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The Benson Grist Mill is a rugged monument to a dynamic pioneer past

By Ray Boren

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 17 2012 5:33 p.m. MDT

More than 160 years old, Tooele County?s historic Benson Grist Mill remains a stately landmark just south of I-80 in Stansbury Park, on S.R. 138.

Ray Boren

STANSBURY PARK, Tooele County — The exchange was like a conversation straight out of a familiar car commercial on TV:

"What's that?" a tiny girl asked upon stepping inside a shadowy wooden structure at the Benson Grist Mill Historic Site in Stansbury Park, where supervisor and guide Suzy Wall was offering a tour. The girl pointed to timeworn hardware hanging on an inside wall.

"These are tools," the child learned. The equipment, inside the "Bolinder Blacksmith Shop," is part of an artifact collection from a horse-powered era, long ago. But she wanted to know more.

"What's this?" and "What's that?" she asked a few more times in her inquisitive little-girl voice. A young woman approached along an outdoor path, pushing a stroller.

Curiosity has no age limit, and for children and former children interested in Utah's agricultural and mechanical past — 150 or so years ago, when this territory was the settlers' prospective "State of Deseret" — pioneer Ezra T. Benson's grist mill site is just the ticket.

That ticket is free, to boot, notes Wall.

The mill, 25 miles west of Salt Lake City, rises picturesquely off S.R. 138, the highway to Grantsville, about a third of a mile west of that route's intersection with S.R. 36, the main highway between I-80 and the city of Tooele. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972.

The site, complete with covered picnic tables, has become a virtual village as well as a roadside park. It hosts a replica miller's house, historic cabins, a granary, a large barn and all manner of other buildings, plus several wagons. Most were rescued and moved here from throughout Tooele County, which owns and operates the location.

As a result, the mill is a great setting for family outings and reunions, weddings and other functions. These range from heritage-related events to holiday celebrations, such as a pumpkin walk in October and an old-fashioned Christmas. The park is basically open to the public April 30-Oct. 31 each year, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, Monday through Saturday.

The star attraction is, of course, the impressive wood and stone mill. It is a five-story 19th-century "skyscraper," if one counts the dank, spider-webby lower depths, where a burbling millrace, fed by ponds that are now part of residential Stansbury Park, turned a great waterwheel that powered hefty millstones, grinders and grain elevators.

It was built in the early 1850s, only a few years after Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, on the other side of the Oquirrh Mountains. Early owners included Brigham Young, John Rowberry, Benjamin Crosland and Ezra T. Benson. Actual construction of this technological wonder was by the extended Lee clan, according to a display inside the mill itself, featuring their photographs.

The immediate vicinity, including today's Stansbury Park and nearby Lakepoint, just south of the Great Salt Lake along Interstate 80, was known then as "E.T. City," after Benson, Wall adds. Also a leader in settlement of the Cache Valley, Benson was the great-grandfather of a subsequent president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was his namesake: Ezra Taft Benson.

Other photographs inside the mill dramatically illustrate the mill's decayed state about 130 years on. In the pictures, the once-stately rural tower looks forlorn and gap-toothed, wooden planks missing from its sides and roof. But in the early 1980s, local citizens, led by Jack Smith, united to rescue it, Wall says.

The Benson Grist Mill is now a vivid reminder of what we sometimes forget: how ingenious and determinedly self-sufficient Utah's pioneer settlers were. That forgetfulness isn't new.

About 80 years after the early pioneer era, Henry Smith wrote about the settlers' foresight, labor and millworks in the Feb. 4, 1933, edition of the Deseret News.

"Two of the earliest necessities of the pioneers were lumber with which to build their homes and create shelter for the winter, which was fast approaching, and flour for food," he observed in an overview of the territory's earliest mill ventures.

"These mills were many and as varied within themselves as were the industries of the pioneers," Smith wrote. "They included grist or flour mills, lumber or saw mills, paper mills, and even a sugar mill."

Add another 80 years to the publication of Smith's essay, and the restored Benson Mill stands today as a rugged monument to the pioneers' industry. As many a "Mill Creek," side canyon and historic marker will testify, such structures once were everywhere. But this is one of the last, and most historic, of its kind.

Its innards are a maze of siphons, separators, grinders and once-mobile cups on vertical leather and canvas straps in tube-like "elevators." There are hoppers and bran dusters, pulleys and turbines, packers and purifiers, augers and sifters.

For more than a century, area farmers would bring wagonloads of harvested wheat, and sometimes barley or oats, to the Benson mill, says Kathy Johnson, a long-time guide and historian. For processing it, the miller's fee was one-eighth of the wheat, she says.

He and his young apprentices would mill the grain up to 21 times for the desired end product, from gritty bran (for livestock, not human, consumption in those days) to powdery white flour.

"Most of the equipment in here is to clean it or filter it," methodically removing weeds, husks and whatnot, Johnson says.

The harvest-time routine of hauling grain to the mill continued deep into the 20th century. The stories of many older Tooele County residents are collected in a booklet titled "Memories of the Mill."

LaRue Willis Whitehouse, for instance, recalled trips from Grantsville with her father, Harry Willis, her brother Gordon and sister Neva as "something I always looked forward to." Her dad would load up enough 100-pound sacks of wheat to grind a year's supply of flour. The family made a day of it, the children playing, waiting for the grinding and bagging to be completed.

"Mother would pack our lunch," she remembered. "We would sit beside a large stream of water coming from the mill pond and eat our lunch before returning home."

Around the mill, a community of old buildings has been gathered from around Tooele County. These range from an outhouse (a two-holer!) to the sawn-log Boyer milk depot and an antique "sheep camp" trailer. Various cabins and structures shelter such activities as rug making, complete with a working loom; leather tanning, and boot-making. There's even a second small demonstration grist mill, built on site as the "Twin Springs Mill."

Adding to and refurbishing the collection is an ongoing objective. "We try to do something every year," Wall says.

As part of that effort, members of the Benson Mill maintenance and restoration crew have become expert in resurrecting dilapidated wagons. Two sleek examples of their work sit among the site's out-buildings: a handsome green farm wagon and a buckboard with a high seat – a horse-drawn transport familiar from many a Western movie.

In a shop northwest of the mill, maintenance supervisor Scott Degelbeck, Mike Anderson and Leonard Garrard, along with Degelbeck's daughter Kelli, a volunteer, work their magic. The buildings and grounds are a result of their attention to, and fondness for, the handiwork of days of yore.

"We do anything, from roofs and buildings to wagons," Degelbeck says. A few of their number were even dispatched to Idaho to "go to school," to learn the wheelwright's craft — making and repairing wagon wheels. Upon their return, they passed along their new knowledge.

"When we started, we didn't know how anything worked," Anderson says. They've learned about the working parts of various wagon types, absorbed the technical names — and add to their understanding of the nomenclature with every project.

Among their current productions is a lacquered wooden bucket, to be presented to the Tooele County Commission. They are also working on wagons for the nearby Donner-Reed Museum.

Anderson is busy applying paint and lettering to a sideboard that reads, "Twenty Wells Livery" — Twenty Wells being a pioneer-era name for the Grantsville area along the trail to California.

At the center of their work area is a doctor's buggy, still early in its transformation. The wagon's one-person seat is off getting new leather upholstery, and much more work needs to be done, such as deciding if it's going to get a little fringe on top, the men say.

The carriage doesn't have much storage space, just a box to hold a physician's bag. The wagon obviously is built to be light, for "speed."

After all, Anderson notes, "He was the first responder" of his day.

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