By Eric Francis
QUECHEE — Two antique woolen mills, beloved by locals and tourists alike, at either end of the Ottauquechee River, have both been painstakingly cleaned up and are now getting set to reopen their doors to the public again some time next week.
The Simon Pearce mill in Quechee and the Bridgewater Mill Mall both had their lower levels inundated by the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene but each escaped without any structural undermining, a remarkable feat considering their ages.
At Simon Pearce, where the mill building (which was originally six full stories above ground) dates to 1825, the building sits astride a small hydropower dam and the lower level containing the large humming turbine went completely under as did the work floor above it which contained the bustling workshop with it’s white hot glass blowing furnaces.
“Water does not go well with the furnaces,” noted Ross Evans, Simon Pearce’s Director of Marketing, who said this week that despite the water having crested just above the wooden floors at the first floor ground level of the mill, the staff hopes to have the glassware showroom reopened in the coming days.
“It’s been a pretty incredible effort from our dedicated staff over there. They’ve been really working for the last two-and-a-half weeks on cleanup,” Evans said. “There’s more rebuilding to be done but we are working as fast as we can to get ready to invite people back into Simon Pearce.”
“So many of the people who work there have been key to the cleanup and they’ve come out in droves to get the place up and running, as have so many people in the community, it’s been amazing,” Evans said, adding, “Simon has been there every day. When he and his family moved here from Ireland that was their first home, they lived there in the upstairs on the second level, so he definitely treats as his home and he’s been over there with his son Andrew working hard at cleaning up.”
“The water barely made it to the main level. The retail space, the dining room, and the main kitchen are all on the first floor so those areas made out just fine,” Evans said, explaining that “Reopening the restaurant is going to depend on the power supply. If we can open at the same time we certainly will, but chances are it will be slightly delayed.”
All of the glassblowers who normally work at the Quechee mill have instead essentially been doing a second-shift down at Simon Pearce’s large glassblowing workshop in the Windsor industrial park each afternoon since the flood occurred. Although that has allowed the flow of glassware to the company’s customers around the world to continue uninterrupted, Evans said the group is well aware that just having the setup in Quechee where people can drop in and watch the glass being made is a huge tourist draw for the area, especially during foliage season.
“Getting glassblowing back up and running in Quechee is one of the priorities because people know this location specifically for that,” Evans said, but he cautioned, “As you can imagine, our requirements for what we need are pretty specific. We have engineers that are on our staff who have essentially built our furnaces for years so they have it down to a science but it still takes some time to actually get the materials here so we can actually build everything. Given that stuff is coming from all over, it’s hard to give a time for how long that is going to take.”
As for the hydro turbine in the basement, Evans said it is in the process of being cleaned but it is too early to tell what kind of shape it is in. “We’re on the power grid as a backup so it’s not a necessity to have it running but as part of our commitment to sustainability we like to have it there and when it is working it does provide the majority of the power to the building so we are working on getting that up and running as well.”
In Bridgewater, the parking lot of the Mill Mall, the earliest incarnation of which was built in the 1700s, essentially became a lake two Sundays ago.
“It went eight feet in the basement and it’s about a ten ceiling so it got all of our workshop and about one foot of the Northern Ski Works outlet on the east end,” recalled Charles Shackleton, whose Shackleton Thomas Furniture outlet takes up four stories on the western end of the old mill.
“Basically all the electrics were drowned and it left a terrible cleanup from all the mud and slime. We had flood insurance for all of our machinery and inventory but we discovered, it was probably in the fine print, that anything below grade level is not covered,” Shackleton said this week.
Despite that economic setback, Shackleton said his business has made “really good progress” toward a recovery and is planning to have the new showrooms upstairs, which did not get wet, back open to the public most likely on Tuesday.
“There has been an amazing collection of people helping us between our employees, friends, volunteers, and contractors we’ve known for years. It’s all about good relationships that have really paid off,” Shackleton said.
“It’s been a big impact but for some funny reason we feel extremely positive about getting back,” said Shackleton, who noted that the large pottery studio belonging to his wife, Miranda Thomas, which sits in a separate house right at the edge of the mill’s western parking lot, also flooded destroying the work floor and both kilns.
“I don’t know what it is. I would never have expected to have this much energy to make it go again but it’s our livelihood,” Shackleton said, adding, “It’s been inspirational too to see everyone helping. Everyday has been like a scene in a theater production: it’s the good, the bad, and the unexpected. People have been showing up at just the right moment with just the right idea.”
“We are completely cleaned out, dried out. Now it’s a question of restoring all the machines. We’ve got a whole pile of motors going to Massachusetts and hopefully they will turn those around in three or four days and in the meantime we’ve got all the wiring being redone,” he said, estimating the value of his damaged furniture-making equipment at about $200,000 for all the planers, shapers, table saws, cut off saws and the like.
“I think for $100,000 we will be able to recover and repair it and that’s the amount of the disaster recovery loan we are getting from Vermont Economic Development to help us get that back together,” Shackleton said, explaining that taking the loan in the wake of the flood is kind of a business Catch-22.
“The biggest problem is that it is all loans. There are no grants and we are crucial employers. We are crucial to the tourist business here,” he explained. “We had one employee who lost his home and another who does all the trucking for us did as well. We provide work for them and we’re the best way to get cash back into their hands. So it’s all loans right when a lot of businesses are just beginning to recover from the last three years of a poor economy. It’s a problem, but business owners are very tenacious and driven and they are not going to let their business go in a hurry and so they’ll do anything, including borrow more money to stay in business, myself included.”
“Timing is of the essence. We have a lot of work at the moment and we need to get people back to work and get the cash flow rolling again but we have a plan and we are well on plan and hopefully these things don’t happen too often,” Shackleton laughed, concluding, “I have a vision of it all being beautiful again and hopefully we will be back but we’ll be better.”
This article first appeared in the September 15th print edition of the Vermont Standard.