Originally created 05/17/98

It's back to the old grind for historic mill



LITTLETON, N.H. -- The Littleton Grist Mill has returned to its roots on its 200th birthday, grinding grains into flour. The next step: celebrating New Hampshire's industrial history as a tourist attraction.

Owners say the mill, on the north bank of the Ammonoosuc River, is the oldest commercial building in the state north of Concord. In addition to producing stone-ground flour again, the mill looks as it did originally from the outside.

But the restoration hardly has begun. Investors hope to restore the inside of the mill and three adjacent historic industrial structures to include a museum, restaurants, office space and retail stores. The complex would have a bridge to an island in the river and riverside walkways.

"I see it as a miniature Sturbridge Village," says Jerry Eames, 54, a North Country businessman whose New Hampshire roots reach into the 17th century. Sturbridge Village is a replica of a colonial New England community in Sturbridge, Mass.

The sparkplug behind the restoration is erstwhile mechanical engineering professor and business executive Ron Murro. Eames' brother James is the third major partner.

"We're doing this on our own without a penny of public money," Murro stresses.

When the mill was built in 1798, the 3 1/2-story post-and-beam structure "represented state-of-the-art industrial engineering and architecture," Murro says.

Solomon Mann built the water-powered mill as a grist and saw mill. As other buildings were added, the complex eventually became the village of Littleton and the center of its economy and industry.

For a time it also served as a carding mill that prepared wool for spinning into cloth.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, the water wheel was replaced by water turbines and a more efficient belt-and-pulley system of transferring power to the mill's machines.

But by the 1930s, the mill's gears stopped, the machinery fell into disrepair and the 30-foot-by-53-foot building became a warehouse.

Around 1992, the Eames brothers bought the riverfront property and buildings.

"We knew it had historical significance," Jerry Eames said, "but we weren't sure what to do with it."

A year ago, the brothers and Murro decided to restore the complex, starting with the original mill, and formed Renaissance Mills.

Murro, 58, a native of Tarrytown, N.Y., who holds a doctorate in engineering science from Columbia University, says the project satisfies his passions for historical engineering and architecture, and business.

After teaching mechanical engineering at the University of Lowell, Murro went into metal manufacturing and operated the Nashua Industrial Machine Corp.

In 1989 he and his wife, Tammy, retired to Lyman. Murro soon "got sick of being retired," however, and began looking at the dilapidated buildings along the river with an engineer's eye.

Twenty percent of the eastern end of the mill building was set aside as a modern mill to make flour from organically grown grains. The investors found an electrically operated stone grist mill in North Carolina dating from 1890 and began selling flour in December.

Littleton Grist Mill Inc. sells six kinds of flour, packaged in 1 1/2-pound and 2 1/2-pound plastic-lined muslin bags to preserve freshness.

The muslin bags exemplify the accuracy and authenticity that Murro seeks to bring to the restoration of the building, whether sandblasting machinery to its original appearance or using old-fashioned cut nails where required.

The interior of the mill not being used for flour-making is expected to be restored by fall. Murro plans to build a water wheel and use it to power the ancient machines and make flour again.

Because of modern codes, that flour will not be sold as food. Instead, that part of the mill will be a living museum and a store for the flour being produced in the other end of the building.

"This has the best of what I like," Murro says, "history and enterprise."