Written by James Gruber, author of Building Community
Today James Gruber, author of Building Community shares the story of Mill Hollow, the community where Gruber’s journey to writing his book all began. This story reminds us how a community can extend beyond one locality and be nurtured virtually.
This week, while waiting to buy my favorite sourdough bread at Orchard Hill Breadworks, I was chatting with an old friend and wondering out loud what makes this area so special. She said, “It’s all about community.” When I first came to Mill Hollow, Alstead, NH over 40 years ago, I discovered a place where people from age one to 99 were tightly woven into the caring fabric of a community. People supported each other through a major flood (which destroyed 40 homes and several lives), periods of economic recession, and changes in technology and social mores. Throughout these challenges they continued to sustain a vibrant community-- building a brick oven bakery, an innovative pre-school, and working together to turn an old deserted mill into a living museum and community center. Coming from a suburb of Los Angeles and just having completed my Masters in Biomedical engineering at MIT, this was a way of life I had never experienced. I was so impressed that I quit my engineering job and decided to move there and see what it was like to live and work in such a community.
In the ensuing years I spent time co-writing a book on timber-framing, working as a solar engineer and consultant, serving as a town manager, founding and directing a non-profit institute, and eventually becoming a professor of Environmental Studies at Antioch New England. Throughout that time I continued to pursue the question: Why do some communities succeed at bringing people together and transforming the lives of their members? This question has led to 35 years of inquiry, research, and practitioner work in understanding and strengthening those actions that help communities of many sizes, types, and locations to thrive. I have talked and worked with people in local communities throughout the US and other countries from Bulgaria to Ecuador to the DRC (Congo). This work culminated in a doctoral dissertation identifying the characteristics across cultures and circumstances that lead to healthier communities and the book Building Community – Twelve Principles for a Healthy Future.
While the book does not have all the answers to this question, it does include what research and many local community members see as essential. I hope the information and stories in this book will be helpful for others seeking to build healthy empowered communities.
This journey of discovery all started in Mill Hollow. I’d like to share a bit of that story.
The center of Mill Hollow is Chase’s Mill, an old water powered mill, rebuilt over the centuries that dates back to 1767. This mill was last rebuilt 100 years ago as a community woodworking shop and gathering place. Inside the workshop, kids and adults worked with wood while upstairs in the Community Room artists wove textiles on looms and neighbors held weddings, funerals, Quaker meetings, and social gatherings.
I even chiseled out the timber frame for my house in the shop. After many years as the beloved mill owners, and stewards of the community, Heman and Edith Chase passed away, the Mill fell into disrepair, but their spirit remained.
Chase’s Mill was nearly lost from a major flood and weather deterioration over the years. In 2012 family, friends, and neighbors joined together to save the mill by forming a non-profit: Mill Hollow Heritage Association. The vision was to “return the Mill to the community as a living museum, a center for hands-on learning for children and adults, and as a gathering place that brings people together.” Now the work was to figure out how! It was not done with top-down management (few experts calling the shots), but more of a broad community effort of deciding and doing the work together (See pages 217-219 in our book). It was a broad volunteer effort with people of all types of skills and means who contributed what they could. Some repaired the windows, others cleaned out the waste and rotting wood, family and friends who lived farther away worked to raise donations and grants, and others worked on re-establishing community programs that would meet the needs of the current community. The association was eventually able to receive some grant funds for major needed repairs to the building, and are now adding a lift to make the second floor accessible for all. Ten years later, with over 700 contributors and supporters, we were nearly ready to re-open the mill for community programs. Then COVID-19 struck. .
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of society, including Chase’s Mill. The long-planned opening event and community programs for 2020 were cancelled. How do we bring our community together when it is unsafe to meet? What could we do, as so many of our community members are homebound and socially isolated? Like many other groups, we turned to virtual programs via Zoom to continue to engage our community members. The virtual series was titled: Grist from Chase’s Mill. The goal was not to entertain, but to engage each other in sharing, connecting, and celebrating. We have held five evening programs that each typically have 80-100 participants from Utah, to Manhattan, to the house next door. For example, the “Sense of Place” programs encouraged everyone to share a story from their past in Mill Hollow. Other programs included music and poetry, a virtual tour of the ancient water power turbines, and a locally made film on the nearby Breadworks bakery. All programs provide time to give everyone a voice so that they can share, ask questions, or simply say hello to others that are housebound. Yes, a community can extend beyond one locality and be nurtured virtually..
In January, I will be starting a monthly newsletter called It’s All About Community that will explore our book Building Community – Twelve Principles for a Healthy Future. Each month there will be a focus on one of the principles, a reflection from one of the book’s case studies, and an opportunity for your thoughts and feedback on what helps make a community healthy and vital. If interested, send me a note and I will add you to our newsletter email list. If you wish to contribute a community story to the newsletter, please let me know. firstname.lastname@example.org.