In the 210 years since it was first built, the Colvin Run Mill has outlasted the industrial revolution, a civil war, and multiple pandemics. Now, it has the capacity to keep grinding grains for at least another 15 years, thanks to a new water wheel and flume.
The Fairfax County Park Authority completed its restoration in March — 45 days ahead of schedule — but the refurbished mill saw action for the first time Saturday morning (May 2), when the new wheel took its first turns to power the mill, which ground out some corn meal and grits to be sold at the nearby general store.
The parks officials and volunteers at the ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrated the installation of the 20-foot-wide water wheel as the culmination of restoration efforts that stretch back to the 1970s, when the park authority first purchased the Colvin Run Mill with the goal of preserving it as a historic site.
“This celebration may mark the completion of this project, but we would be remiss if we did not recognize today’s reopening of the flume as yet another step and progression in historic restoration and preservation,” Tim Hackman, who represents Dranesville District on the FCPA board of directors, said. “It is our mission and our duty, but it is also our privilege.”
Approved by the FCPA board in May 2020, the project involved the demolition and replacement of the existing wooden wheel and flume, which had started to deteriorate. It was funded by $382,000 in park bonds and is expected to cut down maintenance costs by about $6,000 per year.
Even with the need to follow COVID-19 health protocols and work around ongoing construction on Route 7, project manager Heather Lynch says the project turned out to be “very straightforward,” benefitting from a winter largely free of storms and fortuitous timing with the availability of the right wood for the job.
That luck with timing has continued through the project’s completion, which comes amid an ebb in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We anticipate getting a lot more people out, because it’s a wonderful COVID-safe, family-safe activity,” Acting FCPA Executive Director Sara Baldwin said. “We take all the precautions here as well.”
The park authority is currently letting just one group into the mill at a time, and timed tickets will be sold in advance for grinding demonstrations, which take place on the first and third Sunday of every month.
However, the county is able to bring back a full slate of summer classes and programs to Colvin Run Mill and its other parks. Registration for all activities is now underway.
Gene Bacher, a Friends of Colvin Run Mill volunteer and board member, says he’s especially looking forward to the return of the site’s simple machines field trip program, which gives students the chance to learn about the engineering behind levers, pulleys, and other machines and to see a real-life example.
The program was canceled last year due to the pandemic, and school or mixed-group field trips remain suspended for now, though Colvin Run Mill is allowing some closed-group, private field trips.
“It’ll be reinstated as soon as the pandemic is done and kids get back into school, so having the mill work properly is important to that whole process of getting the kids in here to see what the simple machines are doing,” Bacher said. “…That program is one of the life bloods of the mill property.”