MOUNT VERNON -- A couple years ago, I was with a group of friends visiting Gallia County, Ohio.
We met and instantly became old friends with T. J. Owens, a friendly giant of a man who works at the University of Rio Grande. While he was taking us around, showing us the sights of this lovely rural county on the Ohio River, he swung by Rio Grande (pronounced RYE-oh-grand here) and pointed out the original Bob Evans farm on Ohio Route 588, the old stagecoach road that ran between Chillicothe and Gallipolis.
Bob Evans and his wife Jewell started selling the sausage that they made on their farm in the 1940s. By 1962, they had so many visitors to the farm, they started a restaurant to feed them their sausage.
Today, the Bob Evans chain of restaurants stretches all over the country. We ate at the original restaurant (much updated today, of course), then T. J. showed us some of the sights near the farm, including the pond where T. J. himself spotted a Bigfoot when he was a teenager, something I'll have to write about in some other forum one of these days.
But one of the things that T. J. pointed out was a quaint windmill on the other side of the road from the farm, a structure that he often takes photos of when he pauses to snap pictures on his way to and from work.
I was very surprised when T. J. identified the windmill as originally coming from Mount Vernon, Ohio.
“That's up around where you live, ain't it?” he asked.
At the time we had this conversation, I wasn't yet doing the History Knox column, but now that I am, it seems long overdue to talk about the windmill and share a couple of T. J.'s beautiful pictures of it.
The roots of the story go way back in county history, for the Beam family was present by the mid-1800s, when Frank Letts Beam was born in Knox County. According to the Mound View Cemetery Walking Tour guide, Beam got his start working as a hardware clerk in Mount Vernon, then started his own business selling wallpaper and crockery.
Interested in new technology, he invested in the fledgling telephone industry and became a big mover and shaker in town, serving as president of the chamber of commerce and as a member of the school board.
Beam's son James, born in 1908, displayed an aptitude for mechanical things and set up a business first as a builder and later as a carpenter with his own cabinet shop.
He was, if anything, even more involved in community life than his father, serving as president of the YMCA, lieutenant governor of Kiwanis International, 32nd degree Mason, vice president of First Federal Savings and Loan, president of the Mount Vernon Telephone Company, vice president of Region 4 of the Boy Scouts of America, president of the Knox County Historical Society and more.
He was well known as a collector of antique tools which he displayed at his museum, at Beam's Lake on the south side of Mount Vernon.
With all that going on, one wonders how James Beam ever found time for anything else, but he did. In 1961, he decided to build a working Dutch-style windmill out of (mostly) local materials. The ground floor of the structure, 12 feet in diameter, is made of small round boulders taken from a gravel quarry.
The upper levels were covered with white shingles and housed a grinding mechanism built from miscellaneous junkyard parts that Beam assembled. They turned French buhrstones for grinding white flint corn into cornmeal. The top of the tower is made of tin, painted olive green.
The 20-foot arms of the windmill Beam imported from the Netherlands to get the authentic style. The mill is 30 feet tall.
Beam finished the mill and operated it for a number of years, but a man that busy inevitably turned his attention to other projects. In the early 1980s, an employee of Bob Evans happened to be in Mount Vernon and was fascinated by the windmill, by then no longer in use. Seeing it as the kind of link to the past that his boss would appreciate, discussions began about transferring the mill to Rio Grande, to sit on some land that had been given to Bob Evans by the college.
James Beam donated the mill, and Bob Evans covered the costs of moving and rebuilding it.
In more recent years, the Bob Evans company donated that land back to the University of Rio Grande, so the windmill is now university property. And seeing the structure is just a part of every day at work for T. J. Owens.
I'm glad he pointed out the connection to me, so I could share it here as a memento of the wide-ranging interests of James Beam, who passed away in 1987.