IT was almost exactly 50 years ago this week, on May 23, 1970, that the giant waterwheel at Skipton’s historic corn mill at Mill Bridge began turning once again.

The then owner of the mill, urban councillor, ‘well-known dog show judge’ and seed merchant, George Leatt had spent the previous four years renovating the water mill, which had lain dormant for more than 30 years.

Over the weekend of May 23, Mr Leatt opened the mill to the public. It was, he believed, the first working museum of its kind in the country.

Today, High Corn Mill, is home to a number of businesses, and is owned by Andrew Mear, who bought it in 1991, following the death of Mr Leatt. The ‘historical innovation zone’ is still very much open to the public, and is free, fun and educational - very much a family attraction.

Located within the heart of the mill, the historical zone gives people the chance to see the water wheel and water turbine, which was installed in 2010 as part of a £200,000 environmental initiative, generating power for the building and surrounding properties.

A viewing gallery allows visitors to see all the inner workings and get a close up view of the giant water wheel and even to set it off. It is open seven days a week and the entrance to the ‘Innovation Zone’ is found in the main entrance courtyard, immediately next door to The Home Company.

Mr Mear said: “The mill has played a prominent part in the lives of Skipton and its people for generations and continues to adapt to meet the demands of modern times. Housing a number of retail and office spaces, it continues to thrive, showcasing the wheel for visitors to learn about its workings.”

Back in 1970, Mr Leatt shared his exciting plans for the building, and his hopes of it becoming a major tourist attraction, with the Craven Herald.

Having bought the mill a few years earlier, with his wife and married daughter, Judith, the idea of a museum came about when they discovered some items of machinery that had not been scrapped.

From them came the whole idea of getting the ‘whole place going again’ explained Mr Leatt.

It was an ambitious project, the building was almost derelict and was prone to vandalism. Machinery that had lain idle for years had to be renovated, cleaned and made to work. But the scheme grew, and became bigger than the family had planned.

Mr Leatt and his colleagues repaired the 28ft diameter water wheel, which despite its weight and size had been so finely balanced by the original workmen that it could be pushed with one hand.

A turbine, which was believed to have been installed in 1912, was also renovated and harnessed to an old alternator, capable of supplying the mill with electricity. An exact replica of a blacksmith’s hearth from an old Arncliffe forge was used to make new parts for old machinery, including bolts which had to be made to rebuild the old waterwheel.

Timbers from various Skipton buildings, at the time long reduced to rubble and wasteland, were incorporated into the mill. Some 20ft by 10ft Columbian pine timbers were brought from a Bradford building and used to make a canopy. One of those involved in the restoration was Paul Mackay, a retired millwright.

Mr Leatt said at the time that the opening marked a long period of time during which he was constantly asked when the mill was to be opened.

For the opening, he planned to have the wheel and turbine turning, and much of the machinery in operation. Ultimately, he hoped to have the mill in full working order, as it had been many years ago. His aim was not a commercial one, but to run it as a free folk museum.

Corn milling in Skipton is said to date back to Norman times. There were two mills, the largest at Mill Bridge.

At one time, the mill housed a large hay -chopper, for much hay was sold in Caroline Square, particularly on market days.

The end product was known as ‘hay chop’ which was sold direct from a shop which also sold implements and medicines, and even confectionery.

Grain was hauled up from the canal, when it came to Skipton in the 18th century, by crane and a ‘cat’s head’ or pulley block at the mill.

Mr Leatt’ s mother, Kate Leatt, then 85, worked for the Mattock family who owned the mill for many years.

It was in the 1940s that Mr Leatt went into partnership with Mr A J Clayton, who had acquired the mill in the early 1920s. When Mr Clayton died, Cllr Leatt left the mill and in 1946 it was bought by Mr D Bramhall, representing Whitaker’s Agricultural Machinery Ltd.

Mr Leatt returned to the mill in 1966 when he started the laborious task of restoration.