By Gari Voss
What began as a purchase of giant 8-foot diameter wheels that would become a water wheel for a mini-grist mill and a small spinning wheel to be used as yard art morphed into the largest working spinning wheel in North America.
Joe Leverence decided to purchase a pair of steel wheels on Marketplace. The wheels are remnants of reels of gas line. Rather than scrapping the roll ends, Kris hauls them away to use or sell.
The original hauls were turned into a greenhouse, farm animal homes, and even a fabulous firepit. Over the years, Kris’ husband has used about 100 of different size reels for construction around the farm.
“We have probably sold about 20 reels and still have a graveyard. Seeing things created like a table and chairs from the throwback shows how items can be repurposed if you have an imagination,” Kris explained. “Smaller ones can be used more easily, but the older models have bars that don’t line up. Even with that, a friend made Ferris wheel.”
When Joe ran across the wheels on Marketplace, he first envisioned the 8’ wheels as a mini grist mill while the smaller wheel could be the beginnings of a spinning wheel. Realizing that a spinning wheel created from the smaller size would not make an adequate lawn ornament for the building, his vision went in another direction. By using the large wheels for a spinning wheel, the sculpture would be far more visible standing next to the Baker Allegan Studio building.
Sow Spun Silk, Inc., Old Mill Yarn & Baker Allegan Studios was the original location of the Baker Furniture Factory in Allegan’s historic Mill District. In 2006, Deb and Joe Leverence began restoration of the brick building, so it could house arts, crafts and classrooms.
Debbie is a weaver while Joe restores weaving looms and is handy with tools and woodworking. When they found the old Baker building, it was bat, rodent and raccoon infested and needed extensive renovation. Over the years, the Studio has housed paintings, antiques, jewelry, photography and looms on which a wide variety of clothing and articles have been created.
Over the years, the inside and outside of the building have received copious hours of attention. Now, the couple felt that the grounds around the building could be improved with some decor. As visitors approach the building, they might notice a variety of stick figures dressed in vibrantly colored clothing. Those figures seemed to need something more prominent as a companion.
“We commissioned this Art installation for our business as a Fiber Arts Studio and Yarn shop. The spinning wheel was built by blacksmith John Gooch from Otsego, MI,” explained Joe.
“When Joe came to me with his ideas for the wheels he had acquired, I thought he was a bit nuts, crazy,” John Gooch chuckled. “I am a blacksmith not a spinner. I did not know anything about spinning wheels, but the more Joe talked, the more I thought it might be an interesting challenge.”
The duo began collaborating on the design to match Joe’s vision. Gooch thought that the project would take about 30 days when they started it, but in reality, it took into the fall with weather, other issues and discoveries.
John learned more than he ever imagined about spinning wheels. The pieces Joe collected were excellent, but not perfect. The wheels did not have matching parts. In the beginning, there was learning about the “mother-of all” and how the maidens, flyer, bobbin and orifice fit together. At first John thought the axle would be 3½ inches. When all was aligned, it ended up being 1 inch due to the mismatch on the wheels.
The piece of lumber that connects the mother-of-all and the drive wheel was located at a small sawmill south of Allegan. The 8’ long, 14” wide and 5” thick piece of white oak had already been seasoned and weighed 175 pounds.
In addition, there was work which John and Joe could not do. MillAssist Services in Otsego was able to come to the rescue and drill 5/8” holes through ½” steel plates.
The wheel weighs 275 pounds because it is hollow tubing steel, which was a blessing. As the structure took form, John found that his 9’ tall workshop was not going to house this piece of art. Fabricated in 3 sections, the spinning wheel was moved to his barn which was 10’ to the bottom of the trusses and had open rafters. John’s wife crawled around in the rafters to rig strapping and chainfalls so the structure could be finished.
“We finally moved the whole structure outside and reassembled the smaller section at the back with the mother-of-all with the spinning yoke, wheel and spool that the yarn winds up on. Once at the Yarn Shop, we did the final assembly,” John explained.
“She stands 13 feet, 8 inches tall from the ground, but is actually 14 feet, 5 inches from the base that is buried for stability. She is approximately 11 feet long and weighs approximately 550 pounds. The wheel actually turns. It has a treadle which operates the footman. We could make a seat, but we would need a giant to actually run the wheel,” Joe quipped.
Though originally considered a crazy vision, anything is possible when a visionary like Joe Leverence purchases leftover wheels harvested by Kris and viewed on Marketplace then takes the vision to a talented blacksmith (aka minister, bike and trucker supporter, retired aerospace employee) John Gooch.
The largest spinning wheel in America can be viewed at Baker Allegan Studios, 148 Mill District Road in Allegan.
Hearsay has it that another project is in the works. This talented duo may yet bring to fruition that grist mill Joe originally envisioned.
The Guinness Book claims that the largest spinning wheel in the world stands 4.01 meters, or 13.15 feet, tall. It was erected on the town square in Sainte-Germaine Boulé, Quebec, Canada in 1983 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the town. Powered by electricity, that wheel’s diameter is 2.44 m., or 8 ft., and weighs about 400 kg or 880 pounds. There is a 17 foot tall wooden spinning wheel in the New Delhi Airport, but of a different design. Now, the new wheel at the Baker Allegan Studio may be entered into The Guinness Book..
Joe and Debbie Leverence stand next to their new lawn ornament – a functioning spinning wheel that stands 13 feet, 8 inches tall from the ground, but is actually 14 feet, 5 inches from the base that is buried for stability. She is approximately 11 feet long and weighs approximately 550 pounds. The structure was designed as yard art and on a scale that would match the brick Baker Art Studio that also houses Sow Spun Silk, Inc. and Old Mill Yarn.