(Editor’s note: This letter was submitted to the Otter Tail County board as part of the public comment process in planning for the future of the Phelps Mill historical site, and the neighboring Phelps dam. It was written by Otter Tail County Historical Society Director Chris Schuelke, and reprinted here to offer a historical perspective.)
Regarding the proposed Phelps Mill fish passage, I would like to offer this letter as part of the public comment process.
As Executive Director of the Otter Tail County Historical Society, my primary concern is the continued preservation of the mill, its two turbine houses, and iron truss bridge.
In 1975, Phelps Mill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As written in the nomination form, the Mill’s significance is “as a representative of pioneer agricultural industry in Otter Tail County during the last decade of the nineteenth century.” Furthermore, whereas other mills from that era have been demolished or destroyed, Phelps Mill has remained standing with most of the original machinery intact. This makes the mill a remarkable historic site and one of the most iconic images in Minnesota.
With that in mind, would dam removal in favor of a rock ramp and boulder weir fishway alter the mill’s historical designa- tion and physical description? In my opinion it would not for the following reasons:
1. There have been several dam replacements since construction of the original in 1887. As a result, the current 1993 dam has no historical significance.
2. If implemented as proposed, the rock ramp and boulder weir fishway would keep most water away from the Mill thereby slowing foundation deterioration.
3. As a National Register site, the Mill must be protected from dam removal and rock ramp construction. The process will be subject to review by the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office which ensures adherence to standards set by the Department of the Interior.
4. Dam removal will provide impetus for the county to pursue funds from the Minnesota Capital Project Grants-In-Aid Program for foundation restoration. This is a long-term solution to temporary foundation repairs undertaken in 2004.
5. Since this project ensures the mill, turbine houses, and iron truss bridge remain intact, there will be no negative visual impact on the site’s historical integrity.
For these reasons I am endorsing removal of the Phelps Mill dam in favor of a rock ramp and boulder weir fishway as proposed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Otter Tail County Historical Society