The Ledyard Up-Down Sawmill  1877-today

The Ledyard Up-Down sawmill is one of the few remaining examples in North America of a 19th century sash sawmill.  Even when it was first operated by Israel Brown in the 1870s it was old-fashioned.  By that time most of the old style sash, or up-and-down sawmills, had worn out or had been replaced by the newer, more efficient circular saw technology.  

The mill that Israel built on Lee's Brook and operated was one of several Brown family sawmills in Ledyard in the mid-late 1800s.  Israel's brothers Aaron and Seth owned and ran the old Ayers Mill complex a few miles north of Lee's Brook, and Israel's uncle Avery W. Brown purchased in 1838 a sawmill a half mile upstream on Lee's Brook that he operated into the 1870s.  Learn more about the Brown Family sawmills.

Today the Ledyard Up-Down sawmill provides a glimpse into the last days of an old technology that was an important part of the growth of the European colonies in North America and in the young United States.  We are fortunate that interested and dedicated townspeople of Ledyard recognized the value and rarity of the mill and saved it in the 1960s.

 1938-1868 Albert Brown's farm on Lee's Brook

Albert Brown was born in 1811 in North Groton (which became Ledyard in 1836). By the middle of the 19th century the Brown family had been the area for generations, and various family members owned homes and land about 1 1/2 miles east of present day Ledyard Center. The Baptist church started by the Brown family and others in 1843 was nearby along with a burying ground that even then was the final resting place of several generations of Browns.

Albert's farm was on Lee's Brook, and like other so many other small streams in New England, there were multiple mills on Lee's Brook both up and downstream from Albert's farm. Albert lived in the same house as his father; the house is still standing today east of the Ledyard Sawmill. Albert gradually enlarged his farm, buying adjacent property in a 20 year period in the 1830s - 1850s.

 1850 Albert Brown's livelihoods

Like many 19th century farmers, Albert not only ran the farm, but had other sources of income: he was a wheelwright, built houses, and had a shingle mill and gristmill on the farm. And like so many other farmers his fortunes went up and down. Although he was able to expand the size of his farm, he did so by borrowing money and mortgaging his new property to several of his neighbors and relatives. In 1857 his debts became too much for him and he was declared insolvent. His total equity in his real estate at that time was $5.00.

Just a few years later, things were looking up and he was able to start buying properties again, including "Ayers Mills", a small mill complex with a woolen mill, gristmill, and shingle and saw-mills just a few miles north of Albert's farm on present day Shewville Road in Ledyard.

 1869 Israel Brown buys his late father’s farm

When their father Albert died in in 1868, his children sold for $625 "the estate of our father Albert brown" which consisted of the family farm along with the buildings to their 21-year old brother Israel W Brown. Albert's widow Surviah continued to live there. Israel owned the farm, but perhaps it was really run by his mother. In the 1870 census, Surviah was listed as a "farmer", while Israel's occupation was listed as "works on farm". Israel's younger brothers Nathaniel and Charles lived with Israel and their mother on the farm.

 1877 Israel reopens his father’s sawmill

Albert's widow and Israel's mother Surviah died in 1876 and the farm became Israel's responsibility. Israel started operating his father’s old mill again in 1877, since Ledyard records show that he owned a sawmill that year with a tax valuation of $200.  Israel apparently made big changes in the old mill since by 1880 the mill operated a circular saw, not the old-fashioned up-down sash sawmill.  The circular saw was now powered by a cast iron Tyler water turbine. (Ledyard tax records, 1880 Federal Industrial Census).
Israel may have had help from his family to make these modernizations.  His brothers Aaron and Seth also had a circular saw powered by a Tyler Turbine at their mill complex at Ayers Mills a few miles north of Israel’s sawmill.

 1880 Israel Brown - no longer just a farmer

The 1880 U.S. census lists Israel’s occupation as “sawmill”, although interestingly “Farm. &” is also listed and crossed out. So, the sawmill was clearly important to Israel’s livelihood, but he still was running the old Albert Brown farm. Perhaps Israel changed his original statement to the census worker, and decided on the spot that the sawmill was his principal source of income (or census worker Palmer Allyn made a guess and filled in the form prior to talking to Israel; several of Israel's neighbors had similar changes on the same page). The tax evaluation on Israel's mill was still listed at $200 as it had been each year since 1877.

 1877 Israel needs a loan for his farm and sawmill

Israel Brown owned and ran the sawmill for over a decade, but apparently needed additional funds since he mortgaged the sawmill and other property including his house. In 1887 Israel mortgaged the 65 acre farm, his house, and his mill and water privileges to his maternal uncle William Leeds Main for 1100 dollars. But these funds from his Uncle William were apparently not sufficient to meet Israel’s financial needs; on October 10 1890 he obtained additional money from Lucius D. Brown, a large landowner in North Stonington – the $500 mortgage from Lucius Brown used the same language as the 1887 mortgage for the mill; it included a “saw mill, shingle mill, buzz saw & gearing, water privileges”.

 1891 Israel sells the sawmill to his brother Aaron

Soon after the second mortgaging the mill, Israel Brown had enough of the sawmill business; in 1891, Israel transferred the mill to his brother Aaron A. Brown (who with their brother Seth previously owned Ayers Mills). After he sold the sawmill to Aaron, Israel still farmed in Ledyard and in 1901 moved about 30 miles north to Hampton, Connecticut and later to Warwick, Rhode Island where he died in 1920.

 1902 Aaron loses the mill in foreclosure to the Main Family.

When Israel had needed money in 1877 he had mortgaged his sawmill to his Uncle William Leeds Main (photo at right). W.L. Main died in 1890, and his estate sued Aaron successfully for foreclosure in 1902.

The W.L. Main estate took over ownership of the mill and the rest of the old Albert Brown farm ("65 acres with dwelling house and other buildings thereon including sawmill and shingle mill") which went to W.L. Main's son Horace Main.

 1938 The sawmill's last days

Horace Main (photo at right) moved his family to the house near the mill soon after inheriting it. Horace’s twin sons Harry and Horace Jr. played around the mill as children, although their father warned them to stay away and he was right. Harry recalled jumping across the water channel in the mill and seriously injuring himself by landing on a stick on the other side which entered his jaw. Upon Horace’s death in 1936, the mill passed to his son Harry C.W. Main (1899-1970) who was the last private owner of the mill property. (Norwich Bulletin, Oct 16. 1966).

 1966 Town of Ledyard buys the mill

In the early 1960s members of the Ledyard Historical Society recognized the importance of the mill and started a campaign to rescue it from the fate of the thousands of sash sawmills that had once existed on streams throughout New England and North America for hundreds of years. The campaign culminated successfully in 1966 when the town of Ledyard purchased the property from Harry Main for $12,000. The sale to the town closed the last chapter of the sawmill as a privately owned local mill. Harry died in 1970, just a few years before the sawmill reopening in 1975.

 1966-1975 Preservation, Restoration, and Re-opening

The preservation and restoration of the old mill lasted from the late 1960s culminating in the reopening of the operating sawmill in 1975. Although the mill was now owned by the town of Ledyard, most of the restoration work was done by volunteers. Flooring, siding roofing, and some structural timbers were replaced, but, fortunately most of the saw mechanism was not damaged beyond repair and was saved. The pond was deepened and the dam, mill races, and spillway also required major work. The project was funded by the town, donations, and state of Connecticut grants.