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N.H. sawmill is sharp reminder of the past

Email|Print| Text size + By Sacha Pfeiffer
Globe Staff / December 13, 2006

DERRY, N.H. -- Try to imagine New England's earliest sawmills.

They were called "pit saws," they required two men to operate, and they got their name because one man stood above a hole over which a log was laid, while another -- the "pitman" -- stood below it. Each held the end of a long saw blade, and the pitman's job was to pull the saw downward, which supplied most of the blade's cutting power.

It was dirty, dangerous, laborious work, especially for the man in the pit, who was at constant risk of the log falling on him, and who endured a steady shower of sawdust. In this grueling way, whole trees were sliced into boards for home construction, shipbuilding, and other uses.

No wonder the "up and down" mechanical sawmill was such a welcome invention.

Powered by water rather than muscle, New England's first known up - and - down sawmill was built in 1703 in South Berwick, Maine, on the Salmon Falls River, according to New Hampshire's Community Forestry and Stewardship Bureau, a state agency. To harness the river's natural energy, water was diverted down a sluiceway and into buckets attached to a rotating wheel. As the wheel moved, a network of pulleys and gears moved with it, driving a saw blade up and down.

The new technology, which enabled sawmills to increase lumber production dramatically, spread quickly . Within three years of their arrival in the Northeast, about 70 water-powered sawmills were operating in the Portsmouth area alone. They remained in wide use until after the Civil War, when circular saws and, later, steam- and gasoline-powered saws, came onto the scene.

Today, Derry is home to the last up - and - down sawmill in the state. The 200-year-old Taylor Mill, on Island Pond Road at Ballard Pond in Ballard State Forest, was owned by Robert Taylor, who began operating a sawmill around 1805. By 1939, much of the mill had been sold for scrap and the land it sat on was bought by Ernest R. Ballard, who spent several years restoring the historic machine. He donated the entire property to the state in 1953. By then the sawmill was in need of another restoration. So a private company, Nel-Tech Labs of Manchester, invested more than $40,000 in materials that again brought the decaying mill back to working order. The state opens the mill to the public for demonstrations several times a year, offering a glimpse of the earliest days of New England's forest products industry.

"It's the way things were, and it was a hard life, and we try to get people to understand how hard it was," said J.B. Cullen, administrator of community forestry and stewardship for the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands, which operates the Taylor Mill jointly with the Division of Parks and Recreation. "We're losing our historical culture. We tear down old buildings and put up condos and other structures with total disregard for what went on before us, and people no longer live on the land.

"But the sawmill makes that link, it keeps that historic reference," he added. "Otherwise, when people look at new sawmills they would have no frame of reference for how boards were sawed in the past. People can't fathom something like that unless they see it physically."

It is also difficult for 21st-century Americans to comprehend the slow progress of up - and - down sawmills, Cullen said.

"A lot of people ask us if we can saw boards for them so they can make their house out of water-powered sawmill board," he said, "but that would take a long time."

Indeed, an average house requires 12,000 board feet of wood, an amount that would take an up - and - down sawmill, which generally would have cut between 25 and 50 board feet a day, nearly a year to produce, he said.

"It would also put a lot of wear and tear on the sawmill," Cullen said, "because all the bearings are made out of wood."

Today, most sawmills are massive complexes run by computers and able to churn out hundreds of thousands of boards a day. And timber, which was so central to the growth of the frontier economy, remains a robust industry, the third largest in the state. After all, New Hampshire is about 85 percent wooded, making it the second most forested state in the nation, after Maine.

"It's a thriving industry," Cullen said, "and the reason we have so much forest is the stewardship effort of people in the past."

Contact Sacha Pfeiffer at pfeiffer@globe.com.

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