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Monday, December 23, 2013

Smell of the Sawdust

NOW A SUPERMARKET.  This planing mill, part of the Newman Lumber Company operation was
destroyed by fire in 1978.  The site has been used for lumber processing since 1872.  It is now the site of Shaws Supermarket.  (Courtesy Walter Young) 

CREWS AT STEAM-POWERED MILL.  Woods and mill crews join together for a break from their work in front of a Vermont steam-powered sawmill around 1900.  Steam engines freed sawmills from their dependency on water-side
locations.  (Courtesy Bill Gove) 
CIRCULAR SAW AT WORK.  By the late 19th century, circular saws were being used on both small and large logs, significantly increasing the production of sawmills.  Gang and band saws along with other innovations increased production even further. (Courtesy UVM Landscape Change Program) 

AIR-DRIED HURRICANE HARVEST.  Prior to the production of kiln-dried lumber, sawmills air-dried lumber
stacked in their yards. This 1941 photo of a Vermont mill may also show lumber that was sawed from the
blow-down from the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.  (Jack Delano, Farm Security Administration) 

BRADFORD CENTER STORE & MILL.  Built on the banks of the Waits River, this sawmill was in place
as early as 1857 and changed ownership a number of times. (Courtesy Bradford Historical Society) 

500,00 BOARD FEET WEEKLY.  In the 1980s Newman Lumber Company of Woodsville was one of the largest producers of pine lumber in the nation. It carried on a tradition of sawmills in the Woodsville area stretching back to the settlement of Haverhill (Courtesy Walter Young) 

Journal Opinion, December 24, 2013

“I’ll stand by the gate and keep watching for those
Who come with the smell of the pine on their clo’es.
For even in heaven I’ll want it, I will,
The smell of the sawdust that comes from the mill.

Tall Trees, Tough Men
Robert E. Pike

Recently my Woodsville bowling buddies Roland Moore and Wayne Dickey suggested I devote an article to the history of sawmills. When they were younger, both worked in local sawmills. Pike’s book along with local histories and interviews provided more than sufficient material to meet their request.

When settlers arrived from southern New England they found dense and diversified forests. They built their first structures from logs they harvested. But to them frame houses were symbols of civilized permanency. As soon as towns were chartered sawmills were established “to supply the inhabitants with boards, thus making them as comfortable as possible.” The cost of framed structures, including the high price of nails, left others with log cabins and barns for decades.

In 1764 the proprietors of Newbury, meeting down country, “voted to give eighty acres to the man or men who should build a sawmill on Hall’s brook.” In Piermont money, land and water privileges were promised as rewards. Orford’s Israel Morey, who built that town’s first sawmill on Jacob’s Brook in 1766, was offered 100 pounds if he would build a saw and grist mill on the outlet of Fairlee Pond, something he completed in 1781. Nathaniel Niles met the challenge to build a mill on Middle Brook, but he may not have been paid the bounty raised for that purpose.

Local histories honor those individuals who were among the first to establish sawmills, thus helping to make their communities self-sufficient. In 1762 John Hazen built the first sawmill in the area along a brook in what is now North Haverhill. By 1765 he used sawed lumber to build a house on Little Oxbow Meadow. Benjamin Baldwin built the first sawmill in Bradford in 1774. It was located at the falls on the Waits River and was “greatly to the benefit of the early settlers.”

Sawmill pioneers in other towns included Corinth’s John Taplin, Thetford’s Eldad Post and Lyme Center’s James Cook. The first sawmill in Ryegate was built, with some controversy, out of town at the falls in Boltonville. In Corinth Corner Joseph Fellows built a sawmill in 1791 and the first boards produced were used for a frame house for his bride.

Where there was no water to power the saws, the earliest mills used up-and-down pit saws. Two men, one in a pit and the other above, used a long thick saw to cut up to 200 board feet daily. The easier method, however, used a water-driven saw activated by a crank handle. All parts for these early sawmills could be produced locally except for the saw and the crank. In his early history of the Coos, Rev.Grant Powers writes of six men from Newbury who nearly lost their lives making a winter trip to Concord to secure a crank.

These early mills served the immediate needs of the communities that grew up around the waterpower sources. Giant trees, including those reserved for the British navy, fell to the ax, supplying lumber for homes, barns, and bridges. When there was a surplus, timber and logs were shipped south on the Connecticut River.

There was money to be made in operating a sawmill, especially when it was coupled with other milling processes, such as grain, cloverseed and bark. Other mills manufactured shingles, fencing and clapboards and later bobbins, furniture parts, caskets and eaves troughs. One Orford sawmill also sawed soapstone. Some early owners sold or leased their mills while others passed the ownership on to family members for generations.

In the early 19th century the circular saw was introduced. Initially it was only used on smaller logs. This increased the production of sawmills significantly. New style waterwheels and gang saws with numerous blades that allowed multiple simultaneous cuts also increased production.

Over the years additional improvements included the edging and band saws. The Orford history indicates that young Royal Beal of Orfordville applied the use of the band saw in 1838 when he took four old saws and banded them together for use in his father’s mill. Some time before 1851 Randsom Aldrich introduced the board-planing machine into Orange County at his South Newbury mill resulting in a more finished product.The introduction of the log turner in 1899 was another significant improvement.

At first mills operated only when water supply was sufficient. Farmers often stockpiled logs in the mill yard to be sawed when spring rains came. Some mills could operate following downpours during other times of the year. The use of steam engines after the 1820s freed mill operation from dependency on natural water flow. Despite this advance, there were still 762 water-powered sawmills in New Hampshire in 1874.

In the 20th century some sawmills began using diesel engines to power their operation. One unique power source was used by Leo Jenks when he set up his first Lyme mill in 1931 driven by Cadillac V-8 engine. These new power sources sometimes allowed mills to be more easily dismantled and moved to new locations.

The coming of the railroads in the 1840s increased the market reach for local timber. The construction of the Montpelier & Wells River Railroad in the 1870s with its demand for ties and lumber for bridges and ease of transport to market gave a boost to local sawmills. As highways improved logs and lumber were increasingly transported by trucks.

It is impossible to list the numerous sawmills that operated in the area over the past 250 years. Wood working was second only to agriculture in the local economy. By the 1820s Haverhill had five sawmills, Bradford had four and Piermont and Warren had three each. By 1840 it was estimated there were over 31,000 sawmills in America with 1,081 in Vermont. Many of these mills were very simple buildings, often open on three sides and operating only seasonally. By 1855 there were up to 12 mills in Newbury and their operation “nearly stripped the town of its timber.”

With improved methods sawmills increased their production. Trussell’s Mill in Orford, built in 1866, produced 1 million board feet of lumber and 100,000 shingles annually. In the 1880s there were about 50 sawmills in Orange County, with six in Newbury, three in Corinth and two each in Groton, Bradford and Topsham. More than 800 portable sawmills were estimated to be in New Hampshire at that time.

Working in sawmills was also hard and hazardous. From harvesting to the sawing, logging was among the most dangerous of occupations. Maneuvering logs in icy conditions was unpredictable. At Corinth’s Bear Ridge, “logs were drawn to the top of the steep ledges by oxen and chains unhitched so the timber could be shoved over the edge for faster delivery to the sawmill. This method of skidding ended when a pair of oxen was dragged to its death along with a log of giant size.”

Sharp moving equipment, flying pieces of wood and metal and the occasional boiler explosion resulted in injuries and even death for millworkers. Local histories include descriptions of men who suffered broken bones, lost limbs and eyes and worse.

Floods sometimes washed away a streamside mill and its dam. Fire was also a constant danger. One sawdust fire at Baldwin & Hazen mill in Groton smoldered for years. Harry McLam of Bradford says that fire ended his grandfather’s mill operation in East Corinth around 1948 and small fires in the sawdust and shavings piles were common at his father’s mill in Bradford. Sometimes these disasters permanently ended the operation of a mill.

Several mills in Woodsville survived multiple fires. The first sawmill near the location of the present Shaw’s Supermarket was built in 1872. It burned in 1879, was rebuilt and burned again in 1902. Dwight Stone rebuilt the mill in 1910 and rebuilt it again after a fire in 1915. In 1921, it was incorporated as Acer Lumber Company. A second fire occurred that year.

The depletion of nearby timber and the Great Depression caused the mill to close until 1942 when it was leased to Johnson Lumber Company. That company built a second mill near the junction of routes 10 and 302. In 1946 a fire destroyed the complex. Rebuilt, it was purchased by Newman Lumber Company in 1953.

Newman suffered fires in 1973, 1977, and 1978, the last of which destroyed the planing mill at the original mill site. The company’s entire operation was then transferred to the Rte.10/302 location. The plant suffered another fire in 1988, but continued to be one of the largest producers of pine boards in the country, producing up to 500,000 board feet per week.It was sold in 1997 to Davidson Industries. Tembec, a Canadian company, was the last operator of the mill having purchased it in November 2001.  It closed permanently in 2003, the victim of an unstable lumber market and increased  foreign competition. Wal-Mart and Fogg’s Hardware now occupies the site.

The depletion of harvestable timber and the Great Depression caused the closure of many sawmills. The need to salvage the blow-down from the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 revived the industry temporarily. Logs waiting processing were stored in local ponds. George Nichols’ mill in Lyme alone processed over 4 million board feet between 1938 and 1942. The amount of lumber produced caused “a glut on the market.”

The number of saw mills dropped in the 20th century. Production reach a peak in Vermont in 1907 with 373 million board feet of lumber produced. D. C. McLam’s sawmill in Bradford ceased operation in 1955 when, according to Harry McLam, “good construction logs petered out” and they were replaced by Canadian lumber. The last stationary sawmill in Lyme burned in 1959 and Bradford’s last one closed several years ago.

Markus Bradley of Redstart Forestry in Corinth says smaller mills have disappeared while larger, specialized, efficient and safer operations have survived with no drop in overall production. Newman Lumber in Wells River and Britton Lumber in Fairlee are examples of these surviving mills. He went on to say there is an “organic movement” with small low budget portable sawmills, allowing operators to “make a living.”

Currently there are 105 stationary mills in Vermont, seven in Orange County. New Hampshire has about 50 stationary mills. Both states have a number of portable operations. One New Hampshire forestry specialist indicates that the total output of these mills is as great as when there were twice as many.


Britton Lumber Co. sawmill destroyed last night.  It was a two-story 50 x 250 ft building employing 20 workers.  Robert Moses owner said “It’s too premature to make any decision or plans.”   Had produced 10 million bd fee of eastern white pine per year .  Considered medium size for New England with large mills producing as much as 30 million board feet annually, Moses said. Mill was built in 1972 and grew over the past four decades. 

What about the sawmill connection of my two Woodsville friends? Roland Moore worked for short periods in three local sawmills around 1951. He stacked lumber, worked slabs and washed logs at Hansen’s Mill in South Newbury, Wood Brothers in Newbury and Eastern Pine in North Haverhill. When asked why he didn’t continue, he says he “smartened up.”

Beginning in 1968, 23 year-old Wayne Dickey began his 14-year employment as a lumber grader at Newman Lumber in Woodsville. He says he enjoyed the work despite the heat in the summer and the often bitter cold in the winter. One winter it was 50 degrees below for a week and “we stayed all day trying to get things going.” “Not a job for everyone.” He went on to say “Walter Young was my boss, a great man to work for.” He also recalls fighting the New Year Eve fire that destroyed the mill in 1978.

My Dad and two older brothers logged our property in Archertown, Orford. I sometimes went along to burn brush or snake logs with our workhorse Dick. I never got to drive the bulldozer or use a chainsaw. We delivered logs to Jenks’ in Lyme, Johnson’s in Fairlee and Dyke’s in Orfordville. Using stickers we stacked lumber at our Bridge Street home and sold it air-dried.

When I asked Wayne and Roland what reminded them of their sawmill experiences they say the smell of the cut lumber. I would add to that, from my limited experience in sawmill yards, the high pitched screech of the saw and planer as they, like the hardworking men in those mills, did their work.

In Jan 2019, the Valley News reported that Vermont's small sawmills were under major pressure from Canadian imports as well as the retirement of older owners. Additionally, Asian log buyers are "paying significantly higher prices" than local owners can afford. In 1970, Vermont had about 130 permanent sawmills.  By 2017, that number had been reduced to less than 50. There are over 100 mills just across the borders in Quebec.

The article went on to say that small sawmills do not benefit from "the economies of  scale" that larger mills do.