Canadian Consulting Engineer

Making Wheels Turn

Robert Rehder, P. Eng. spent 47 years in the power generation industry, specializing in switchgear, large power bus ducts and insulation in large motors and generators. He worked for GE on projects su...

January 1, 2009   Canadian Consulting Engineer

Robert Rehder, P. Eng. spent 47 years in the power generation industry, specializing in switchgear, large power bus ducts and insulation in large motors and generators. He worked for GE on projects such as the LaGrande hydroelectric development in northern Quebec and the Bruce nuclear power plant in Ontario. He holds 28 patents in his field.

But Rehder does much more than that. He writes, paints, and recently led a group who refurbished a historic sawmill near Peterborough, Ontario.

Interviewed by phone, he explains this labour of love.

“Hope Mill is on the Indian River just north of Keene, about 15 kilometres east of Peterborough. A lot of the area was settled by Scottish pioneers who came over in the 1820s and 30s. One of them was Squire Lang, who built the mill for carding and fulling sheep’s wool.

“By 1892 Richard Hope, the Squire’s son-in-law, replaced the water wheel with two turbines and added sawmill machinery, including a circular saw, a lathe, a planer and a jointer.

“The mill operated as a commercial sawmill until 1966, and then as a demonstration sawmill, operated by the Otonabee Region Conservation Authority until the mid 90s when lack of funding forced its closure.

“One evening, I was out for a walk with friends and went by the mill and looked in the window. I could see all this machinery. The floor was collapsing. Everything was covered in dirt and grime. It just seemed a shame the place wasn’t operational any more.

“At that time I was a member of the Otonabee Conservation Foundation. We decided we’d look at restoring the mill. I went to the local chapter of Professional Engineers Ontario who gave us $4,100 to repair machinery. That started it. A group of 12 volunteer retirees came together, six of them engineers. We held dances and other fund-raisers, and went down to the mill every Tuesday to start tearing up the floor.

“We had to put in new foundations under the floor to keep the water from going underneath the building, [which meant] driving reinforcing rods in holes into the bedrock. We all gauged ourselves. I was good for 10 whacks with a sledgehammer, and other guys would be good for 5, or 20.

“Eventually we had the machinery running, but when we first connected the line shaft that drives the belts, the vibration almost shook the building apart. We had to make new gears from the old ones, but the saw is a 48-inch diameter circular saw with removable teeth that we could replace. We’ve also designed and built a solar-powered kiln to dry the lumber.

“Two years ago we cut our first log, and last year we had public demonstrations. We have had 600 visitors, have cut 100 logs and have about 3,000 board feet of hardwood lumber for sale.

“What’s the appeal of restoring this old machinery? I think it goes back to our fundamental engineering training. There’s the desire to solve a problem and there’s creativity. Here’s the mill, dead. You go down and you work at it, you fix things and are inventive. Then all of a sudden the mill becomes alive. You’re standing there, it’s making a noise, everything’s turning –and all you can do is smile.”


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