Will Heintz stands on the remaining third floor of the former Willsboro grist mill he has been restoring for the past 6 years.
In 1845, the old grist mill in Willsboro received a second chance after a fire, and 167 years later, Will Heintz is rebuilding the town’s industrial icon for a third revitalization.
Heintz, a longtime winter resident of Willsboro, bought the building in 2006 with his wife, Linda. For the past five years, he has single handedly cleaned out the rotted floor boards and fallen roof.
The grist mill stands downstream from the fish ladder on the Boquet River. Will, who has rebuilt several other buildings, including an old schoolhouse.
From the outside walls, people passing by can see the old limestone and brick walls with a plaque that reads “Phoenix Mills Wm. D Ross, 1845.” So far, he has cleaned out and stabilized the structure.
The vision for the building came from the outside in, Will said, taking in the natural beauty of the river and the breathtaking quality of the original limestone walls. They hope to restore the building and open it up for others to enjoy.
“I can just imagine opening up this building, maybe adding a deck on the back for everyone to enjoy,” Will said.
Linda, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, would like to eventually serve the community in a cafe style with sweet treats and sandwiches. Though Will said their shared vision for the building isn’t about financial gain, they want to eventually bring the beautiful and historical structure back to life for the town of Willsboro.
“I just love this building and the view of the river. I just have to do something with it,” Will said. “It’s sensory overload when you are out here.”
Since beginning the project, Will said he has enjoyed residents and visitors stopping by to see his progress, and when the property is finished it will be something everyone can share.
“This place is an icon for a different time here, and I can’t wait for the day when someone comes and tells us they have photos of this mill in its glory days,” Will said.
Every winter Will has been working little by little through the weekends to bring the building back to life. During the summer, he manages a country club in Connecticut. He said the mild winter this year has allowed him to be productive in his restoration efforts.
“The town didn’t want it; no one wanted the building, but I just love the stone walls, and its history as the last standing piece of Willsboro’s industrial period,” Will said.
The mill was one many industrial buildings on the Boquet River. According to a town census in 1835, other industrial businesses in the town were eight saw mills, one wool fulling mill, one carding mill, two iron works and one ashery in the town.
Later, a paper pulp mill piped its smoldering “black liquor” waste into lagoons dug into the riverbank. By the time the mill closed, the cooled liquor or “black ash” covered 10 acres, and in places was 16 feet deep.
Although not toxic, it could not support vegetation and river currents easily eroded the embankments.
Will said over time and with the help of a water treatment facility there is no sign the river was ever polluted when he looks from the riverbank on the backside of the building or from the open roof of the top floor of the mill.
“Mother nature has cleaned this whole back yard from the mess of the saw mill, paper mill and grist mill,” Will said. “Now I want to restore this building and hopefully invite others to see this incredible part of the river and this town.”
The next step in construction will be for the new roof and floor frames to be constructed. Will said he hopes by next winter for the roof to be completed.
“I’ve been saying next winter for the last six years, but I’m not going to stop or give up on this project,” Will said.
Though the project has slowly come together over the past few years, Linda and Will said it is an amazing experience to restore the industrial icon for Willsboro.
“Owning the property comes with a responsibility to take care of it and bring it back to good use. Which we will do that to the best of our ability. It is a labor of love,” Linda said.