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Gone, but not forgotten

The work of furniture maker and all-around genius Elden Mills is showcased at Grace Cottage Hospital Fair

TOWNSHEND—Townshend auctioneer H.K. “Kit” Martin tells an illustrative story about his kitchen table, and the famously cantankerous Elden Mills who made it.

Mills, a Windham furniture maker, wanted Martin to auction off the table, and he set the price at $700.

“I told him I’d never get that much, but that’s what he wanted,” Martin said. “I tried, and didn’t get it, so I put the table in my kitchen.”

A few years later, Martin asked Mills, “How long do I have to keep the table?”

Mills answered, “Until you get $700 for it.”

The cherry, harvest-style table remains in Martin’s kitchen.

This year, at the 60th annual Grace Cottage Hospital Auxiliary Fair on Saturday, Aug. 6, Martin will auction a Mills-crafted cherry, queen-size, pencil-post bed, reportedly the last piece of furniture Mills made before he died of a heart attack on Feb. 14 at the age of 88.

The bed was donated to the fair this year by Peter Andrus of Jamaica, one of Mills’ many admiring friends.

Last year at the fair, Martin auctioned a Mills-made tilt-top table for $425. “Actually, Elden has been donating to the fair for many years,”Andrus said.

The fair, a hospital auxiliary-run event held on the Common on the first Saturday in August to benefit Grace Cottage Hospital, usually generates up to $60,000.

An all-volunteer army of cooks, carpenters, booth captains, salespeople, and general factotums, led by President Stan Holt from Townshend, makes it all happen.

This year, as usual, the festivities will begin with an auction preview at 9 a.m., and wrap up at 5:30 p.m., when raffle prizes are handed out and a chicken barbecue is served.

In between, fairgoers may eat all day, play bingo, hear bagpipes, participate in the hole-in-one contest, watch performances by the circus group Nimble Arts, take free pony rides, bid at the auction, march in the birthday parade, and shop for books, costume jewelry, and white elephants.

The parade still welcomes anyone born at Grace Cottage and “all newborns in the valley” to follow a giant stork around the green, celebrating life itself.

Bed donor Andrus, apart from being a friend of Mills, is a member of the Townshend Dam Diner’s “Old Goats’ Club,” an early-morning breakfast tribunal where cantankerousness is a high art, and a place where Mills excelled, said diner owner Stephanie Schryba.

She also pointed out that the West Townshend diner was a home away from home for Mills, who lived alone on Windham Hill, and that he ate three, and sometimes four, meals a day at the diner for 17 years.

“We really loved him,” she added.

Mills was born in Brooklyn and had some schooling in West Hartford Conn., where his father, Elden H. Mills Sr., was pastor of the First Church of Christ in West Hartford from 1937 to 1956.

The younger Mills began early working as a machinist, excelling at design and execution for several companies, and was eventually tapped by research and development divisions.

He was one of five inventors credited on a 1985 patent for manufacturing glass cylinders.

He reportedly invented the triangular plastic punch openings on the top of Morton Salt containers, a fact cited by Don Sawyer in an article published in the fall of 2009 in Vermont Adventures, a local magazine.

Sawyer, a retired teacher and a painter who lives in Brattleboro, opens his article on Mills this way: “One of the most irascible, obstinate grouchy diner devotees I know is also one of the most beloved... and talented.”

That sentiment is echoed by nearly everyone who knew Mills, including Sawyer, who traveled often to the Dam Diner for breakfast.

Douglas Howard, a builder in West Townshend and another Old Goat Club devotee, made note of Mills’s irascibility, but added, “He was a very, very clever man. He could do anything: cantankerous, yes, but so darn smart. The stuff he built was very functional and emulates Shaker furniture.”

Another friend, Ed Brown of Windham, who owns the Mill Tavern in Londonderry, was also a natural Mills friend.

“He could make anything,” Brown said, pointing to the brackets supporting the burgeoning grape arbor over one of Brown’s porches. The brackets are fashioned out of old wagon wheels, and Mills made these, Brown said, pointing to the apparatus holding up the half wheels.

A quick tour of Brown’s house and studio revealed a number of projects Mills worked on, including barn doors sliding on wheels attached to the mechanism by Mills-invented devices.

Brown, a man of many talents, said this of Mills: “He was a recluse, a machinist, that you knew could solve your problems. My weakest points were made strong by his thoroughness.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #111 (Wednesday, July 27, 2011).

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