The Return of Steam to Hanford Mills Museum

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The delivery of Hanford Mills' steam boiler, c. October 1895. Hanford Mills Museum photo.
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Mill employees working on the mill's steam boiler stack, c. 1896. Hanford Mills Museum photo.
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P.O. Box 99, East Meredith, New York 13757

The Hanford Mills Museum is an original, operational, water powered sawmill, gristmill and woodworking shop. The business began life in 1846 as a small mill built ten miles southeast of Oneonta, New York, in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains. It remained a seasonal up-and-down sawmill for more than ten years. No one thought it could be more than that, until a carpenter’s apprentice named David Josiah (or D. J.) Hanford purchased it in 1860. Once the Civil War ended, D. J. Hanford began to add to his mill, installing a gristmill and planer in 1869, and barrel heading machinery in 1876. Then in about 1880, he replaced his up-and-down saw with a circular saw. When D. J. Hanford did this, he realized he needed more power. There wasn’t enough water to run a waterwheel year round, especially since he had many machines to operate.

In 1881, D.J. Hanford purchased his first steam engine. Very little is known about this engine. D. J.’s grandson Ralph remembered in an interview that it was a vertical engine. It sat in the basement of the mill on a 43×56-inch slab (suggesting its horsepower might have been between 15 and 20). We know it was used to run the mill’s sawmill, as D. J. Hanford’s Aunt Elizabeth wrote in her diary: ‘Charlie helping Josiah saw wood with the Enjine.’ May 2, 1882. He probably also used the engine to run other machinery. By 1892, D. J. ordered another vertical steam engine, a 7 horsepower Nagle 6×6. This joined the unknown early steam engine in the mill’s basement. Records suggest that Hanford had a vertical portable boiler for these engines, but very little is known and no evidence remains.

D. J. Hanford, now joined by his sons Horace and Will, continued to enlarge the business. In 1895, he realized he needed something more than the small steam engines in his basement. His next purchase was a horizontal Oneida engine, probably with a horsepower of about 40. The Hanfords also ordered an HRT (horizontal return) 50-horsepower boiler from the Erie City Iron Works in Erie, Pennsylvania. D. J.’s son Horace took a photograph of the boiler’s arrival. A local newspaper reported: ‘The Hanford Bros, last Saturday placed in position the large steam boiler to be used in their mills. Taken altogether it is without doubt the finest equipped mill in the county.’ October 11, 1895. The two smaller, vertical engines remained in the basement of the mill. The Nagle was used until at least 1922 when the Hanfords were still buying replacement parts for it. Although inspectors originally rated the boiler for 100 pounds pressure, in 1926 they dropped its rating to 86 pounds due to its condition. By the late 1930s, the mill’s steam years were over. The Hanfords switched to electric motors and gasoline engines, and continued to use their waterwheel until the 1950s. Eventually the steam engines were removed, but we do not know what happened to any of them.

Today, Hanford Mills Museum wishes to bring steam back to the mill. We demonstrate waterpower with our restored 1926 Fitz waterwheel, but now we hope to add a steam engine. The museum began by contacting steam engine and boiler experts. The museum plans to have a boiler built to modern specifications, but with the original Erie boiler appearance. We are lucky to have Horace Hanford’s photograph of the boiler and the original blueprint plans for laying the boiler’s brickwork. With the photograph, a boiler builder will be able to recreate the look of the Hanford boiler, even down to faux rivets to match the original. The museum has also found a mason who will use the original blueprints to recreate the masonry.

While we were looking for a boiler builder and mason, the museum had to clean out the old boiler room. In the years since the boiler’s removal (probably for World War II scrap iron), a floor was built over the ruins of the boiler’s brickwork and the room was used for storage.

Museum staff, working much like archaeologists, sifted each shovel of dirt and rubble. Why did we go to so much trouble? With this careful excavation, we learned where they stored boiler fuel, the exact pattern of how the brick was laid and even what the workers had for lunch. They also found the boiler’s ash rake, a 1908 quarter and a 1927 chauffeur’s license. It was well worth the extra work.

View of the Hanfords’ mill from across the pond, taken in 1895. James S. Heatherington stands on the left with George Gunn, the mill’s sawyer, on the right. Hanford Mills Museum photo.

The museum staff also cleaned out a well in the boiler room floor. The well had been filled since it was last used, but once we removed nine feet of dirt and broken brick, the water flowed again. This was the source for the boiler’s water. Staff found two pipe screens abandoned at the bottom. Not only did they have their big boiler in operation, but the Hanfords must have retained the smaller boiler for their vertical engines in the basement. Two holes for different pipe sizes are also visible in the stone well cover.

Hanford Mills Museum needs only one more thing, and we are hoping that the readers of this magazine can help us. We are looking for one to three engines to run on our new steam power. First, we are looking for a 40-horsepower Oneida horizontal steam engine, vintage 1895. We know the Hanfords’ original engine sat on a stone pier that measures 92×25 inches with a second stone pier (66×14 inches) for a shaft support. According to a railroad receipt, the Oneida engine weighed two tons. We would also like to replace the original two vertical engines. We are looking for a 7 HP vertical Nagle 6×6 engine, vintage 1892, and an approximately 20 HP vertical engine (manufacturer unknown but likely an engine from New York or Pennsylvania), vintage 1880. If you know of a steam engine that might fit our needs, please contact Hanford Mills Museum at P.O. Box 99, East Meredith, New York 13757, 1-800-295-4992 or e-mail us at The Museum is open from May 1 to October 31, so please stop by and see how our work is progressing.

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