which Innkeepers Ronald and Judith Hezel purchased in 1988, transforming the then-dilapidated space into a seasonal, summer home with a four-bedroom inn located just across the street, is still equipped with underground tunnels and hidden spaces that were utilized in housing slaves making their way to Canada along the Underground Railroad.

History comes to haunting life the second you walk through the former mill's front door. The ground-floor, which, at this point, is a well-appointed, uniquely decorated space with a robot and electronic gadgets Hezel created, along with a vine-laden indoor water wheel that houses a group of currently-hibernating fish, is entrancing and welcoming, yet everywhere you look remain historical artifacts -- reminders that danger, strife, hard labor and secrets once filled the building's beautiful stone walls.

The building, which, when the Hezels purchased the property based on Judith's love of stone and Ron's Hardy Boys-influenced appreciation of secret passages in the late 1980s, was in a state of extreme disarray, with holes in the floor and 37 smashed out windows that let the outside in, and vice versa. The former mill was repaired in full by Ron, who installed the electric, heat and plumbing himself, all the while retaining original pieces of the structure, including windows in the former front office -- now a bathroom -- which are concealed behind a wooden wall.

While the ground floor of the building is extremely comfortable now, and filled with so much memorabilia that it'd be impossible to see everything in just one visit, an entrancing historical story lurks just beneath the welcoming modern veneer.

As Hezel never destroys anything, much of the building remains as it was when constructed, including a beam tagged with the builder's name, Leonard and Curran, reminding viewers of a time when the mill, equipped with slanted, stone encased windows that allowed for the longest sunlight availability possible, was a frequently dark, almost-always deadly place. As it was a flour mill, with an indoor water wheel (a relative rarity at the time that allowed the mill to access water and operate through the winter), a fine dust constantly hung in the cold, non-heated air. Any spark, from mechanical equipment, or a candle (which weren't allowed in the facility), lantern, or blown light bulb could set off a massively destructive explosion.

Two television monitors in the rear of the former mill show the basement area where slaves used to spend time waiting to be transferred to the next location by A.E. Seaman's great grandson, the miller who assisted escaping slaves. In front of the indoor water wheel is an antique trap door which Hezel installed that, when raised, reveals a staircase to a lower level. Looking down into the hole, you can't see below the staircase, as it's blocked with a baffle -- a concealing measure for the safety of those once hidden below.

Hezel detailed the process by which those traveling the Underground Railroad arrived at the mill, explaining that millers became friendly with other millers along the Mohawk River, which, then provided the only clear pathway to the west and Canada. "You knew who you could and couldn't trust, so they would know who was cooperating in the transfer of the slaves," Hezel said.

There'd be a knock on the door and "it was a friend, with a friend," ready to be concealed until it was time to move to the next transfer location.

A layer below the steps, beneath a wooden floor and a space still containing the original turbines installed in 1898 (which Hezel noted that you can still purchase parts for), upon the removal of the three-story indoor water wheel, is a dank, pete-moss covered ledge (the moss planted to provide relative comfort) where, in the darkness, slaves would wait in fear, water rising to the edge and then disappearing at night once the water was let out through a stone-arch-covered channel traveling 2,000 feet downstream to another mill that no longer exists.

During the day, those hiding below the wooden floor were less vulnerable, as along the length of the facility existed the giant, spoked water wheel. While the wheel was running, "you were feeling safer -- as much as you could feel safe," said Hezel, as you'd be killed trying to access the area behind it while it was operational.

At night, those hiding in the mossy enclave would suddenly become much more vulnerable, although if sudden escape was necessary, the 2,000 foot pipeline dug to transfer water -- which Hezel himself has traversed to the near end, when his flashlight stopped working -- was the only option for a quick getaway.

The slaves, upon arrival, were unsure of how long they'd remain, as their stay could be just one day or last up to a full week --whenever the miller was able to hide them under his tarp for transport to the Mohawk River and Erie Canal, where he'd pick up grain and drop them off.

Hezel has installed an observation window in the floor above the stone ledge, providing the area much easier access.

In the mid-1990's, the grist mill complex was named to the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Today, the Hezels continued to imbue the space with a warm modern spirit, all the while retaining and promoting the continuing history of the structure, a fine example of the water powered, labor-fueled, uncertainty-filled pre-industrial era.

Joshua Thomas - At the bottom of this ladder is the raised ledge where slaves used to wait in hiding until transport to the next location along the Underground Railroad was provided.

Joshua Thomas - This decorative indoor water wheel was installed by the Hezels.

Joshua Thomas - This decorative indoor water wheel was installed by the Hezels.

Joshua Thomas - This staircase from the first floor of the old stone grist mill is equipped with a baffle, which concealed the entrance to the hiding spaces located two levels below.

Joshua Thomas - A beam in the old grist mill remains tagged with the name of the builder Leonard and Curran.

Joshua Thomas - The stone grist mill was constructed to allow a bit of leeway, as the structure would shift. To allow for movement, the space between the beams would be filled with blocks of wood, which would be removed if additional space was necessary.

Joshua Thomas - An original set of gears remains on the ground floor of the former mill.

Joshua Thomas - The main floor of the former mill, where work used to take place creating flour and animal feed, is now a well appointed, comfortable space.

Joshua Thomas - The entrance to the former mill. At the left, behind the check-in desk, is a bathroom, which once was the main office. It was the only space heated in the mill by a pot belly stove.

Joshua Thomas - A radio controlled robot named Thodar, created by a young Ron Hezel, which became famous in the 1950's, even appearing on the Jack Paar show, greets guests to this day.

Joshua Thomas - The old stone grist mill was constructed over a five year period beginning in 1830. It's now a summer home for Ron and Judith Hezel, who purchased the building in 1988.


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