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Logging a history lesson at Taylor Sawmill

Special to the Sunday News

June 16. 2017 10:18PM
The rushing water at the Taylor Mill Dam powers the sawmill in East Derry. 

DERRY -- On a recent Saturday, Bob Spoerl welcomed visitors to the Taylor Sawmill, explaining that the mill was open for tours but that no logs were available to be sawn that day.

Staff for the mill, operated by the state Division of Forests and Lands, are choosy about the logs they use. Donated logs, Spoerl explained, often have nails in them, left from anything from bird houses to maple syrup pails, and he can't risk breaking a blade on an undiscovered nail.

"It's not like we can run out to Walmart and pick up a new blade," he said.

Spoerl is the caretaker, sawyer and raconteur for the Taylor Sawmill, the last up-and-down, water-powered sawmill in New Hampshire and one of the few left in the United States.

The original sawmill was built in 1805, and restored in the late 1940s by philanthropist Ernest Ballard, who later deeded the mill and 71 acres to the state of New Hampshire.

The mill is open to the public and staffed by Spoerl on select Saturdays in late spring, summer and early fall.

How it works

Before water power was harnessed, two men worked hard to operate an up-and-down sawmill. One, "the pitman," would stand in a hole and the other would stand on the ground above. They would alternate pulls on the saw to slice a log into boards.

A water-powered sawmill begins with the water wheel. Taylor Mill has an "overshot" wheel, where the water comes over the top of the wheel. For maximum efficiency, the Derry wheel is 10 feet in diameter and six feet wide.

There are two sets of gears and two belts in the lower level. They convert the wheel's rotary motion to a reciprocal motion, which makes the saw go up and down. A cast iron wheel, the "pitman wheel," connects with the blade on the upper level, puts it in motion and feeds the log into the blade. Spoerl said the system is set to move the log forward a quarter-inch for each stroke of the saw.

At peak efficinency, the saw makes 60 to 70 strokes per minute, Spoerl said. Cutting only on the downstroke, he said, it will take 12 minutes to make a single cut on a 12-foot log.

The up-and-down saw was the best technology until about 1865, Spoerl said. The enterprising Shaker sect invented the circular saw, which can do in 30 to 40 seconds what the up-and-down did in 12 minutes, Spoerl said.

A slice of history

Spoerl tells his tales, and there are a lot of them, in a rich storyteller's voice. The five Taylor brothers all lived on the same road, and owned several mills, Spoerl said. The same road that runs before the refurbished mill was already there, courtesy of a deed from "Good King George," though it was more of a dirt path, he said.

When Ballard bought the property, there was little left beyond the dam and the stone foundation. He rebuilt the mill to its 1805 glory, although Spoerl said there was a mill on the property even before the Taylors.

"When Mr. Ballard redid the dam, he found rock underneath that had been laid properly," Spoerl said. "That led him to believe there was a man-made 'something' here. It could have been another mill."

Most of the original foundation has survived, he said on a trip to the lower level, pointing out the ancient stones and their mortar. The foundation has since been buttressed with cement.

Spoerl and the Division of Forests and Lands use authentic equipment, including leather belts to move the machinery. "Leather is still the best," he said, adding that they obtain their leather belts from Page Belting in Concord.

There are some practices of the past that he'd just as soon avoid, Spoerl said. "The older sawmill operators used to toss the shavings in the brook," he said, adding, "I'd be in serious trouble if I did that."

Safe sawing

Spoerl hosts school groups and families with young children, so he's developed safety protocols. When the mill is operating, spectators stand on the other side of a counter and a gate is firmly latched. Children are not allowed in without their parents, he said.

"It's big machinery and you've got to pay attention," he said. A sawyer could get caught in the belts, ropes or pulleys, he said.

They are also advised to stand outside the framework when rolling a log in. "If you don't, you could snap your leg," he said.

While Spoerl thinks safety all the time, he drew the line at putting in safety screens or herding his guests behind Plexiglas. That would detract from the authenticity, he said.

But, he added with a smile, "We do observe all the OSHA regulations - of 1805."

A way with wood

The property requires an on-site caretaker, and Spoerl and his wife moved in to the adjacent farmhouse in 2001. He had had a career working on farms and still works full-time as a land agent for Forests and Lands. When the position of interpreter opened up a year later, Spoerl took that on. He had had a nodding acquaintance with wood before, but "never at this level," he recalled.

But he was willing to learn, and learn more. He was able to change one policy, he said. "Before I took over, they threw away the logs after the demonstration," he said. Spoerl joined the Timber Framer's Guild and began recycling those demo boards into community service projects. "We did the Chester covered bridge, a barn in Vermont, a structure at Pisgah State Park," he said.

In season he hosts 20 to 25 visitors, especially when the machinery is running. Some wander in from hiking in the Ballard Forest, while others make it a destination. Spoerl has had guests from Europe and Japan, and a Pennsylvania Dutch family who operates a similar mill in their community, he said.

While Spoerl is hard put to isolate a most-asked question, he said one common one is, "Do we sell the wood?" The answer is no.

Weather dependent

The mill's operability depends on several factors, including equipment with a mind of its own. "Last year we were all fired up, ready to go, when a belt slipped off," Spoerl recalled. When they finally got the belt repaired, the drought had left them without enough water to run the mill. He expects that this year, there will be plenty of water.

But Spoerl is always on hand on open days, even if the saw isn't running, to explain a lost art to his visitors.

"It's the ultimate big-boy toy," he said with a grin. "How many people can say they have a water-powered sawmill in their back yard?"

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The sawmill is located at 242 Island Pond Road in East Derry. The next open day is Saturday, June 24, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information contact the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth at 431-6774.

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