At 173 years old, the Bale Grist Mill seems destined for immortality, but its 36-foot water wheel is not so fortunate.
Last rebuilt in 1980, the roughly 14-ton redwood wheel is showing the effects of moisture and age, and the mill’s supporters are trying to raise as much as $250,000 to rebuild it.
Water takes an inevitable toll on mill wheels, which typically last only 12 to 14 years in a full-time working mill, said millwright Rob Grassi, who works for the Napa County Regional Parks & Open Space District.
The Bale Grist Mill’s wheel at least gets a chance to dry out during the week, but “it’s starting to get to that age,” Grassi said.
The wheel’s 32 spoke-like arms started to show wear about three years ago, and more than half of them were replaced. The rest of the arms have already been bought and just need to be installed.
Last week, Grassi was sawing boards to patch up the buckets at the outer ends of the wheel that hold water. Eventually the shrouds surrounding the buckets and the gears – as well as the buckets themselves – will have to be replaced too.
The plan is to repair as much of the wheel as possible in piecemeal fashion so that it can remain in operation on the weekends. That’s the same way a working mill would have been maintained in the pioneer days, Grassi said.
The mill will have to be taken out of operation eventually for more extensive repairs, although hopefully not for long, said Kathy Carrick, president of the nonprofit Napa Valley State Parks Association.
The California State Parks Foundation will be offering grants in 2020 that could cover some of the cost, Carrick said.
Without proper maintenance, “things start to fall apart, then they get dangerous, and then they get shut down,” Grassi said. The Bale Grist Mill isn’t anywhere near that stage yet, which is all the more reason to take care of it now, he said.
Grassi was raised on the East Coast, where old mills are much more common. He said it would be a mistake to take for granted the Bale Grist Mill, which is one of only two water-driven mills remaining west of the Mississippi River.
“There used to be mills in Yountville, in Calistoga, and up in Chiles Valley,” Grassi said. “All those are gone. This is the only one that’s survived, which makes it special. … It’s a treasure to have here, so we need to be good stewards and protect it for future generations.”
To make a tax-deductible donation, go to napavalleystateparks.org.