When Campton’s Dole Mill closed for good in 1965 it did so as one of the oldest woolen mills in the country. Yesterday, NHPR’s Sean Hurley introduced us to the few people still alive who remember the old mill as it was. In this second half of that story, we meet the new owners, Jessye and Sky Bartlett, and find out how they’ve transformed Dole Mill into what Sky Bartlett describes as a “big place with lots of strange things in it.”
Breadmaker Sarah Paltrineri, wet from swimming, plays her violin on the banks of the Mad River. New to Campton, she’s just moved in with Jessye and Sky Bartlett into a small room on the second floor of Dole Mill.
The night before, Paltrineri stepped from her new bedroom to join 20 dancers on the mill’s old wooden floor at the monthly contradance the Bartlett’s host. “I think it's an important tradition and it's fun to dance,” Paltrineri says, “and as someone who just moved to this town, I appreciate it as a way to meet the community.”
The leader of the contradance band, 31-year-old Jessye Bartlett, one half of the mill's renovating team, plays and teaches the fiddle. “My parents are violin makers and so they started me when I was 2 and a half,” Jessye says, “and the rule was I had to play until I was 13 and then the day it became optional I quit.
It took Jessye three years with the help of her father to make the fiddle she now plays. “I didn't touch it again until I got to college and kind of discovered the contradance scene and this way of playing music in community,” she says.
Jessye met Sky at a music festival in 2010. She had her violin – he had his bones, a percussive hand-operated instrument like the spoons. Hearing Sky play the bones was almost all it took. “Between that and his 1988 Toyota truck, I was sold,” Jessye says.
When the Bartlett's bought the mill in 2017, Sky says the building had been for sale on and off for the prior 20 years. When he and Jessye first saw it, the 15,000-square-foot building was listed at $130,000.
“That sounds like a heck of a deal doesn't it?” Sky Bartlett says. “It's not till you really start digging into it you realize that the place was more of a liability than an asset. So you know there's just a handful of people who were gonna be able to buy it and then do anything with it.”
With a background in flooring and construction, Sky felt comfortable taking on the job. What they’d do with the renovated building was the next question.
Friends and family suggested they turn the huge space into a mini-storage.
“So we started out saying, well, if all we can do is make the whole thing a giant indoor mini storage if that's what saves the building and its historic value, then that's what we'll do,” Sky says. “If we can do something more fun than that we'll do that. And once we bought it, you know, we had our plan of ‘OK, worst case mini storages.’”
Something more fun won out over that worst case - and on the afternoon I visit, I attend a car race.
Chris Goodbout’s Dole Mill RC Speedway now occupies part of the mill’s first floor. Near the oval clay race course are worktables where remote-controlled car enthusiasts tune up their engines. “Some guys come here and just hang out,” Goodbout says. “They always call it ‘the club’. That's what everyone calls it. They tell their wife they're going to the club for the night.”
Goodbout says the mill was five or six years from falling down when Sky and Jessye bought it. “It rained outside, it rained inside,” he says. “It was in really rough shape and boy it's come a long ways. Sky told me right from the start that they wanted to do something unique and this place is certainly different. I mean they do the contradances upstairs and violin lessons and piano tuning and candy store and vintage arcade.”
Beside the race track, in the main hall of the mill, is Jim Moccio’s Vintage Arcade. “I was at a point in life where I was trying to come up with something to invest some money in,” Moccio says, “and I said, ‘What do you think about me putting an arcade game in between the track and the bathroom?’"
Jessye and Sky liked the idea and Moccio began scouring Craigslist, looking for games he liked as a kid. Donkey Kong, Pac Man, Space Invaders. “That 'Asteroids' came non-working and I fixed that. That Pac Man came not working and I fixed that,” Moccio says. “I fix a lot of things by taking them apart - not finding out what's wrong with it - putting it back together and then it works.”
The Zen of Asteroids Maintenance.
“And now,” Moccio says, “I'm to the point where I wish it was successful enough that this could be what I did all day.”
Sharing the first floor with the speedway and the vintage arcade is the old-fashioned penny candy store and antique shop, run by Sky’s mother, Sharon Bartlett. “You know part of the fun for me is all the people I'm meeting,” she says. “Prior to this I worked for a number of years in a clinical laboratory where you talked to tubes of blood and your fellow scientists, so this is nice.”
Three-year-old Simon Fetzner, with the help of his mother Julie, has 75 cents to spend today. He opens his paper bag to show me what he’s got so far. “Tootsie Roll!” he calls out. “And a few chocolate balls.”
With a house just up the street, Julie Fetzner says she and her son walk almost daily to the mill. “And usually everyday when we wake up he says ‘can we go to the red place?’” Fetzner says, “and I have to hold him off for about three hours before we come down here.”
With renovations nearly complete, the building has begun to pay for itself. And in a few months, when Iron Jenny - commercial seamstress Jenny Grant - takes over an office on the first floor, they’ll be making a small profit.
Midway through the contradance, Sky takes over the microphone. He calls out for Jessye to start the music and then sings out the patterned movements of a square dance.
To Simon Fetzner, it’s the red place. To the men who race their RC cars, it’s the club. For Sharon Bartlett and Sarah Paltrineri and the dancers who dance here and the musicians who show up to play in the pick-up band - it’s the place to gather to meet the community.
“Well it's fun for me to think that you know it's kind of like retirement for the building,” Sky Bartlett says. “You know its life used to be work. And now it's old and its life is, you know, leisure. So seems like a fitting next phase for a 200-year-old building.”
From a life of work, to a life...of life, Dole Mill has entered its golden, and barn red, years. Dosey do and away we go.