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Hiram Buttrick Sawmill a treasure

The Hiram Buttrick sawmill Antioch. | Lakes RegiHistorical Society

The Hiram Buttrick sawmill in Antioch. | Lakes Region Historical Society

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Updated: March 5, 2013 2:59AM

Search the Internet for information about Hiram Buttrick Sawmill in Antioch and almost every link will proclaim it as one of the most scenic sites in Lake County.

Used as the backdrop for countless wedding photos, framed photos and drawings are listed for sale of this postcard-perfect reproduction of the sawmill built on Sequoit Creek in 1839.

There is little known about the original mill built by Hiram Buttrick, one of Antioch’s first settlers, and reproduced as a community project started during the Bicentennial in 1976. It took more than two years and the efforts of more than 1,000 volunteers to build the working sawmill just a bit west of its original location at Gage Brothers Park in downtown Antioch. The one-and-a-half-acre park was planted with 80 donated trees as a backdrop for the sawmill that took about two years to build.

The original sawmill built by Buttrick one of the first settlers to purchase property near Loon Lake. He died in 1886 and is buried in Waukegan. The Gage brothers, Thomas and Darius, were also among the first settlers who built one of the first log cabins and developed businesses, including a tavern, in Antioch.

The original sawmill was long gone, with only a few timbers and the foundation surviving, when the sawmill reproduction project was proposed.

“The people of the village made the sawmill possible,” Walt Shepard, public works superintendent and project coordinator, said in a 1978 newspaper article. “Roughly 350 individuals came down and physically gave their labor and over 1,000 people participated by donating materials and funds to the project.”

His son, Kris, remembers spending many Saturdays building the sawmill. “I was probably about the youngest there, about 10 or 11 years old, but I remember people from all ages helping build the mill. I remember placing the rocks that line the whole shoreline by the pond by the sawmill. My dad was very proud of that sawmill.”

The experience left a lasting impression with Shepard, who had is wedding pictures taken there with wife Jenny in 1991.

Former Village Clerk Marilyn Sterbenz is credited for coming up with the project that she envisioned as a miniature reminder of the history of Antioch, according to a special section in The Antioch News published in June 1978, just before the dedication. She secured a $1,000 grant to start the project from the Illinois Bicentennial Committee. The project’s scope, which grew to a life-sized working sawmill, cost about $30,000 to complete with money donated by the township and civic organizations.

“No drawings or images of the original sawmill survive, so the reproduction was based on other typical sawmills of that era,” said Ainsley Wonderling. director of Lake Region Historical Society Museum. Her dad, William E. Brook, co-chaired the bicentennial committee and sawmill committee.

She recalls the committee visited a number of operating sawmills in the United States and Canada to come up with a design for the reproduction. What resulted was a working sawmill powered by a waterwheel that could cut a log as big as 2 feet long and 14 inches in diameter. The plan was to develop the sawmill into an historical attraction and host tours and demonstrations of its workings.

The plan was tragically cut short in August 1985 after a two-year-old boy’s head was crushed between a concrete wall and a wooden beam bolted to the water wheel.

“Village officials put the water wheel into concrete and ceased all operations after the accident,” said Wonderling. “It was a tragedy.”

Peter Roupas was the son of George and Toula Roupas, at the time part owners of The Vault Restaurant on Main Street. The child was killed while playing with his brothers and a friend, looking at crayfish in the pond under the water mill.

Mayor Lawrence Hanson was a rookie on the rescue squad at the time, and remembers the call. “His parents and the entire village suffered both emotionally and financially. It changed the future of the sawmill.”

Kris Shepard remembers when the sawmill first opened that his dad and others, including Dick Stroner, would hold demonstrations of how the sawmill worked. “When the mill was closed and the wheel cast in cement he was disappointed but understood the reasons why it had to be closed.”

Wonderling said the village-owned building has been closed to the public ever since, but at one time contained a collection of vintage tools and memorabilia, now vanished.

“The mill has been vandalized and all of the memorabilia is gone. The millstone got pushed into the creek and is also long-gone. The most irreplaceable loss was a huge framed collage of photos taken throughout the Bicentennial year. It was one of a kind and it is a shame that it did not survive.”

A time capsule that was buried during the dedication still remains at the site and is scheduled to be unearthed in 2076. It contains among other items a village flag, photos, newspapers, a high school yearbook, menus of local restaurants, maps, cigarettes and small bottles of liquor.

Hanson said village finances have put any plans for the sawmill on hold.

“We maintain it, but there is no money in the budget to do more than that right now. In the perfect scenario it would be great to make it into the attraction it was designed to be. It would be neat to do if we could build in the safeguards. It is definitely a future project worth considering,” said Hanson. “People love history. Why not bring it back and show them what our history was?”

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