Circular sawmill

Circular sawmills

The original saw in the Ledyard sawmill was the up-and-down reciprocating saw, but progress eventually caught up to this small country mill. The 1880 Industrial Census shows that Ledyard sawmill owner Israel Brown sawed 60,000 board feet of lumber with a Tyler turbine-powered circular saw in this mill that year.

Circular saws have an enormous advantage over straight millsaws: they saw continuously while straight saws cut only on the downstroke. However, widespread use of circular saws for large timbers had to wait for reliable methods to manufacture large, flat steel discs. Circular sawmills also need faster revolving shafts and more power than the old straight blade sawmills—more easily accomplished with small diameter turbines than large waterwheels. These barriers were overcome in the 1840s and 1850s and circular saws became common.

The circular sawmill in the Ledyard mill

The circular sawmill in the Ledyard mill has a 29” diameter saw on a shaft mounted to a simple wood frame. Of course, the diameter of the saw would have been reduced during it's lifetime by repeated filing, so it may have started as a 30-36" blade. The 10 foot long wooden carriage rolls on steel wheels along a steel track of the saw frame. The saw can accommodate a log or squared-up cant up to 18 inches across, and can saw timbers up to 12 feet long.

A simple ratchet mechanism (the "setworks") allows the operator to move the log over a set distance for the next cut after each board is sawn and removed from the carriage. Interestingly, there is no evidence that the saw carriage ever had a mechanized advance or return. It appears instead that the log mounted on the carriage would be pushed through the spinning blade by hand, the board removed, and then the carriage returned to the start position also by hand. This seems to be a lower-end mill, more affordable for a small operator, but with far lower production capacity than mills with mechanized, adjustable carriage feed rates and larger (or double) sawblades.

The mill was driven off the Tyler water turbine in the lower lever with a belt connected up through the floor to the saw. Based on the 100-130 rpm turbine speed and pulley sizes, the circular saw could have operated at 450-500 rpm. This is slow for a circular saw, but is sufficient with a slow feed rate of the log though the blade.

The circular sawmill was termed a “railroad tie mill” when the mill was restored in the 1970s. From the 1975 grand opening booklet: “Prior to the death of Harry. W. Main this mill which was in the building for cutting railroad ties was acquired by Philetus Watson, a relative of Mr. Main, and removed to Preston. This mill has been brought back and reinstalled in the mill building.” The circular sawmill was purchased from Philetus Watson for $85 in 1973.

Interestingly, one of the few pieces of information we have about 19th century sawing in the mill concerns a contract with the New York, Providence, and Boston Railroad Company, most likely for railroad ties. In the 1880s, Ledyard sawmill owner Israel W. Brown had acquired the rights to the timber on a 75-acre woodlot in Ledyard to fulfill the railroad contract. Israel was sued by the woodlot owner (Israel’s extremely litigious maternal uncle, Amasa Maine) over a disagreement on what time of day the contract expired in 1887.

Amasa M. Main vs. Israel Brown and others. Connecticut Reports: Containing Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Errors, Volume 56, 1889, 345-350.
Circa 1973. Ledyard Historical Society, Janice W. Bell Historical Research Room, Bill Library, Ledyard, Connecticut. 2011.1.227.

History of circular sawmills in the Ledyard mill

1865. The first evidence of a sawmill on this site is the Ledyard property tax list mill of 1865 in which a tax of $75 for a sawmill (and two horses, $80 and two cows, $28) was listed for mill owner Albert Brown. Unfortunately, we don’t know if it was a circular sawmill, or the traditional sash-type sawmill. Prior to 1865 there is mention of a shingle mill (1848) and grain mill (1858, 1859, 1860), but most years since the first mill listing in 1845 the type of mill was not specified.

1868. The estate inventory following Alberts Brown’s death in 1868 mentions several buzz saws, and a “Large buzz saw & arbor $10”. Buzz saw was the common name for circular-type saws, both large and small and including shingle machines. Although a large buzz saw and arbor might be suitable for use on a sawmill for logs and large timbers, a value of $10 seems low for a complete, working sawmill (Albert Brown was also a wheelwright and had two lathes were valued at $10 and $5).

1880. The first clear evidence that there was an operating circular sawmill on this site is from the 1880 Federal Industrial Census. For the Ledyard mill which was then owned by Israel W. Brown (Albert Brown’s son), the1880 census listed one circular saw powered by a Tyler Turbine. Israel did his own logging and had one man working for him 9-10 hours a day during the six months full-time and the two months half-time of mill operation in 1880. The mill produced 60,000 feet of lumber (see note below). And, apparently, there was not an up-down sawmill operating in 1880 since only one sawmill, the circular sawmill, was listed in the census. Unfortunately, we don’t have definitive evidence that the circular sawmill in the Ledyard mill building dates from the 1880s.

Note: Special Schedule 5 for the 1880 Federal Industrial Census lists a wealth of detail on sawmill operations large and small. Microfilm of the Connecticut listings in the 1880 Industrial Census is available at the Connecticut State Library. Data recorded for the census included the number of hands working, wages and hours in a day of labor, quantity of wood products produced, the type of saw, type of power (water wheel, water turbine, or steam) and horsepower.