LANCASTER (AP) -- For years, Dave Fey was Fairfield County's Don Quixote, tilting at windmills -- or, in his case, a tumbledown 19th-century gristmill.
The director of Fairfield County Historical Parks had vowed to restore Rock Mill into the crown jewel of the park system. He envisioned a working piece of history that would grind corn into cornmeal and wheat into flour, as it did when it was built in 1824, and would beckon tourists and students on field trips. The restoration began in 2006.
It proceeded slowly, however, for lack of money. Now, following voter approval of the first property-tax levy for the park district, the work pace has picked up significantly.
An important piece of the project, a 10-ton oak waterwheel to power the mill, was installed in September. A flume to carry water from the Hocking River onto the waterwheel will follow, along with gears and other equipment.
About $750,000 has been spent on the project so far, and it will take as much as $400,000 more to finish it, Fey estimated. He hopes it will be completed in two years.
"You are going to fully allow your senses to experience 1824," Fey said, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm as he checked on a carpenter's crew working on the mill. "You will smell the flour dust in the air, you will breathe it, you will taste it."
People who know Fey did not doubt that he would finish the restoration and eventually would persuade voters to approve a tax to support the park district. The money will be used to add restrooms, walking trails, picnic tables and other recreational amenities to its 20 properties, which include covered bridges, a canal lock and an Indian mound. The district also now manages the Wahkeena Nature Preserve, about 35 miles southeast of Columbus.
The 0.4-mill levy passed in 2011 on the 11th attempt since the park district was established in 1981. The 10-year tax generates slightly more than $1 million annually and costs homeowners about $12 per $100,000 of property value.
Fey, 68, who lives in Baltimore in northern Fairfield County, has directed the park district since 1999 after retiring from a career teaching high-school biology.
For many who have met the talkative Fey through his park job or have heard one of the hundreds of presentations he has made, the first impression is that he must have been a history teacher.
Name the topic -- Fairfield County's sandstone cliffs, Indian tribes, settlers, the gristmill -- and Fey is off and running. He shares history in the most interesting manner and captivates the listener, said Rosemary Hajost, a Lancaster resident who worked on the levy campaign last year.
"In a former life, I am sure that he was a stand-up performer of some sort," she said.
Judy Shupe, who is retiring after five terms as a county commissioner, said the county would not have had a park district without Fey.
Before the levy passed, the parks received about $100,000 annually from the county general fund, enough for mowing and basic upkeep but little else. Fey enlisted volunteers, got grants to start the Rock Mill restoration and climbed behind the wheel of a pickup daily to tend to the parks. He was paid $30,000 a year and was the only employee.
"I don't know anyone who has as much enthusiasm for their job as Dave Fey," said Shupe, who plans to volunteer with the park district after she retires.
Fey now is paid $50,000. He also hired a landscape architect and planner for $80,000 to develop the parks and a communications and financial coordinator for $38,000, he said.
County Commissioner Steve Davis described Fey as "the Energizer Bunny of history," who has kept going and going, infectious in his enthusiasm to share with others the county's sites and the importance of preserving them.
"His legacy has already begun," Davis added. "I have been to Rock Mill probably 30 times since the waterwheel was put on. It's never empty.
"The Rock Mill restoration will be the crown jewel of his legacy. His modesty will be a part of his legacy, as well. He is keenly aware of his own transient nature. Much of what he is doing is for that next generation."