The up-down sawmill
An operating water-powered 19th Century sawmill
The last survivor
Visit the Ledyard Up-down sawmill to see an operating water-powered sawmill from the mid 19th century. You’ll hear the rasping of the saw echoing across the millpond as it rips through logs, and you'll feel the building vibrating in rhythm with the reciprocating saw. Volunteers operate the water-powered sawmill to saw local timbers into boards on Saturday afternoons in the spring and fall.
The Ledyard up-down sawmill is unique in the United States. There are only handful of operating sash sawmills in the entire country, but the Ledyard Up-down Sawmill is the last surviving example on its original site with its original saw mechanism and is accessible to the public.
The up-down saw is powered by the mill's original 19th century Tyler water wheel turbine. Learn more about Tyler turbines
What is an up-down, or sash-type sawmill?
Unlike the familiar circular sawmill, the Ledyard sawmill uses a straight saw blade about six feet long that is mounted vertically in a wood frame. The movement of the saw is reciprocating—the wood saw frame is connected by a wooden arm (the pitman) to a crank on the flywheel and shaft directly below in the lower level of the mill. As the iron water turbine in the lower mill level rotates, the saw frame moves up and down – the saw cuts on the downstroke and a wooden carriage with the log moves forward on the upstroke. The name for this type of sawmill is sash sawmill, for the similarity of the wood sawframe to a window sash that can be moved up and down.
Sash sawmills came to America with the first Europeans in the early 1600s. When the term "sawmill" was used for the next 250 years, it was understood that this meant sash sawmill.
Through the mid-1800s there were thousands of sash sawmills throughout New England and the rest of the country, but these disappeared as circular and bandsaw mills become dominant. By the 1890s, sash sawmills were regarded as primitive and were "now as much an antiquity as the old domestic spinning wheel.” (ref. 1).
This historic gem was saved in the nick of time. The mill and property were purchased by the town of Ledyard in 1966 after members of the Ledyard Historical Society recognized the importance of saving this rarity. The mill was restored in the 1970s and became operational again in 1975.
Photos courtesy Ledyard Historical Society. Janice W. Bell Historical Research Room, Bill Library, Ledyard, Connecticut.
(1) Frizzell, J. P. (1893). The old-time water-wheels of America. Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, 28(April), 237–249.
Many thanks to Cynda Warren Joyce for use of photographs and Jack Desormier for the video.