“It is claimed that our boastful civilization is built upon iron, but I want to tell you that we are very largely dependent on the products of our forest for our existence. The average Vermonter… is always dependent upon and supported by the products of the forest.” Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Annual Report, 1917
In April, I wrote a column on woodworking in the Two-State region. This included items ranging from bobbins and clothespins to barrels and tubs. This column will continue the topic of the historic manufacturing of products from the region’s extensive forests.
In order to farm, the early white settlers had to clear trees. The easiest way was to burn the cut wood either on the spot or in their home fires.
For these settlers, the earliest cash crops were the potash and pearl ash they made from the resulting wood ash.
Ashes were soaked in water and drained to create lye. One recipe called for passing water “through a barrel of hardwood ash over and over until an egg can float in the residue.” It was then evaporated in large kettles into potash. The lye was also used for soap production.
Nearly every settler had a crude ashery to create these so-called salts. Some communities established larger public asheries, a practice that often led to privately-owned businesses with more expensive equipment. Those factories refined potash into pearl ash for use as leavening in cooking.
These salts ,in high demand, were exported on rafts down the Connecticut River, for buyers to wash raw wool or in the production of other products.
Once farmland was cleared and the production of lumber became more profitable, the local potash industries faded.
In early Corinth, Daniel Cooke of Cookeville operated both a potashery and a tannery. The latter made use of bark, another forest-clearing byproduct.
Bark mills processed bark, roots, and branches into a fine powder known as tanbark. At the beginning of the tanning process, hides were soaked in pits with a mixture of water and tannin made from the tanbark. After six months or more the hides were processed into leather. Oak and hemlock were especially good for this use. In 1827, there were two bark mills in Haverhill and a number in other area towns.
Timothy Shedd of Wells River and Oliver Hardy of Bradford were early 19th century tanners whose operations included this tannin process. Workers used a tanner’s spud to peel the logs. In the 1890s, new machinery was used in bark mills that ground three cords of bark an hour. Tanbark was also used for insulation, especially in ice houses.
Harvested wood’s most continuous use was the heating of buildings and the cooking of food. In the 1740s, Benjamin Franklin created a metal wood-burning stove as an improvement to the open fireplace. Its successors were known as Franklin stoves. In the 1830s, cast iron kitchen stoves and parlor stoves were introduced.
These stoves lightened the workload by raising the cooking level to waist-high and significantly saved on firewood. By the 1880s, wood supplied two-thirds of industrial and residential fuel. In 1906, the first widely-used hot air wood furnace came on the market.
While coal replaced wood in most urban areas, local rural residents continued to use wood as a fuel. My parents burned wood harvested from our wood-lot in the Archertown section of Orford. We remembered two adages regarding that use. “Wood warms you three times, when you chop it, when you stack it, and when you burn it.” Wise users of wood check their remaining pile on Groundhog Day to make sure at least half remains for the rest of the heating season.
It recent years, more efficient wood-burning stoves, pellet stoves, biomass power plants, and outdoor furnaces use firewood and the byproducts of wood manufacturing.
Local sawmills processed a significant portion of the harvested trees. As soon as towns were chartered, they often offered rewards to any who would build the first sawmill “to supply the inhabitants with boards” for homes, barns, and bridges. Surplus timber and logs were shipped to market, first on the Connecticut River and then by rail.
The introduction of new machinery such as the circular saw, increased lumber production significantly. By 1840, there were over 1,000 sawmills in Vermont. In 1848, Dennis Lang of Barre began to make major improvements in sawmill machinery “that would eventually revolutionize the world’s sawmills.” He and his partners established the Lane Manufacturing Company in Montpelier. One of their mills boasted it could cut over 4,000 feet of spruce per hour.
By 1855 there were at least 12 sawmills in Newbury, and their operation “nearly stripped the town of its timber.” Trussell’s Mill in Orford, built in 1866, produced 1 million board feet of lumber and 100,000 shingles annually. The depletion of harvestable timber, economic uncertainty, and foreign competition have caused the closure of many sawmills. In 2021, there were about 39 sawmills in New Hampshire and about 70 stationary or portable ones in Vermont.
Those interested in more complete coverage of this topic may find the 2013 column entitled “Smell of the Sawdust” on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. Use the search feature to locate the column.
In addition to lumber, many sawmills also produced clapboards and shingles. John Peckett of Bradford began his career in 1810 rafting shingles and lumber down the Connecticut River. In 1854, he opened a Bradford mill manufacturing shingles and lumber. About 1865, J. G. Blood purchased a saw and shingle mill in North Haverhill. In 1879, a shingle mill on Hall’s brook in South Newbury produced 50,000 shingles annually.
In 1874, the Lang Manufacturing Company developed a new clapboard machine. The Washington County gazetteer, published in 1889, mentions at least two clapboard mills that produced over a million feet of spruce clapboards annually.
Veneer is another product that used lumber from the two states. Historically, veneers were cut by hand. In the 1820s new machines allowed the wood to be cut uniformly thin. This made it possible to use valuable wood such as mahogany go further by gluing it to native species such as maple or birch. Veneer was used in furniture, boxes and wall paneling.
In 1909, George Church and Burton Hooker established a veneer mill on the Waits River in Bradford. At that time, the St. Johnsbury newspaper reported: “The capacity of the mill is about 8,000 to 10,000 feet of veneer a day, which requires about 2,000 feet of lumber.” Fire partially destroyed the plant on Sept. 16, 1012, but its owners reported that it “will be repaired and ready for operation by the first of November.”
In a 1914 advertisement for a used power chipper, the company reported business “is very quiet. The outlook for business is poor.” By 1917, reports mention “lumbermen are rushing logs” to the Bradford Veneer & Panel mill. These logs were stored in huge outdoor piles, kept soaked before peeling. This was one of a number of veneer mills in Vermont and New Hampshire. As with many other woodworking operations, locals often found life time employment in the shop and yard. Although with a smaller staff, this mill continues the long tradition of working woods.
In addition to the veneer, this mill also produces plywood. The practice of gluing veneers together was introduced into the United States in 1865. Used as a general building material, the standard size of 4 x 8 feet was adopted in 1928.
Veneers were also a valuable part of the local furniture industry. From the early years of settlement, part-time furniture makers produced all types of household furniture. These makers “took full advantage of the color and grain of local woods” including yellow birch, white pine, butternut, cherry, ash, and various types of maple. More expensive furniture combined these materials with more exotic and expensive materials such as mahogany. Veneers were often combined to created “rich multi-dimensional patterns.”
In 1804, Israel Willard opened a chair and bedstead factory on Roaring Brook in Bradford. The following year Stephen Adams of Haverhill began making furniture using local birch and pine. David Beal began manufacturing chairs in Orfordville in 1837, at first by hand and later with a turning lathe. John Osgood, a Haverhill clockmaker, used cases made by Dudley Carleton of Newbury that were crafted from local wood such as butternut and cherry. From 1840 to 1878, Isaac Howe’s shop made chairs in South Newbury.
After the Civil War, furniture was more likely to be mass-produced. Examples of those businesses include Hale Furniture Co. of East Arlington, VT established in 1879, or the Cheshire Chair Co of Keene, established in 1869. It was reported that the latter produced 600 to 800 chairs each month. Those wishing a more complete history of local furniture makers may read my 2015 blog posting entitled “Furniture Makers: Plain or Elegant” at the site mentioned above.
By the early 20th century, pulp and paper made from wood pulp combined to be Vermont’s single largest industry. In 1907, Vermont had 28 companies that turned out pulp and paper with over 1,400 employees.
Early paper mills, such as those located on the Wells and Waits Rivers, first used rags to manufacture paper. After the Civil War, the ground wood fibers from pulp replaced the scarce supply of rags. In 1819, the Monadnock Paper Mill was established in Bennington, NH and, after 1865, converted to pulp. In the same way, the paper mill in Wells River, established by Bill Blake in the early 1800s, used rags at first. Later, after a number of ownership changes, it became known as the Adams Paper Company. About 1916, it began to use pulpwood for its paper production. It closed in 1981.
The Ryegate Paper Company established its paper and pulp mill in 1903. In 1913, it was producing 20 tons of ground pulp and 25 tons of newspaper daily. The company built housing for its scores of workers in East Ryegate. It closed about 2002.
Between 1894 and 1900, consumption of pulpwood increased by over 50 percent. In 1919, an article in Barre’s Times Argus warned of the depletion of Vermont forests from the manufacture of newsprint. “So great has been the draught made upon the reserves of spruce that only through reforestations will it be possible to meet future demands.”
There were similar connections between pulp and paper in New Hampshire. In 1868, W. W. Brown established the Berlin Mills Company. By 1903, its mills in Berlin and Gorham were producing 200 tons of paper per day. By 1917, using pulp from Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Quebec, it was the largest operation of its type in the world. In Groveton with its paper board mill, Berlin and Groveton were paper company towns, with a distinct sulfur odor. While they survived the economic downturns of the 20th century, environmental concerns and foreign completion lead to their closure in the first decade of the new century.
The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ report mentioned above concluded that residents were surrounded by wood products throughout their lives. At the end, early residents of both states were likely to be buried in a pine coffin made by a family member or local carpenter. Wells’ 1913 Ryegate history concludes: “Carpenters also made coffins, which were not finished ready for use as they are now but when one was needed the local carpenter was provided with measures and instructed as to the expense which might be incurred.”
About 1826, E. H. Farham of Newbury made furniture as well as coffins. Later in the century, A.P. Shaw and George Butler of Bradford also offered them. In the 1888 Orange County Gazetteer coffin makers were listed in Newbury, E. Corinth, Topsham and West Fairlee.
This concentrated use of native woods had a negative impact on both states. By the 1850s, 45% of New Hampshire’s forests were depleted. When railroads opened the northern section of that state to logging, further depletion occurred. By the late 1800s, 80% of Vermont’s forests were gone. This deforestation led to erosion and flooding as well as an impact on forest animals. Factories polluted air and waterways. Workers often faced dangerous working conditions.
Reforestation, conservation efforts, and government regulations have turned some of this around. Today, New Hampshire is 85% forested and Vermont is 80%, the direct opposite of the earlier number. Waterways run clearer.
Woodworking has been one of the most important manufacturing industries for both Vermont and New Hampshire. Beginning with individual part-time crafters, both states developed industries that employed many workers creating items from paper and bobbins to clothespins and furniture. Wooden works first met local needs before expanding to markets away. Many of these crafts still employ workers today making furniture, tubs, and veneers among other products. As in the past, they often use native woods.