Raising some ghosts at Historic Beck’s Mill

SALEM – In Washington County, Indiana University faculty, students, and local community members are raising some ghosts.

Nine teams are working together on a community-engaged research project at historic Beck’s Mill, a gristmill established in 1808 near Salem. The project has more than 65 participants, including 15 IU faculty, 15 IU students, and more than 35 community members. Together, they’re digging into the site’s past to co-produce a vision for its future.

The Beck’s Mill work is based on a “ghost lab” model, says Ed Dallis-Comentale, professor of English, associate vice provost for arts and humanities at IU Bloomington, and co-leader of IU Bloomington’s Platform, an arts and humanities laboratory. Ghost labs are a mode of participatory research developed by Geoff Bright, a research fellow and scholar at Manchester Metropolitan University. The model was introduced to the IU project by Joseph Varga, an associate professor in the IU School of Social Work.

Ed Dallis-Comentale

“The idea of ‘raising ghosts’ is about working through issues surrounding a site, issues that may have haunted the past, and exorcising those ‘ghosts’ to move the site into the future,” Dallis-Comentale said. “The goal is to work together to reinvent and reuse the site in more contemporary ways.”

The collaborative team-based approach is a genuine innovation in arts and humanities work, according to Dallis-Comentale.

“This project uses the humanities and the arts in a team-based format to explore both the history and the forms of expression that define the site,” he said. “The humanities bring ideas, and the arts explore the emotional resonances of the site. Both are needed to connect with the site in a deep way and get people invested in its future.”

The Beck’s Mill project is a partnership between IU’s Center for Rural Engagement; Platform’s Indiana Studies group; and Washington County community leaders and residents. The county is the current community partner in the CRE’s Sustaining Hoosier Communities initiative, now in its fourth year.

Project teams have taken on a wide array of studies. One team is looking at architecture and wayfinding, for example, while others are examining the natural environment and ecology and the area’s Native American connections. Community members and IU faculty and students are working on documentary research, remote sensing, restoring old looms, creating new songs about the mill’s history, developing dramatic reenactments, and much more.

Carey Champion, director of IU’s Wylie House Museum, and Brian Forist, a lecturer in the School of Public Health-Bloomington and a former National Park Service ranger and interpreter, co-lead the site interpretation and outreach team. They’ve worked closely with the Friends of Beck’s Mill organization.

Carey Champion

“We’ve mostly been trying to read, learn, and listen,” Champion said. “We’ve been exploring what’s working for them, what hasn’t, what they feel would help, and what they hope to implement moving forward.”

Champion noted that an interest in self-guided tours at the Mill has emerged during their explorations, and she and Forist are researching options related to that goal. Forist will also use the Beck’s Mill site as a learning laboratory for students next year, who will provide service to the Friends of Beck’s Mill while focusing on coursework at the site.

The overall project has completed its first phase of research and planning. Going forward, project team members will start looking for funding to launch the second phase of the project, during which the teams’ research and recommendations will be put into action.

Throughout, the community engagement is innovative and extensive, according to Dallis-Comentale.

“It’s a really creative process,” he said. “This has truly been a bright, dynamic project bringing together research, arts, and the community.”

On June 25 and 26, the project’s work so far will be celebrated with an event at Beck’s Mill featuring presentations and performances as well as a locally catered dinner. David Nord, emeritus professor of journalism and history at IU Bloomington, will give a keynote talk on “The Revolution in Flour Milling at Beck’s Mill, Salem, and Beyond”. The celebration is open to the public.

Find more information and registration details for the June event.