Funds sought for historic saw mill

This 1966 photo shows Marshfield’s Hatch Mill, which has been out of operation since the 1960s. People who back a plan to restore the mill are hoping for $284,000 in funding.
This 1966 photo shows Marshfield’s Hatch Mill, which has been out of operation since the 1960s. People who back a plan to restore the mill are hoping for $284,000 in funding. Credit: Don Hurihan

Backers of an ambitious plan to restore the town’s historic Hatch Mill will be seeking $284,000 in Community Preservation Act funds when Marshfield’s Annual Town Meeting begins on Monday.

Out of operation since the 1960s, the Hatch Mill is the only one standing on the North River that dates from a time when the river’s 26 mills built more than 1,000 wooden sailing vessels. One of those ships, the Columbia, became the first American vessel to sail around the world, in 1790.

“This is the only existing saw mill left on the South Shore,” said Michael Burrey, a preservationist carpenter who has worked for years on restoring the 260-year-old water-powered up-and-down sash mill.

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The Hatch Mill Restoration & Preservation Group has been involved in the project for almost two decades, said the group’s president, Roy Kirby.

Six years ago the group received a $120,250 grant from Marshfield’s Community Preservation Act funds. Along with a $35,000 preservation grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the money was used to seal the deteriorating building in temporary fashion and protect it from weather before starting on the time-taking labor of restoring the mill to its original working condition.

“We’re using lumber appropriate to all the phases of the mill,” Burrey said last week. “If it was sash-sawn, we use that sash-sawn wood. If it was hewn, cut by an ax, we replace it with hewn material.”

“It’s the aesthetics that are important,” Burrey added. “Inside the mill, it feels like it’s been there for a long time.”

If Town Meeting approves the funding, the Hatch Mill restoration group will complete structural repairs to the saw mill and box mill, windows, trim, siding, and wood roof. The funds will also be used to repair the site’s stone weir and foot bridges. The box mill is a smaller saw used during the Civil War to build the boxes in which boots were packed for soldiers.

Tom Whalen, chairman of the town’s Community Preservation Committee, described the project as the “exact definition” for historic preservation — one of the legally defined uses for CPA funds.

In backing the project’s funding, Whalen said it represented the area’s major 18th- and 19th-century industries, including shipbuilding and woodworking. Many area homes still contain wood processed at the Hatch Mill, he said.

Kirby said the project is now in its “final phases.” When it’s finished, the Hatch Mill Restoration & Preservation Group wants to see it serve an educational purpose as a museum to teach people about the region’s industrial past.

The Hatch Mill was part of a “giant industrial park” along the North River towns of Marshfield, Norwell, Pembroke, and Scituate, building “huge ships,” Kirby said.

According to Kirby, the North Marshfield site’s first water-powered mill was a grist mill, built in 1752.

After the first mill burned down in the early 19th century, it was replaced in 1812 by an up-and-down-sash sawmill (as distinct from a circular saw) with a 7-foot steel blade. The blade was new, but the principle of the mechanism goes back to the Middle Ages in Europe.

A smaller saw later installed on the second floor became the box mill to build packing boxes for Union soldiers’ boots. In 1872, a more modern 57-inch diameter circular saw was installed.

The preservation group acquired the mill nearly a decade ago from the town’s Marshfield Historical Society for $1 in exchange for a commitment to restore it and open it as a museum to the river’s shipbuilding history. The state Historical Commission cited the preservation of the mill, including stabilization of a masonry foundation and timber-frame elements, as the goals for its grant for the project.

Once the mill is restored, Kirby said, river water racing into the millpond will turn a wooden wheel to power the up-and-down saw.

Much of the old mill building remains, including the oak beams that hold up the saw mechanism and a heavy stone post that supports the second floor.

“We just don’t want to see it forgotten,” Kirby said. “It’s like going back into a time capsule.”

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