SHIRLEY -- As we walk along the streams and rivers of New England's small bucolic towns, we often stumble upon fieldstone walls and concrete pilings, shadows of the former hustle and bustle of numerous busy sawmills.
At the recent opening of the Shirley Historical Society's latest exhibit, "Shirley's Sawmills Over the Centuries," SHS Curator and Director Meredith Marcinkewicz took visitors through the history of that industry, highlighting a dozen 18th- and 19th-century sawmills that once stood along Mulpus and Catacunemaug Brooks and the Nashua River.
The best sites for sawmills, said Marcinkewicz, were where small stone-and-earth dams would be sufficient to impound enough water to drive them. The typical sawmill was downstream of the dam, framed with heavy timbers. A pair of wooden tracks extended through the length of the building to guide the carriage, which transported the logs through the saw.
Sawmills were the most common type of mills found in most 19th-century New England towns, and by 1840, said Marcinkewicz, America boasted more than 31,000 sawmills. Most were owned and operated by farmers of above-average means, who often ran them seasonally, as water levels and the demands of their work permitted. Thus, they were often built as extensions of gristmills.
Due to the expense of transporting high-weight, low-value lumber, most sawmills served their local neighborhoods. Logs brought into the mills were sawed into boards, planks, and timbers.
"In a day, one man with a sawmill could cut as much lumber as two men working by hand could do in a week," explained Marcinkewicz, quoting from the Old Sturbridge Village website.
Follow the waterways
Although agriculture was the mainstay of the economy in the 18th century, there were some early Shirley mills beginning around 1739, with a clothier mill on the Squannacook River in a part of West Groton that became Shirley in 1753, and Samuel Hazen's first saw and gristmills on Catacunemaug Brook around 1748.
Roads that followed the waterways connected the mill sites. Squannacook Road follows the meandering Squannacook River, while Great Road follows the course of Mulpus Brook where grist and sawmills, as well as a forge, were located from the mid- to late 18th century.
Leominster Road, which passes through the southern part of the town, connects Ayer to the east and crosses Catacunemaug Brook near the location of Hazen's mills.
The Catecunemaug sawmills
Marcinkewicz said the William Longley-Samuel Hazen grist and sawmill stood on the site of the Shirley Cotton Mill, better known as the Red Mill, which was destroyed by fire in 1867. Hazen later sold his interest to Longley, after which his son took over.
On the opposite side of the stream, Henry Haskell built other mills, which were eventually sold to William Longley's great grandson. In 1872, N.C. Munson purchased the mills, followed by George Davis. In 1886, Gilbert M. Ballou expanded the sawmill with a large carpenter's shop and a full line of woodworking machines.
In 1829, Samuel Hazen built another sawmill on the northern branch of the Catacunemaug. The building of this sawmill led to the establishment of a small village that came to be known as North Bend, where the Gould Manufacturing Co. later built a shoddy mill.
Marcinkewicz said shoddy mills were often later mistaken for button factories, because the buttons removed from used clothing were thrown into the woods prior to the fabric being made into new "shoddy" clothes.
The 1829 sawmill lasted until 1856, when the reservoir dam built in 1852 to supply the Phoenix Co. mill gave way. That disaster swept away four bridges, five milldams, two blacksmith shops, the sawmill and a railroad bridge.
The Mulpus mills
Mulpus Brook, which meanders through Shirley north of Shirley Center southeast to the Nashua, forms part of the Shirley-Ayer boundary. The area near the eastern border of Shirley was once known as Woodsville, named for the Woods brothers, who were millers in the mid-19th century.
Along the Mulpus, James Dickson erected a sawmill in connection with the second Shirley gristmill in Wood's Village, first owned by Francis Harris. These mills also passed through many hands, until Jonathan Kilburn became the owner in 1822. They were operated until his death in 1881.
From west to east on the Mulpus were Pratt's Mill on the north side; Harris' grist, saw and shingle mill; wheelwright shops and a stave mill; and Peter Page's mill and basket factory on Mulpus Brook near the Nashua, built in 1836.
When Page died, it went through the hands of several others, until 1856, when it was purchased by William White & Co. It was destroyed by fire in 1857, but was rebuilt and enlarged.
Remnants of the Mulpus mills visible today include stonework of a dam, tailraces, some mill building foundations and evidence of water wheels and gears.
The Umbagog on the Catecunemaug
"History is all around us," Marcinkewicz said, pointing to a slide of the red Umbagog mill building off of Leominster Road. "Parts of this historic Shirley sawmill may have been here 150 years, yet hundreds of people pass it every day and don't even notice it."
In the exhibit, an 1856 map shows a sawmill at the Umbagog location where the W.W. Edgarton Co. shoddy mill once stood. A photo shows the access road that existed in the early 1900s, which crossed over from Main Street over the brook. The foundations of the old sawmill still stand today.
The Hazen-Davis sawmill probably originally had a 19th-century undershot wheel, under which a stream was directed so that the water's velocity forced it to turn. As water rushed through the wooded flume to power the turbine water wheels that drove the saw frame, the frame would have raised and the log moved slightly forward with the carriage. The saw would have cut only on the down stroke, assisted by gravity as the heavy frame dropped.
Marcinkewicz said by 1875, Davis was selling so much lumber from the mill that he needed many lots of land in Shirley Village. He owned the Davis Street block building area over to Benjamin Road, including the G.W. Lumber Yard.
In 1881, next to the sawmill, the Edgartons build a large mill that we now know as the President building.
By the time of an 1889 map, the sawmill had been sold to Ballou, who had a house and lumberyard on the newly laid out Maple Street, where the new fire station is located. According to another map, by 1908 Ballou had a saw and planing mill and the first Hazen mill on the north side of the brook was gone.
Photographs of the inside of the Umbagog building show a turbine wheel that could use the water more efficiently than the original water wheel.
"The double turbine was a cylinder about 10 feet in diameter," said museum volunteer Ward Baxter, who, with Marcinkewicz, was permitted entry into the building. "There are no belts left connecting the drive wheel, but the cast iron pulleys are still there."
"At least three machines could have been run here before the building was turned into a leathercutting and storage room," Marcinkewicz added.
A living legacy
Marcinkewicz said she found much of the history of Shirley's sawmills in the Reverend Seth Chandler's "History of Shirley," published in 1883, and in Ethel Bolton's "Shirley Uplands and Intervales," published in 1914, but she also had help from the Farnsworth and Jurga families, as well as Paul Pryzbyla and other local families.
Pryzbyla, a member of the Shirley Historical Commission, has lent the museum a 1761 pine plank on which vertical up and down cuts are clearly visible.
Farnsworth Lumber Co., founded by Samuel Farnsworth in 1837, is still operating in Shirley today. According to Marcinkewicz, Farnsworth's actually cut the floorboards of the museum. Historic and current photographs of Farnsworth's can be viewed at the museum.
The sawmill display includes photographs, maps, a collection of antique wooden planes, various woodworking tools, and Melvin Longley's collection of wood cut from 30 different kinds of trees that grow in Shirley.
The exhibit, which will remain open through April.