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Remembering Bill McMillen

by Toby Hall


Bill McMillen setting a locked seam on a pint-and-a-half tin mug over a small English beakhorn stake at The Tools and Trades History Society (TATHS) Conference in Sheffield, England, in 2012. Bill’s demonstration was part of his presentation as the Mark Rees Memorial Lecture at the conference. To make the cup, Bill used mostly English tinners tools, because, as he points out, his American tools would have been difficult to transport overseas. Photo by Jane Rees.
Bill McMillen setting a locked seam on a pint-and-a-half tin mug over a small English beakhorn stake at The Tools and Trades History Society (TATHS) Conference in Sheffield, England, in 2012. Bill’s demonstration was part of his presentation as the Mark Rees Memorial Lecture at the conference. To make the cup, Bill used mostly English tinners tools, because, as he points out, his American tools would have been difficult to transport overseas. Photo by Jane Rees.

This article originally appeared in Shavings no. 265. An edited version of this remembrance by Toby Hall is included in the soon-to-be published 2024 EAIA Annual Directory, which is dedicated to Bill.

On Monday, October 24, Bill McMillen arrived at our house in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, for a three-night visit. I’d told him I would provide oysters every evening and he could stay as long as he wanted. We had a great time together reminiscing about things we had done and places we had gone together. We went to a military museum, visited some mutual friends, and had some other friends come to dinner one night. On Thursday we hauled my ancient rowboat, which had been in the family for 105 years, and took it to Wickford, Rhode Island, to give to another long-time but much younger friend and sometime EAIA member. Along the way we stopped at a wine & spirit store so that Bill could lay in a supply of Belhaven Scottish Ale, a particular favorite that he had been unable to find in his neighborhood. When the boat was back in the water, Bill, the friend who provided the truck to transport the boat, and I went down the road a short distance to a restaurant where we had a nice lunch. That finished we went our separate ways, Bill continuing west, bound for Glenmont, and I in the truck with the friend headed for Dartmouth. I watched as Bill disappeared around a corner, carrying with him a number of things for Eastfield including a bag of oyster shells to add to the kitchen midden. That was October 24. One can imagine my shock, dismay, and sorrow when Bob Roemer called on Wednesday evening, November 9, less than two weeks after Bill’s visit, to tell me that Bill had died that afternoon.

As anyone even only slightly acquainted with Bill could readily see, he was a remarkable man. He had everything necessary for being a good friend, worthy of love, admiration and respect. As one’s friendship progressed these characteristics continuously appeared in various ways. Of particular interest to EAIA members and practitioners of traditional mechanical arts was that he was a master of many trades. A partial list would include: carpenter, joiner, timberframer, sashmaker, panel maker, cabinetmaker, stonemason, bricklayer, plasterer, painter stainer, marbleizer, glazer, slater, tinsmith, and blacksmith. He worked with other materials as well and could perform conservation and restoration on things of many different materials. Of all these skills, his particular specialty was tinsmithing. He was probably not only the leading authority on the history of tin ware in this country, but also the leading practitioner and teacher.

This leads to another of Bill’s qualities, he was a natural teacher, so thoroughly did he know the many trades that interested him, that he could talk about them easily and clearly. He could explain everything and was one of those rare teachers who could talk and do at the same time, so that a student could see what Bill was describing simultaneously with listening to it. He was very patient and would go over a difficult point as many times as necessary to see that the student or apprentice understood. He was always ready to share his immense fund of knowledge in any form from lecture, to demonstration, to workshop, to a casual conversation with anyone who showed a little interest.

An older relative of mine once commented during the course of a conversation on education that the person he most admired was the highly educated man [or woman] who had never seen the inside walls of a university. Bill was an example of that person. As far as I know, Bill did not complete high school, but he had a thorough knowledge of Anglo-American material cultural history, which he had developed through his prodigious library, intellectual curiosity, and conversations with experts in the various areas of his interest. Most scholars in material culture are pretty well versed in the study of objects. They know what things are, how and by whom they were made in general terms, and the cultural connotations of the objects in their fields of interest. Bill had all of that, but he also had something possessed by few academics. He knew not only how things were made, but more importantly how to make them. He had the mechanical skill to use the tools involved in the trades to produce the required results. Using a tool also requires the knowledge of the tool itself: how and why it was made and how to keep it tuned up for the best performance.

One cannot really discuss Bill without including Judy. They were two parts of a unit. My first recollection of meeting them was at the 1995 Annual Meeting in Madison, Indiana, where the principal attraction was the Connor Prairie Museum. Kathy Fox and I had flown to Indianapolis and proceeded south in a rented car, stopping at antiques stores along the way. When we arrived at the hotel, I was introduced to the McMillens and soon learned that Bill was a tinsmith. I described a tinsmith’s tool I had seen at one of the shops. Bill asked me where. I described it as well as I could. The McMillens got right into their car and drove off. An hour or so later they returned, and Bill had the machine in his hand, well pleased with his purchase. Thus our friendship began.

In 1997 we resumed the annual tool tours to England. With the assistance of Mark and Jane Rees and other English members we organized a tour that began with the David Stanley auction then looped counterclockwise down through the Cotswolds to Bath, where we were entertained by the Reeses, then east to Chichester, and back to London. Bill and Judy participated in that tour and almost all the rest of them until my retirement. It was soon obvious that they were excellent travelling companions. They were interested in everything, and had something worthwhile to say about most of it. I remember our visit to the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford University. As we stepped into the main exhibition room, Bill blurted out, “I’ve died and gone to heaven.” Nor was their enthusiasm limited to the museums. The many pubs with their varieties of cask conditioned ale on the hand pump were equally attractive to us. Bill was very keen on that and generous in standing me to many pints. More seriously, however, I learned that staying close to Bill as we toured around was very much worthwhile, because he knew how to read buildings. He could look at a 17th century structure, for example, and point out the signs that told about the history of the building, what changes had been made to it over the years and so forth. On all the subsequent tours, I paid as much attention to him as I could.

Sometime about 1999 I saw a magazine article about Eastfield Village, in East Nassau, New York. Perhaps it was Linda Stanton who sent it to me, as she had participated in one of their workshops. I probably learned from her that Bill and Judy were deeply involved. Wanting to know more about it, I contacted Bill, and we arranged a visit for me while he was teaching a workshop. After looking around the village and the layout, it struck me as being something like a one-man Old Sturbridge Village. While it lacked the sights and smells of farm animals, it was in a way more authentic than OSV because everything was in various states of condition. Some buildings were well kept up, others were obviously in need of repair, and activity was in progress all over the place. Unlike OSV where the grounds were all pristine and well-manicured to please the tourists, things were relatively rough as one might expect in a 19th century country village. Bill, Judy, and I met with our fellow member Don Carpentier, the founder and owner of the village, and spoke for some time about ways in which the EAIA and Eastfield might cooperate. The two organizations seemed to me to be natural partners. The result of that meeting was the first in what became an annual event, The EAIA-Eastfield program, in which participants would come for six days of day-long workshops in a variety of trades. Bill, Judy, and I worked out the details of the program. During that week in July 2000, Bill taught three workshops and Judy taught one, as well as putting on two tavern dinners for all hands. Judy and I handled the administrative duties, and I was responsible for six lunches for all hands. The more adventurous participants lived in village buildings without plumbing or electricity, while the more cautious or hygienically inclined retreated to local motels. The program seemed to me to represent the epitome of EAIA purpose: a group of like minded people got together to engage in an educational and constructive program, learn to do several things, and have plenty of time to eat, drink, and socialize with one another. One point that particularly pleased me was that Don Carpentier taught a program in slate roofing through which we put a new slate roof on a three adult and one child holed privy. Thus we left the village improved for our having been there. That first event produced such enthusiasm that we continued it for many successive years. Bill was never one to sound his own trumpet, but over the years I came to appreciate the extent to which he provided the brains and muscle to bring that village to the state it is in today. He was devoted to it and worked for it literally until the day he died.

The EAIA Annual Meetings were always a great time to get together with Bill and Judy. They were always full participants, contributing in as many ways as possible to the success of the events. When we began the tailgating sessions, I always tried to set up next to him to get his advice on pricing the things I hoped to sell. There were always friends hanging around his tables, and when the time reached “beer o’clock,” we were always ready to provide for one another. We tried, when convenient, to go on the same tours and be in the same groups so that we could carry on the conversation, and I could benefit from the extended tutorial. Bill had a great interest in single malt Scotch, and came to the meetings amply supplied. At the end of a long day, when most were calling it one, a number of friends gathered in the McMillens’ hotel room for “a wee dram.” We used to call it “The Club McMillen.”

As mentioned before, Bill and Judy participated in most of the tool tours, as did Ken and Carol Culnan. One year the Culnans were undecided as to whether they would go. Bill said if they came he would pick up their bar tab. They came. We would arrive in a pub and begin placing our orders, a couple of times Ken would call out to me, “Hey, Toby, can I buy you a pint?” Of course I would accept and another pint was added to Bill’s tab. Bill, of course, laughed as much as the rest of us. Following my retirement, which brought an end to the tool tours, we missed them. In 2013 we decided to do something about it, so the McMillens, Culnans, and Halls together with Hal and Donna Logan, who had also been on several tours, decided to have one more tour: The Beer Tour. Hal being a particularly knowledgeable fan of cask conditioned ale, worked out the itinerary and engaged Chrissy Hoodith, who had been our courier on many of the tool tours, to take care of the details and accompany us to four breweries and many other attractions including tools and gardens. Bill was in his element as shown by a photograph Jan took of him at a particularly happy moment.

Last summer, Bill and I finally did something we had spoken of for several years: an architectural tour of the Hudson Valley. On a Wednesday in June, I drove to Eastfield, where I found Bill, Peter Forward, and Greg Joly in the tavern just finishing lunch. Bill showed me all the progress they had made in restoring the tavern since I had last been there. It was indeed impressive. Bill then went back to work on mixing a gallon of old lead paint that had been stored away for decades. The lead had completely separated from the linseed oil and was very difficult to move. When he had enough of that, we returned to the tavern and spent the rest of the afternoon scraping paint off the back wall. In the evening we went to the English Pub in Albany, where Peter joined us for a glass of good dark ale, bangers, and mash, with the music of a lively group of Irish folk musicians in the background. When we returned to Bill’s house he showed me a remarkable corner cupboard he had built for a corner of his dining room. It was all pine, elaborately grained and decorated. Naturally, it was loaded with collections. He then took me down to the cellar and showed me the beautiful boxes he was making of cherry with brass mounts for Judy’s and eventually his own ashes. Back in the kitchen, we concluded the day with a round of single malt.

The next morning we drove north to Fort Ticonderoga. I had not been there since I was a young camper in 1952. Bill gave me a tour the likes of which I would never have received from a guide. He had been involved for a long time in restoration projects, and in making reproduction tin ware for the exhibits. He pointed out things that had been done wrong, what had been done in some cases to correct the errors, and more recent restorations that were correct. He had a lot to say about the magnificent collection of 18th century artillery. After lunch we went down to the waterfront and looked at a boat shop where a bateau was under construction. A member of the staff spotted Bill and came over to chat. He said that if we would like to go on the boat tour out on Lake George, he would get us on the next departure at no charge. We went and enjoyed it. When that was through, we drove south along the west side of the lake until we reached the town of St. George. There we got back on I-87 and proceeded directly to the Albany Oyster and Ale House where we each had a dozen accompanied by a nice dark brown ale. Bill requested a box for the oyster shells, which he would take back to Eastfield to add to the kitchen midden. Upon returning home, we concluded a fine day with the usual dram.

On Friday morning, after a cup of coffee, Bill proposed we go out for breakfast to a place that he and Judy liked very much then proceed south on our planned day of architectural sightseeing. The Mid Way Café was small, simple, and nice with a surprisingly large breakfast menu. I chose a “short” French toast and bacon. Bill had the same adding two fried eggs. There were only a few others in the café, all of whom were very stout, as were the waitresses. We decided that was a favorable endorsement, assuming they were “regulars.” After a leisurely breakfast, we went to a nearby Dutch gambrel roof house dated 1746 that belonged to the Teneyke family, proceeding downstream to another house dated 1701. We continued on down the valley looking at house after house, some of which Bill had worked on. He explained that they liked to build along good streams to ensure a supply of water, and villages were formed around suitable landing places so that the farmers could get their produce aboard boats to ship north or south. We continued south through one village after another, about which Bill provided a steady stream of information until we reached Catskill. There we had lunch then crossed the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to Hudson to visit Olana, Frederick Church’s Moorish style mansion. We returned up the east side of the valley along which Bill provided historical notes as he had going down. That evening we went to an Indian restaurant that he and Judy patronized often. The owner came over to greet Bill, and asked what we would like. After a glance at the menu, Bill said, “Just bring us what Judy usually ordered.” He did. It was good.

These anecdotes offer a few glimpses into the kind of friend Bill was, always amiable, always cheerful, and always generous. You may see how grateful we were to have had that last visit with him, and how sad we are to have learned it was the last.

Elton W. Hall


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