- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

FORESTVILLE, Va. — Furniture maker Glen Hofecker holds up the gnarled stump of his index finger, his personal cost in restoring the town’s centuries-old grist mill, which history lovers are fighting to preserve.

“I didn’t do it for me. I didn’t need this mill,” Mr. Hofecker says, clutching a yellowed newspaper clipping about his life’s work. “I did it for the people in Forestville and Shenandoah County and for history. This mill was there before this country was a country.”

Mr. Hofecker and other residents are banding together to persuade the Frontier Culture Museum to abandon its plan to move the mill 50 miles south to a re-created 1850s village tourist attraction in the spring. The state-run historical center in Staunton bought the mill this fall.

Mr. Hofecker, 75, worries his work in restoring the old mill — in which he accidentally cut off part of his finger — will be wasted and that, in transport, the mill will be damaged beyond repair.

“It destroys all of my work and the history of the thing,” he says, choking back emotion. “Moving it down there, it becomes nothing. It’s not the mill anymore. It’s just another pile of lumber.”

The Zirkle Mill Foundation — a cross-generational group of farmers and preservationists — eyes keeping the mill in town and opening it as a community center.

“Its importance as a historic landmark cannot be overstated,” foundation President Bill Wine says.

Lisa Zirkle’s German immigrant ancestors built the mill before 1815. Her parents, both devoted historians, have showcased it to Zirkle descendants around the world.

“It’s just so heartbreaking to see that all end,” Miss Zirkle says. “The history can’t die on our watch. As a Zirkle, if it leaves here, I haven’t done my job.”

To the residents of this 12-home, one-stop sign town, the mill is not just about the Zirkle family — it’s about the history of the commonwealth.

Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan and his Union troops marched through Virginia in 1864, burning everything in sight. The mill’s owner quickly flew a Union flag and greeted the troops warmly, even though he was a Confederate sympathizer.

“It was the only mill in the area left standing that day,” Miss Zirkle says.

The mill’s salvation has been the subject of many historical works, including best seller “The Burning.”

Foundation board member Leslie Meaux says preserving the mill will honor the town.

“If they move it, it will have little historic significance, if at all,” she says. “You are pulling apart the fabric of Forestville and the heart and soul of the Zirkles.”

Foundation members lament that the mill is no longer in their hands.

Mr. Hofecker, who bought and restored the mill in the early 1980s, auctioned it in 1996 to local business owner Sonny Bowman. This year, Mr. Bowman rejected the foundation’s offer of $230,000 to buy back the entire property and instead accepted the museum’s offer of about $100,000 for just the mill.

Mr. Bowman did not return calls to his office. An assistant for Mr. Bowman said he does not give telephone interviews and that he was too busy for an in-person interview.

Museum Executive Director John Avoli says the mill will be the focal point of a re-created 1850s village that will triple the size of the museum.

“It’s a wonderful preserved mill,” says Mr. Avoli, who is also mayor of Staunton. “It’s pretty stable at this point.”

Mr. Avoli says he is not concerned the mill could be damaged in the move because preservationists and historians would take pains to treat it with “tender loving care.”

The entire project will cost about $1.2 million, with about $1 million coming from private donations and not from tax dollars, Mr. Avoli says.

The mill, which is on state and federal historic registers, will lose its status on those lists if it is moved, said Kathleen Kilpatrick, Virginia’s historic preservation officer.

“Historic buildings are more than old objects of artistic worth,” she said in a letter to Mr. Avoli that discouraged moving the mill.

Foundation members say they will keep trying to persuade the museum to change its plans. One proposal is to keep the mill in Forestville and operate it as a satellite site of the museum.

If foundation members fail, they envision holding many community rallies or perhaps even forming a human chain around the mill to stop trucks from carting it away.

“We’re not giving up,” Donna Haldanesays. “Until the last nail is removed and gone, we will not give up.”

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