Water-powered sawmills were a feature of the New England landscape since the earliest years of European settlement—the first water-powered sawmills in New England were built near Berwick, Maine in 1634. In England, pit sawing by hand remained the predominate method of converting logs to lumber throughout the seventeenth century. In the American colonies, there was a shortage of labor, but hundreds of streams and rivers ripe for exploitation as power sources. In order to utilize the vast forests of the New World and supply the need for building materials in the growing country, sawmills (or other mills) were eventually built on nearly every source of moving water—by 1840 there were about 5,500 sawmills in New England, with nearly 700 in Connecticut alone.
Most of these sawmills were on small scale with a single saw, and were part of the local economy. On the large rivers of northern New England, especially Maine, however, sawmills with multiple or gang saws processed millions of feet of lumber annually both for shipment to major New England cities and also for export.
The thousands of sawmills in New England for about 200 years beginning in the 1630s used essentially a single technology—a wooden waterwheel with a crank connected by the ‘pitman’ arm to a wooden sash (frame) in which was mounted a straight saw blade. The reciprocating motion of the vertically mounted saw results in the characteristic straight “up and down” saw marks on boards and timbers cut on these sash-type saws.
Sawmill technology changed significantly and continually during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. In 1800, essentially all sawmills were of the sash-type, with the wooden building and structural components of the saw mechanism made locally by the millwright (excepting the steel saw blade, iron crank, and a few other parts). For an example, see this photo of the sash saw that operated at Romford. CT. Through the nineteenth century, more sawmill parts began to be manufactured from iron and could be purchased from a mill supplier—for the 1870-era Ledyard mill, this includes an iron water turbine, iron shafting and gears, and iron friction rods upon which the saw sash moves. A larger change in mill technology, however, was the use of circular, rather than straight, saw blades starting around 1830; by 1900 circular saws had replaced nearly all the sash sawmills. As these changes were occurring, the development of reliable and affordable steam engines resulted in the dominance of this power source by the early twentieth century—the use of steam power also allowed the development of portable circular sawmills which could be set up near the timber to be harvested.
The currently operating sash-type sawmill (up and down or reciprocating motion versus a spinning circular blade)) with its horizontal iron water turbine and gears dates from about 1870, but there were sawmills on the site at Lee's Brook Pond in Ledyard, CT long before then. There were references to a mill pond here from as early as the 1740s. A sawmill belonging to Nathaniel Brown II and Increase B. Stoddard stood on this site in the late 1790s. The mill was never a large commercial venture supplying lumber to distant cities as found in the mill towns of northern New England. Rather it was a country mill, serving the farms and settlements within a convenient hauling distance by horse and wagon. Most likely, the early mills on this site had an undershot vertical wooden water wheel to drive the machinery that was driven by direct immersion in Lee's Brook. There are some unconfirmed references to it originally being a flutter-type mill (like a paddle boat wheel which was driven by water flowing beneath it). Flutter wheels operate at higher revolutions per minute with low water heads than do a large, classic vertical wheels. Water wheels have the disadvantage of freezing in winter, making them only seasonal sources of power.
Brown operated the mill until 1805 at which time Philip Gray bought the mill which was standing on the property of Joseph Lee. The dam and pond are thought to have been created at about this time to create a more dependable source of water power. It was stipulated that, “the said Philip Gray build a new mill on the spot where the old one now stands on the farm where the said Lee now lives” with rights to repair the dam and the “privilege of flowing a pond of water” on the land “as much as necessary for the use of said mill.” In turn Lee received the privilege of having 700 feet of boards cut if he brought logs to the mill during the cutting season. Gray was given the right to keep the gate shut on the dam “from the first of November until the thirteenth of April every year” as this was the lumbering season, before and after the farming season. Gray sold his interest in the mill in 1831, after which it changed hands several of times. The building at that time was 12 x 30 feet, considerably smaller than its present size.
It is not clear if there was an operating sawmill on this site throughout the 19th century. In addition to land and town records, there are several maps that indicate a mill site where the present sawmill still stands. Maps from 1833 and 1868 show a sawmill on this site, but interestingly, an 1854 map indicates only the presence of a gristmill.
The present sawmill was built around 1870 by Israel Brown. He installed a 12 foot tall water tank fed from the pond by a sluiceway with an enclosed horizontal iron turbine beneath it. The underwater turbine inside the mill building provided more horsepower than the old wheel and was protected from debris coming downstream as well as from early winter freeze-ups. He kept the old up-and-down sash saw rather than converting to a single thick vertical muley (mulay or mulley) blade or a circular saw blade; he also added a shingle mill and built a blacksmith shop nearby. Because the turbine draws water from beneath the surface of the pond and the machinery itself is below ground, it was not as subject to freezing as an exposed water wheel, thus extending the cutting season. In 1887 Brown mortgaged the mill and water rights to William Leeds Main who was the grandfather of Harry W. Main, the last mill owner.
As late as the 1970s, several older local residents could remember the mill in operation into 1930s and it is believed it was last used about 1935. (Part of this material is adapted from Historic Ledyard. 1976. Vol. I, Gales Ferry Village, Ledyard Historic District Commission.)
Click here to see 1935 Connecticut State Library photos of Ledyard Sawmill; Check pages 1 and 2.
The mill was in use until damaged by a hurricane in 1938 which also destroyed the blacksmith shop. After that, the building was abandoned. Fortunately the turbine, drive mechanism, and line shafts were left in place. The photos show the mill and surrounding property about the time they were purchased by of the town of Ledyard. Comparisons with the State Archive photos, which roughly coincide with the year the mill closed, indicate that time had taken its toll on the buildings and dam.
The badly deteriorated mill and 11.6 acres of land, including the two-acre pond, were purchased by the Town of Ledyard in 1966 to create Sawmill Park. Over nine years the dam and buildings were restored by volunteers and with funds from local sources, town funds and matching state grants. The restored sawmill powered by its original water source, Sawmill Pond formed from damming Lee’s Brook, was opened to the public on Saturday, April 19, 1975 as part of Ledyard’s bicentennial celebration.
Listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The mill machinery is restored as was found in the 1960s. The mill had not been modified since it last ran in the 1930s, and based on the sawmill parts and building construction, it is likely that the mill is now restored to the configuration that was originally installed in the late 1860s. The mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The listing is under the name "Main Sawmill" for the Main family who owned the mill from 1887 until it was sold to the town of Ledyard in 1966. The application for listing was submitted in 1972 after the restoration of the sawmill and equipment was nearly complete. The nomination form and accompanying photographs are available.