Avery Brown's sawmill on Lee's Brook

The Brown Family sawmills: Avery Brown's sawmill on Lee's Brook

Avery Wilbur Brown (1805-1885) was a farmer in Ledyard Connecticut who lived near Lee’s brook his entire life. He married Annis Holdridge and is buried in the Brown-Peckham cemetery near the Ledyard Up-Down Sawmill. His father was Nathaniel Brown (1773-1836) – one of the many Nathaniel Browns of several generations in Groton and Ledyard. Avery and a number of his relatives (including his uncle Aaron Brown who gave the land for $1.00) were founding members of the Baptist church (the church building from 1843 is now a private residence). In the mid-1800s, Avery, like his nephews Seth and Aaron Alvah Brown, and their brother Israel Brown, operated a sawmill in Ledyard.

Avery’s mill on Lee’s Brook was seated a few hundred yards upstream from the site of the Ledyard Up-down Sawmill.

Map by Beers, 1868. Courtesy Mystic Seaport.

Late 1700s. Benjamin Gray and Joseph Lee build a sawmill

The Gray and Lee families lived in Ledyard (then known as North Groton) for generations in the 1700s and 1800s. A land record from 1800 for property near Lee’s Brook refers to an old sawmill: “Standing in Groton on a Stream of Water that divides Stephen Morgans & Joseph Lees Lands. Said Mill was formerly built by Joseph Lee & Benjamin Gray.”

Joseph Lee (1732-1820) and his successors owned land along Lee’s Brook from the 1700s into the 1840s. We don’t know the date that Joseph Lee and his neighbor Benjamin Gray built the old mill. After 1800 the Lees still owned land for several decades, but not the sawmill itself. Revolutionary War veteran Benjamin Gray (1740-1814) lived just over a mile west and north of the sawmill site in a house he built around 1760; this house still stands today near Spicer Hill Road. Benjamin’s son Philip Gray 3rd would buy and rebuild the mill his father built on Lee’s Brook a few years later.

Groton land record 14 187

"Said Mill was formerly built by Joseph Lee & Bemjamon Gray."

Groton, Connecticut Land Records. book 14, page 187.

Late 1790s. The Brown family buys the sawmill: Nathaniel Brown 2nd and Comfort Brown

At some point before 1800, ownership of the sawmill had transferred to Nathaniel Brown 2nd (1753-1821) and his half-brother Comfort Brown (1746-1822) who shared half-interest in the sawmill; the other half-interest in the mill was owned by Increase Stoddard (1767-1844). Subsequently, Nathaniel Brown 2nd bought Stoddard’s half-interest and so full ownership of the mill came into the Brown family. Nathaniel 2nd and Comfort sold the sawmill in 1800, but mill ownership would return to the North Groton Brown family beginning in the 1830s.

Nathaniel Brown 2nd‘s family had been in the area for generations; they were descendants of Nathaniel Brown (b. 1660), the great grandfather of Nathaniel 2nd and Comfort. Nathaniel was born in Rowley Mass where his father Charles Browne had first settled after coming to the colonies from England in mid 1600s. Nathaniel and his wife Mary moved from Rowley to North Groton in 1707.

Land records show that the mill passed through several owners for brief periods in the years 1800-1805, including a 15 months period when it was owned by Stephen Gray, nephew of Benjamin Gray who had built it. Stephen sold it May 9, 1804 to a James Stoddard (who was related to the earlier owner Increase Billings Stoddard).

1805. Philip Gray 3rd buys the old mill, and also the rights to build a new sawmill

James Stoddard owned the mill for an even briefer period than Stephen Gray. Stoddard bought the sawmill from Stephen Gray in May 9 1804, and sold it six months later for two hundred dollars to Stephen’s cousin Philip Gray 3rd (1775-1838) on November 17. Philip Gray 3rd was known as Esquire Gray and was a carpenter and builder. Philip 3rd lived in North Groton in a house near his father Benjamin’s by the present day Spicer Hill Road (the area was known at the time as “Gray’s Hill”). Philip was a well-known member of the community. He served in the Connecticut General Assembly in 1818 as a representative of Groton, and was a justice of the peace both in Groton and later in his life after moving to nearby Stonington.

Shortly after Philip purchased the old sawmill that his father Benjamin had built with Joseph Lee, he decided to invest further in the sawmill business. Only about six months after purchasing the rights to the old sawmill, on April 1, 1805, Philip leased from Joseph Lee the right to build a new sawmill on Lee’s land “on the Spot where the old one now stands”.

The payment by Gray to Lee for these rights was a promise to saw logs every year to Lee or his heirs. One of the witnesses attending the lease agreement was Philip’s father Benjamin Gray who had built the old mill on the same site.

Groton, Connecticut Land Records, Book 14, page 226.

1805. Stephen Morgan & Eneas Morgan grant water rights to Philip Gray 3rd

Sufficient water supply is obviously a requirement to successfully operate a sawmill, and for Philip Gray 3rd this meant that he also had to obtain water rights for his newly purchased mill. Stephen Morgan (1761-1844) who owned property upstream of the sawmill deeded to Philip Gray on April 1 1805, the day Gray obtained rights to build a new mill:

…the Privilege of Having a Pond of Water on his Land as much as is necessary for the use of the s’d Mill that s’d Gray owns that stands on Joseph Lees Land in Groton, and s’d Gray has a right to make use of stone and Earth to build or repair the Dam when it necessary on s’d Morgans Land close by the Mill.

The payment for these water rights was not monetary. Rather, Gray agreed to repair Stephen Morgan’s fences if they were damaged by flowing water, and curiously, Gray agreed to pay Stephen Morgan "One Kernel of Corn a Year if called for." In a separate agreement on the same day, Stephen Morgan’s cousin, Captain Eneas Morgan also transferred water rights to Gray. The seemingly odd and insignificant cost to Gray of one kernel of corn in all likelihood reflects a familial favor for the water privileges from the Morgan cousins. Philip’s (second) wife was Sarah Morgan whom he had married in 1801. Sarah was the sister of Eneas Morgan and the cousin of Stephen Morgan.

One kernel of corn

"One Kernel of Corn a Year if called for"

Groton, Connecticut Land Records. book 14, page 226

1831. Philip sells his sawmill to Elias Brown of Stonington

Philip Gray 3rd owned the Lee’s Brook sawmill he built for about 25 years. In February 1831 he conveyed his interest in the sawmill on Lee's Brook and the privileges that went with it for 169 dollars to Elias Brown (1786-1861) of Stonington. Elias Brown resided in the Mystic area of Stonington, where he was a lawyer and businessman. He was the first president of the Mystic National Bank when it was formed in 1833, and invested with partners in other area businesses. He was not related to the Browns of North Groton.

1838. Avery W. Brown buys the old mill

Elias Brown sold and mortgaged several tracts of land near the mill to Nathaniel Brown 2nd’s grandson Avery W. Brown in 1835, and a few years later sold the sawmill itself to Avery for 60 dollars on December 29, 1838. Ledyard tax records (North Groton including the Lee’s Brook area became part of the new town of Ledyard in 1836) show that Avery had a sawmill (although the type of mill is not specified in some years) from 1836 through 1877 (when he was 72 years old), with a few scattered years of no tax due.

Avery W. Brown of Ledyard (1805-1885) lived and worked in the same area near Lee’s Brook his entire life. His sawmill on Lee’s brook (about ½ mile upstream from the Ledyard Up-Down sawmill was a part-time venture; he was listed as a farmer in the US Census from 1850-1880.

When Avery was in need of funds during his ownership of the mill, he didn't hesitate to mortgage it. Avery obtained a mortgage from John Myers of Ledyard in 1848 for 160 dollars, and then another in 1851 for 150 dollars. He obtained a third mortgage from John Myers for the mill and another property for 800 dollars in December, 1858.

Up until just prior to the 1848 mortgage, the mill was still on land owned by the Lee family. The deed of sale from Elias Brown to Avery Brown in 1838 specified that the mill was standing on the land of John Lee, and the mill owner was still obligated to cut 700 feet of boards annually for John Lee and his successors.

The land finally transferred to the Brown family on June 28, 1847 when Albert Brown (Avery’s brother) bought from William H. Lee the “Sawmill Pasture” for 128 dollars. So, after 1847, Avery’s mill apparently was seated on his brother Albert’s farm property. Avery and Albert had a property disagreement: a land record in 1856 shows that Avery had a claim of $600 against Albert and asked the court to attach several pieces of Albert’s property to the claim (Albert also had other property and debt troubles and he was declared insolvent in 1857).

The old mill apparently stopped operating in 1877 since that was the last year Avery paid tax on it, and Avery died a few years later in 1885 at the age of 80. His estate was insolvent due to monies still owed to John Myers’ heirs. Avery’s cousin William Leeds Main added to his considerable land holdings in Ledyard by purchasing Avery’s property (and debt) from the estate for one dollar.

Avery Brow cemetery marker
Avery Brown operated a sawmill on Lee's Brook from 1839-1877, upstream from the site of the Ledyard Up-down Sawmill.

The site of Avery Brown's sawmill today

Traces of the sawmill pond are still there today a few hundred yards upstream from Sawmill Park – it's a shallow boggy pond on Lee’s Brook with the remains of the stone and earth dam easily found and a stone foundation that may mark the location of the 18th and 19th century mills.