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Bush brothers learned much in taking down local historic buildings

The demolition of Riverdale Mill was a learning experience for brothers  John and Thomas Bush of the Henry Hudson Company, and what they learn could serve them well as they are now taking on the demolition of Langdale Mill.

The two brothers were guest speakers at the Tuesday evening meeting of the Shawmut Methodist Church Men’s Club. They brought examples of the kind of wood they’ve been taking out of the mills and fielded lots of questions from a very inquisitive group.

They have a nickname for heart pine: dinosaur meat.

It’s a pretty accurate term. The South was once covered by dense forests of old growth pine. It took hundreds of years to grow these trees but less than a century of timber harvesting to bring almost all of them down. There are very few stands of old growth pine to be found anywhere anymore. The heart pine that was hacked and sawed from these big pines can be found in one place – in buildings that were built before 1920.

The Bush Brothers make the case that heart pine in nature’s version of the steel I beam.

John Bush said he would like for Riverdale Mill to have been the final one they brought down and not the first. “It’s one of a kind,” he said, speaking in admiration of its builders. “The quality of the material was so good. The underside of some of the decking hadn’t seen the light of day since 1866. It looks like it left the sawmill yesterday.”

The Bush brothers broke countless saw blades in attempting to cut through thick beams of heart pine. “The most indestructible item I knew when I was growing up as a kid was a crowbar,” said Thomas Bush. “We break them every day pulling nails out of beams.”

The nails builders had in 1866 when Riverdale was built aren’t the kind you can buy today at Home Depot. They are longer and thicker. The Bush brothers bought numerous examples of those nails. When you look at them, you can’t help but wonder how in the world anyone could drive them though those thick beams of heart pine.

“We have cotton carts filled with those nails,” Thomas Bush said.

It’s a good thing the guys own Zaxby’s and Steak & Shake. One thing that has helped them with lubricating their saws is to spread vegetable oil waste on them. “It smells a little like french fries cooking,” Thomas said to some laughter, “but it works.”

It’s not just the heart pine that’s been amazing. The Bushes have retrieved over 200,000 pounds of steel from underneath Riverdale Mill. Much of it was in the original 1866 turbine that powered the mill. It weighed 52,000 pounds.

“We’ve not going to smash it up and sell it for scrap,” Thomas Bush said.

Even with modern machinery it was a difficult chore to remove it. How did men install in 1866?

There were other items of heavy equipment in the bottom of the mill. “We found some hidden items,” said John Bush. “We cut though a solid steel shaft at least eight inches in diameter only to find that it went to a wheel that was at least 15 feet in diameter that was under concrete. We also found some items that looked like they were from a grist mill.”

Those items may have gone back to the 1840s, when the Campbell mill was on the same site.

“Riverdale Mill has the kind of brick I will never see again,” he added. They were made on site from river mud in a dirt kiln. Some of the bricks are really cool. They look almost like glass. We didn’t really appreciate how well they were made until we started cutting them.”

Those brick facings now adorn fireplaces in new homes all over the country.

“We found some kind of surprise in every brick we cut open,” John Bush said.

“The bricks are glorious to look at, but had to be difficult to build with,” said John Bush.

They were fascinated by the many human fingerprints and palm prints they came across. They also found the paw print from a pretty big dog.

Taking down the Bethlehem Church, which was built between 1871 and 1873, was an adventure in and of itself. “One lady asked me if we’d found the piano,” Thomas Bush said. “She told me that it had fallen though the floor at some point in the past and that some people with the church had attempted to pull it out, but the ghosts wouldn’t let them have it.”

The floor of the church was put together with pegs. The wood was rough hewn, obviously cut by axes. “There were no nails in the floor,” said Thomas Bush. “It was all pegs. It had to take a long time to cut all the notches that were there to hold it together.”