The Second Half: The amazing Friends of Beckman Mill

By Kathleen D. Tresemer

“The gods help them that help themselves.”—Aesop

Here’s a Second Half story that impressed me, surprised me, taught me something new—then made me sad.

“You need to talk to the folks at Beckman Mill,” my Second Half friend Pat insisted. “You won’t believe what they’ve accomplished!” I totally trust Pat’s insights, and when she tells me someone is amazing… well, I listen!

Sheri Disrud, a delightful gal, met me at Beckman Mill Park on County H Road in Rock County, a few minutes east of Beloit, Wis., and Rockton, Ill., just over the Illinois/Wisconsin stateline. Sheri is one of the amazing folks Pat spoke about, and she gave me a tour of the park.

Here’s the gist of it: 20 years ago, a bunch of folks in their Second Half founded a nonprofit organization called Friends of Beckman Mill (FBM), affiliated with the Wisconsin Historical Society. The mill and surrounding property had been sold to Rock County as a park by the Beckman family in the late ’70s. Remember the late ’70s and early ’80s? What with unemployment and the recession, funds just weren’t available to restore the property. It was so dilapidated that the state advised everyone to “Forget it!”

Look at the timeline:

In 1977, Beckman Mill was placed on National Register of Historic Places and a year later, the mill and property were sold to Rock County. Nothing much happened until 1990, when the Friends of Beckman Mill, Inc. (FBM) was formed and committed to try fixing the place up. Only a year later in 1991, Beckman Mill was put on Wisconsin’s “10 Most Endangered Historic Properties” list. GAD!

By 1997, the volunteers of FBM had won the American Association for Local History Award and, in 1998, tours of the restored Beckman Mill began. Going from a state’s “most endangered historic property” to a fully-restored, operational mill and 50-acre park—in only seven years!—is nothing short of miraculous, especially since it was done strictly by volunteer workers.

Since forming, the group has restored several additional buildings, the dam and the mill pond. But restoring the dam had another problem. In 2001, the Department of Natural Resources declared two species of fish to be endangered, fish that would be negatively impacted by this dam:

“The concern was that once the dam was in place, certain protected species of fish could become isolated either in the pond or in the stream below the dam. To comply, a special circular slowly-flowing route was designed by Friends of Beckman Mill Coordinator Bob Fosler and was approved by the Department of Natural Resources, the U. S. Corps of Engineers and Rock County.”

I have to say, this thing is awesome… talk about American ingenuity! The fish ladder is a curved 140-foot-long series of seven pools and riffles—a pool is a deeper area where water collects, and a riffle is shallow with a gravel bed. The pools act as miniature holding ponds, while riffles slow the flow of water to allow the small endangered fish to navigate.

The grist mill is now operational, power supplied by its original 1860s water-driven Leffel turbine. If needed, the mill can be operated by its vintage two-cylinder gasoline engine.

“It is so lovely that many people hold their weddings here,” Sheri told me. “Intimate ceremonies are often held on the beautiful covered bridge, and some enjoy horse-drawn carriage rides.”

This rustic eco-friendly setting would appeal to any green-spirited couple willing to embrace Mother Nature. The park has a good-sized picnic shelter, and the Visitor’s Center has real bathrooms, a plus for those of us who like shade and running water.

“So,” you are wondering, “what is the issue that mars this paradise?”

The original Friends are beginning to slow down, as many of them were already retired when FBM was formed. The actual number of active volunteers has diminished to about a dozen, decreasing annually.

Sheri told me, “Since the park is open for tours only on Saturdays and Sundays from 1-3 p.m., May through October, it is a very easy schedule, and helpers get to choose the most convenient three to six hours to work each month.”

“Even a snowbird could manage that,” I thought.

Other volunteer opportunities include manning the Visitor Center Gift Shop and working outdoors in the Heritage Garden or Oak Savannah. And every event requires donated baked goods for desserts, or cooking and serving food to visitors. This year’s events include Progress Days and Pig Roast in May, Square Dance in June, Ice Cream Social in July, Dog Days of Summer and Corn Roast in August, Heritage Days in September, and Early Pioneer Encampment in October.

Seems like there is a volunteer opportunity for every ability and interest area in this group.

“We don’t have the manpower to recruit volunteers,” Sheri confessed, “and we could also use a few people dedicated to publicity for our special events and basic programs.” So there you have it—all that work resulting in a thing of beauty, and now almost no one to maintain it.

Calling all stateline folks of every age! Just check out Beckman Mill Park and see if it touches your heart. I know I’m signing up, and I hope some of you will, too.

Learn even more at the Beckman Mill website:

In her second half of life, Kathleen D. Tresemer is both a journalist and an award-winning fiction writer. She lives with her husband on a small ranch in rural Shirland, Ill. Kathleen can be contacted by e-mail at

From the Sept. 1-7, 2010 issue

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