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History

Napa Valley's 175-year old Bale Grist Mill is 'jewel in the crown'

In the fall of 2015, Park Ranger Sandy Jones was hesitant about allowing a wedding to take place at the old Bale Grist Mill, in Bothe-Napa State Park. In preparation, the large water wheel was chained so it wouldn’t turn, preventing the temptation for children to climb on it.

All was going well until the overhead flume, which carries water to the wheel, broke with a tremendous crash.

Little did Jones know that the unfortunate event would lead to a long, skillful, and loving restoration of the 175-year-old Napa Valley landmark. And, reflecting the community hub it originally served as for early settlers, the mill on July 10 was once again a gathering place for the community to celebrate the mill’s anniversary and the restoration of its water wheel.  

To put things in perspective, the Upvalley mill was completed before California was granted statehood, and is one of only two that are operational in the U.S.

“This is the jewel in the crown of Napa Valley,” said District Director Tracy Krumpen, standing in for Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry and Rep. Mike Thompson. Krumpen also said the mill will be honored with a place in the Congressional Record.

Until about 1905, the mill was heavily utilized by members of the community who came to grind their grain into flour and share the news of the day. It wasn’t restored until 1988, and another renovation took place in 2000.

Today, the 36-foot wooden wheel steadily creaks with its surefooted rotation, just as it did when it was completed in 1846. The restoration required specialized experience and customized redwood pieces to be built to fit. Millwright Rob Grassi and staff replaced the custom parts of the working mill piece by piece while the mill remained in working order — rather than removing and replacing the waterwheel in its entirety and closing it during restoration.

The nearly 2,000-acre park is owned by the state but managed by the Napa County Regional Park & Open Space District. Having a local agency care for the park is an advantage, said Barry Christian, board president. “When people talk about community effort, this is what they are talking about.”

Grassi was honored as Preservationist of the Year for his painstaking work on the project, and the many other craftsmen, volunteers, and donors behind the restoration were also feted July 10 with a celebration honoring the mill’s place in history.

“It was a labor of love. Grassi was passionate about the restoration and his skills are invaluable,” said Michael Pratt, Napa County Landmarks board member. Pratt listed the many other projects Grassi and his colleagues have undertaken, including sharpening the millstone with the original tools designed for that job; restoring historic cabins within the park; building yurts; along with more mundane tasks like emptying trash and cleaning bathrooms.

The cost of the water wheel's restoration was about $140,000, with the majority of the funding being provided by the Napa Valley State Parks Association. Individual donors included Dario Sattui, and the late Holbrook Mitchell, who was so taken with the mill that he had a miniature version of it created on his property in Yountville.

“This is what Napa Valley does best,” said Sen. Bill Dodd. “Creating public and private partnerships to create something beyond belief."

Fond tribute was also paid to the late Park Ranger Sandy Jones, whose passion for the park “was contagious.”

“She was a huge force. Period,” said Tyler Beach, Park Steward Assistant, who worked closely with Jones.

Located just off Highway 29 in Calistoga, the Bale Grist Mill had been a relative secret in the valley, but that largely changed with Ranger Jones.

Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning, also former Director of the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce, recalled Jones barging into his office a number of years ago wanting to know why Calistoga wasn’t sending more visitors to the mill. From that day forward, “We sent more visitors to the mill,” he said.

You can reach Cynthia Sweeney at 942-4035 or csweeney@weeklycalistogan.com.

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The Weekly Calistogan Editor

Cynthia Sweeney has been editor of The Weekly Calistogan since July, 2018. Previously, she was a reporter for the St. Helena Star, and North Bay Business Journal. She also spent a significant amount of time freelancing in Hawaii.

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