Ledyard sawmill history
1838-1868 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 land 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.
1860 Federal population census.Ledyard tax records, Ledyard, Connecticut Bill Library, Janice W. Bell Historical Research Room.Albert Brown Probate Papers, Ledyard Probate District, 1857, no. 181, Connecticut State Library Archives.Ledyard Land Records book, 1866, book 4, p. 111.
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.
Ledyard Land Records, 1869, book 3, p. 466.1870 Federal population census
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.
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.
Ledyard tax records, Ledyard, Connecticut Bill Library, Janice W. Bell Historical Research Room.1880 Federal Industrial Census
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.
Ledyard tax records, Ledyard, Connecticut Bill Library, Janice W. Bell Historical Research Room.1880 Federal population census
1887 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”.
Ledyard Land Records, 1877, book 5, p. 629.Ledyard Land Records, 1877, book 5, p. 697.
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.
Ledyard Land Records, 1891, book 6, p. 549.Israel W. Brown obituary, Norwich Bulletin, March 15, 1920.
1902 Aaron loses the mill in foreclosure to his deceased Uncle WL Main
When Israel had needed money in 1877 he had mortgaged his sawmill to his maternal uncle William Leeds Main. 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.
Ledyard Land Records, 1902, book 7, p. 416.
The sawmill's last days
Horace Main moved his family to the house near the mill soon after inheriting it. Horace had been a farmer and constable; when he inherited the sawmill from his father's estate, he began sawing a little lumber as well as operating a blacksmith shop.
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 1937, the mill passed to his son Harry C.W. Main (1899-1970) who was the last private owner of the mill property.
Harry performed some repairs to the mill in 1937-1938, but the mill never ran again as a commercial mill.
Constable Main of Ledyard, despondent about health, kills self with rifle shot. New London Day, June 28, 1937.200-year-old Ledyard sawmill still works. New London Day, June 25, 1938. p. 18.Harry Town Purchases Park Site, Norwich Bulletin, October 14, 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 C.W. 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.
Ledyard Land Records, 1966, book 63, p. 244.Town Purchases Park Site, Norwich Bulletin, October 14, 1966.Harry Main, Once Selectman, Succumbs at 70. New London Day, May 13, 1970.
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.