The Waterwheel On Mohawk Street
by Steve Grant
2020 photo courtesy of Steven Grant
Have you ever wondered how or why the waterwheel alongside Mohawk Street came to New Hartford? I recently sat down with George Zegibe to talk about his father, Abdoo, who was responsible for bringing the wheel to New Hartford. George was a small boy when his father started the waterwheel project.
First, I should explain that the wheel was originally located right across the street from the old, brown stone house that is about a quarter mile off of Higby Road. It was in between the road and the pond that is known as Power Dam. The wheel was moved to it's current location when the land was being developed there for new homes. The old stone home and the land that went with it was purchased by Abdoo in 1920 and George's brother, Herbert, still lives there today. Abdoo operated a successful dairy farm there for many years but the farm had no
electricity. Abdoo wanted to change that and the waterwheel was needed for his electrification plan. It should be noted that at the time, most rural areas across the country did not have electricity. The Rural Electrification Act signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought grid-supplied power to the Mohawk Street area during the mid-1930's.
I asked George what made his father decide that they needed electricity? "My father was- well, we all were, really- just tired of carrying around kerosene lamps wherever we went". The property had a small stream flowing through it and Abdoo knew he could produce electricity with it, somehow. So he started reading books on how to build a dam and started searching for the moving parts he would need for power generation. He soon was told of a waterwheel that was located in Franklin Springs that had not been used in years. The 'buckets' on the wheel had rusted away but Abdoo ordered and installed new ones once he got it home. However, getting new buckets was the easy part. The wheel had to be dismantled and hauled home in pieces. George said, "Taking that thing all apart, making all those trips over to get it and then putting it all back together was no easy job!". Luckily, the generator Abdoo purchased did not require as much work to get it home. That came from a cotton mill on Broad Street in Utica that was no longer generating their own power.
In addition to building the dam, Abdoo also spent a great deal of time widening the stream to make storage room for the water behind the dam. George said that his father used both a team of horses and a Fordson tractor with steel wheels to dig the pond. "My father had a scoop that the tractor or the horses could pull. He would use the tractor until it got too muddy. He would use the horses to pull it after that". The feed pipe from the pond also had to be routed to the wheel. The wheel required a ten inch diameter feed pipe in order to fill each bucket with enough water. Because of the pipe size, generator usage was kept at a minimum and the water level in the pond had to be watched carefully. Lowering the pond level too much was always a concern and sometimes, when the water level was very low due to drought conditions, the wheel was not used at all. The tractor was used to turn the generator during the dry spells. I asked how the generator performed once his father got it operational. George replied, "It worked good. We had a few blinks but it did alright".
The generator powered the house and the barn and nothing else. No out buildings or any other area on the farm was wired for power. The precious power was needed for the lighting. The generator was never run during the day, either. However,
1970 photo courtesy of George & Mary Zegibe.
George said there was always one weekly exception to that rule that no one ever questioned. A little surprised by the deviation to the usage rule, I asked what that exception was? He smiled and said, "My mothers laundry day". Abdoo retro-fitted his wife's gasoline powered washing machine with an electric motor shortly after the generator was put in service.
For decades, both during and after power generation had ended, the pond was a popular swimming destination for many of the locals. After the R.E.A electric was installed the pond was used solely for swimming. Years later the pond was enlarged to it's current size by modern earth-moving equipment. Folks also came from neighboring towns and from Utica to go swimming. Some children from Utica eventually gave the pond the name we know it by today. Abdoo would deliver the milk from the farm to the Graffenburg Dairy on Eagle Street in Utica. On the return trip up Third Ave. (now Valley View Road) he would often stop and offer a ride to folks walking up the steep hill. One day he stopped the truck and asked, "Where are you kids headed?". Since they were going swimming, they excitedly responded with, "Power Dam". "Where's that?" Abdoo asked. "Keep going Mr., we'll show you" was their response. Little did they know they all had the same destination in mind! George said, "That was the first time we ever heard the pond called that. But the name stuck!".
Every so often, long after power generation had ended, George or Herbert would open up the old, rusty feed valve and allow the wheel to turn for a short time. Sadly, by the early 1980's time and the elements had taken a toll on the stone foundation of the wheel and it could no longer turn. However, as children traveling to our grandparents home on Higby Road, every once in a while my sister and I got to see the waterwheel in action. Without fail, my parents would then hear two excited kids shout, "Look! The waterwheel is turning!".