The Windmill of Toppin Maxwell
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Written by Rev TH Miller

Windmill on

Tanner Toppin Maxwell preferred to live in mud below the high tide mark at the bottom of Deer Street. Over time, his "ark" grew larger as debris collected around his handmade hut. Then Mr. Maxwell had an idea. Why no build himself a windmill and face it directly into the gale?





Early Wind Power in New Hampshire

MORE: On Portsmouth windmills

ABOUT Charles Brewster 

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values. -- JDR

THE following from the pen of Rev. T. H. Miller, gives a true and graphic sketch to which most of our citizens who are over fifty years of age can attest. The tannery extended from the foot of Deer street, near where the Concord Railroad depot is now located, to Parker street. The site of the windmill is the very spot where is now the engine house of the Concord & Portsmouth Railroad.

Brewster's Ramble INdexWhy such a man ever drifted away from sweet Ireland, where he was born, or why he happened to drift into the old harbor of Piscataqua, in which he lived, and on whose shores he died, your deponent knoweth not and therefore sayeth not. But the fact that he did drift away from the one and into the other is about as well established as any similar fact can be; inasmuch as the writer in his boyhood has often paddled in the water (not to mention the mud) which surrounded the Maxwell mansion, rendering the whole domain a landscape very much like a sketch of Noah's view from his window, shortly after the ark rested. That he had drifted up the harbor and was moored to the shore thus, rests on the testimony of an eye witness. That he had drifted away from the green isle was no less manifest to every ear which listened for once to the richest and most unctuous brogue that ever rattled from the tongue of a native.

But – but -- the reader may ask, how and why did he live in the harbor when land was plentiful all around it, and when a little money would have given him a dry acre? The why of this question can only be guessed at; the how will soon be plain to the mind of the reader, almost to his eye. Perhaps the reason why he planted himself in a mud-hole on the flats was, that such a lot, being worth little, cost little; or that, being a tanner, he was not afraid of water; or that, being an old bachelor, he thought it was not much matter where he lived. It might be any one of these reasons; or it might possibly be all of them together; for he loved money, he was an excellent tanner, and he never married. Or it might be none of them. For, as "there is no disputing about tastes," he might deem his location the most delightful and desirable of all the lovely spots on our shores. If this was so, one happiness he doubtless enjoyed, viz: a home which no one envied him in the posession. And, though probably nobody else thought so, he always acted as if he thought it the best place in the world.

Let no one infer from the hint about Noah, that Maxwell's ark rested on Mount Ararat, or any other mount, whence he came down at certain seasons to enjoy himself in the mud, or disport himself in the water like a dolphin. No sports had he, that his neighborhood knew of, but work, work, work, was his practice, whatever might be his theory. And his ark was at once shop and house, tannery and palace. The harbor of Piscataqua abounds in bays, great and little, in creeks and inlets of all sizes. One of these creeks, formerly deep enough for ship-building on its banks, was turned into a tide-pond a hundred years ago, by the erection of Levis's mills, and on the shore -- no, in the shore of this pond, at its south eastern extremity, Toppin Maxwell built his castle exactly at the point which sailors call "between wind and water."

Small and frail it was at first, and at every spring-tide, when the winds blew and the floods came, the neighbors' eyes were turned that way to see it go off; but it did not go, and from year to year, as he threw out much tan from his pits, but sold none, his land emerged from the tide, as Venus did from the sea. Now and then a stray log, a waif from the waters came along; it was moored, and very gradually but certainly buried; and by a slow process, as some geologists describe creation, dry land appeared, drier and drier, wider and wider, till a goodly lot, like Boston on a small scale, had emerged from the water, and none but the highest tides dared show their heads above it. As land and money grew in his hands, so did buildings rise. Addition upon addition, patch upon patch, were hitched together, incongruous and inconvenient, but the owner was a conservative, and would throw nothing away. He built stronger and stronger, and always at some cost, till he had a large building. Then all at once a new idea shot across the mind; he would have a wind-mill to grind his bark. This he had done before by a horse, and sometimes hired it done at a water-mill; but now, quoth he, "I'll have a wind-mill, and grind for meself and for half the toon."

Big with this one idea, he took no counsel of flesh and blood as to the expediency of the proposed measure, but went about the work like a man determined to be "supreme over his accidents." Money would buy lumber, and hire workmen. He bought and hired the best. But money would not buy true ideas, either in castle building or the building of wind-mills. On this latter subject Toppin Maxwell had ideas of his own, which he thought cost nothing, but which in the end proved to be very valuable, if articles are to be prized at their cost. Remonstrances from the workmen or bystanders as to the style of the building, were overruled in a summary manner. He would build the mill to suit himself, and so he did. It was framed strongly enough for a den of lions, and braced so as to resist the most tempestuous wind. Should the top of the mill be rotary, so as to meet all the winds, as

wind-mills usually are? "No," was the answer; "make it fast facing the northwest; that's the strongest wind that blows here." And so it was done.Every thing was finished to his mind; and when the wind blew from the favorite quarter, the wooden sails moved round, and turned the iron mill and ground the bark--but it was not perfect. The machinery was heavy and clumsy; and except in a high wind it would scarcely move. The arms were now made as long as they could be without striking the ground, and the width of the fans was doubled. Now the mill went well with a high nor'-wester; but too furiously with a stiff topsail breeze! What was the remedy? Take in sail, reef the fans, says some green reader. Alas, that was impossible! for two reasons-- first, you could not throw the mill out of the wind to get hold of the sails; and second if you got hold of them you could not take them in, for instead of cloth they were made of boards, nailed fast to strong timbers. The only way to stop the mill was to choke it with bark, rammed into the hopper by armfuls. Of course it would not always stay choked, but would start off again and run round like a thing of life, compelling Toppin and his workmen, or boys, not exactly to make hay while the sun shone, but to grind bark while the wind blew. After a windy day sometimes would come a windier night, and then they would grind till they were tired, choke the mill as well as they could and go to bed. About the time they got warm and dozy, the breeze would freshen, the mill start, and the music begin--jingle, jingle-rattle, rattle -- whiz, whiz, whiz-z-z. "Out of bed, all hands -- the mill is agoing, it will soon be on fire." "Will ye -- nill ye" up they must get, and grind or choke as best they could, while the breeze lasted.

In the winter, north-west breezes often swell to gales, lasting two or three days. One day and one night the mill had ground and ground and groaned -- another day passed and a second night drew on: the pile of bark went down rapidly, but the wind did not go down at all -- on the contrary it seemed to rise. Every body was tired and sleepy, and discouraged. Orders were given to stop the mill; but it was easier told than done; however, in a lull of the wind the wheels were brought to a stand -- the lights were put out, and all hands went to bed. They might sleep, but not long, for a flaw started the mill, and the mill roused the sleepers. Wide awake, and cross enough, they choked and clogged the machine as best they could, and when at last it stood still, they sought repose once more. But the gale increased; and as the flaws became more violent, away went the mill again. This was too much. Breathing out threatenings, the man of the house not only called the hands, but arose himself, resolved like Don Quixote, to have a tilt with the wind mill; but not like the redoubtable Don, to come off second best and sneak off in his wounds. No, not he! There was the machine with wide-spread wings revolving in hot haste, hotter and hotter, making all gee again. No time was to be lost. He seized the first weapon that came to hand -- a heavy iron crow bar -- and, poising it with his stalwart arm upraised, as lightly as a dandy flourishes his rattan, he stepped upon the platform, and, suiting the action to the word, roared out, "There! (with an oath too big to put in print,) see if I can't stop ye!"

Down went the crowbar among the teeth -- round went the mill one whole turn, swallowing the crowbar, and bending the strong iron like a piece of cap wire -- but the meat was too hard to digest, and like the Baylonish Dragon after eating the pitch, the mill burst asunder. The shaft broke, one or two fans broke and fell off, and every thing came up with a jerk. One grand crash and all was still -- so still that it never moved again. All hands slept soundly that night, and for all the noise made by the mill, they might have slept till this time. This was Toppin's last scheme. He went back to the horse mill; backward in many of his affairs; and without living to be very old or very rich, he some forty years since passed off the stage. Peace to his ashes; he made room for greater men -- we were going to say wiser, but let that pass. Corporations which he never heard of, machines and inventions he never dreampt of, occupy his old tanner's paradise. A steam mill made of his house has since ground bark where his wind-mill broke down -- a steam tannery now does in a week what he used to do in a year -- steam cotton mills are planted on the shores of his pond--the pond itself is cut up with a multitude of railroad tracks--the telegraph near by speaks of new things -- and old men and old things are rapidly forgotten.

This biography is written merely for the love of the thing -- no chick nor child nor friend of Toppin is there left to reward the writer for giving their relative a good character, -- nor foes, that we wot of, to exult over a bad one -- but hundreds of men in middle life there are, who can see his round, rosy face, and portly bulk once again, as in a glass--and then, perhaps, think of him no more. But then he had his uses, his aims, his purposes, his thought and life -- and who can say that such an one as he had no place in the divine and beneficent plans of the great overruling Providence, or that he did not fill it? If any think or say so let them do it better.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Networker Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
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This digital transcript  © 1999