A community pitches in to save a Wisconsin dam

Herman Borntreger, of Augusta, Wis., not only owns a dam, he owns one of the most photographed places in all of Wisconsin: Dells Mill.

Owning a dam can be an expensive proposition when it becomes unsafe. That’s when most mill ponds become creeks. Who can afford to keep up a dam? The former owner says it may be the last privately owned dam in Wisconsin.

The dam at Dells Mill, a grist mill, was built of wood in 1864, and replaced with concrete in 1919. When the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources inspected it a few years ago, the news wasn’t good for Borntreger, who bought the place in 2015. It’d need to be repaired.

The DNR provides grants for these sorts of things, but not for private owners. There is up to $50,000 in assistance to remove private dams, but Borntreger isn’t interested. He’s Amish. He tells the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram taking grant money violates his religion’s self-sufficiency.

Borntreger is willing to take on the $300,000 to $500,000 project himself somehow, the paper says. When he went to tell the neighbors why the pond was about to be lowered, he had no intention of mentioning the cost.

But then someone asked.

Right away, though, everyone wanted to know where the money was going to come from.

“I wasn’t even really trying anywhere to get money,” Borntreger said, “but I had a meeting with the property owners a couple weeks ago, and they asked me how I was paying for this. I said, ‘I guess I’ll be paying for it myself, unless somebody wanted to help,’ and a couple of them spoke up and said, ‘Yeah, we feel like we should. It’s our pond too,’” Borntreger said.

Thus, a GoFundMe page was created.

The fundraising efforts by his pond-sharing neighbors came as somewhat of a surprise to Borntreger, but he said he is very appreciative of their help.

Richard Berg, one of the property owners, said it was obvious to him that he and the others needed to help in some way.

“It’s a great undertaking that he’s doing, and we figured, as the property owners around, the least we could do is try to create some activity to help offset the cost of this dam for Herman,” Berg said.

No need to hire expensive construction companies. Borntreger’s Amish friends showed up ready to work and so far have removed and replaced a cap. They figure by July 4, it’ll also have a new face and a new base.

As for the fundraising, it’s pretty slow so far. It’s raised $400 of the $500,000 goal.