Sash Sawmill

I love old mill buildings, which means I love the machinery that runs in and outside of mill buildings, because the neat thing to me about mills is that the building and the machinery and the power transmission system that connects it all is inseparable. This is totally different from a modern factory, which is usually just a concrete pad with a wooden or metal shelter over it, and plenty of electrical outlets to plug all the machinery into our power grid. Early mills were dependant on water power and a mill was located where the available fall of water provided enough kinetic energy to do a sizeable amount of work. The first steam engines in Piedmont North Carolina were used in cotton mills such as the Mount Hecla mill in Greensboro about 1830, which liberated mills from the flood plain. But even then, the steam engine and boiler just replaced the water wheel as a prime mover.

I came across this photo in an odd way. I found a hefty old book at a yard sale, almost 500 pages of 19th-century lithographed photos of the landmarks of the world, from the Tower of London and Notre Dame of Paris to the Kremlin and the Taj Mahal. It was a late 19th-century coffee table book, meant to grace a parlor and provide hours of enjoyment in the era before movies, radio, TV, and the internet: Royal Photograph Gallery: Placing on Home Exhibition Photographs of the Majestic and Imposing in Nature; the Beautiful and Inspiring in Art; the Grandly Scenic, Eventfully History and Strikingly Descriptive; Including Impressive Scenes, Heroic Events and Famous Achievements which Mark Human Progress and Distinguish the Nations of Earth. Introduced by John Clark Ridpath, LLD, America’s Famous and Foremost Historian. Philadelphia: Historical Publishing Company, 1893.

On page 419, this picture caught my eye, and the caption really surprised me.


This is one of those picturesque and attractive scenes which frequently greet the eye of the traveler in the old north State. It is equally suggestive of antiquity and poetry. Located in the neighborhood of the county seat of Randolph County, and taking advantage of a natural water power, the primitive structure, with its leaky water wheel and creaky cogs, tells the story of a time when grists were borne long miles to mill and when flour was not evolved by the steam roller. All about the old mill are the somber forests which echoed the rush of waters over the dam, the groaning of the burdened water-wheel, and the monotone of the busy burr. Where once the far-off farmer unloaded his scanty bushels and waited for his snow-white return, the tourist now finds recreation and the artist an object for admiration.”

Quite the poetic description, and pretty definitely wrong. The mill is definitely a water-powered mill, but it’s obviously no grist mill, even though there’s an old discarded mill stone leaning against the axle crib. It’s a water-powered vertical-blade saw mill, also called an “up-and-down” or “sash” sawmill. And it’s the only picture of a Randolph County sash sawmill I know of.

[Illustration from Oliver Evans, 1790, of his design for a vertical blade mill.]

Since their invention in 1844, modern sawmills have spinning round blades, like a hand-held skill saw. The first circular saw mill, powered by a steam engine, was brought into Randolph County by Jonathan and John Milton Worth, who in 1852 contracted to supply lumber for the construction of the Plank Road being built from Fayetteville north to Salem.

[The saw in its sash or frame.]

Before that time, every saw mill was powered by water, and cut wood with a long saw blade mounted in a vertical wooden frame similar to a picture or window frame. The frame was attached to a crank which pushed it up and down on a track as a water wheel turned the crank, with a motion similar to the opening and closing of a window sash (hence the name). A mechanical ratchet mechanism pulled the log, mounted on a cogwheel-driven carriage, against the moving saw blade. The water-powered blade was designed to move at about 150 strokes a minute, so as to cut about 3,000 board feet of lumber in a 12-hour day. Depending on the available water power, however, production could vary down to 500 board feet per day. Water-powered saw mills such as these were an American invention, dating as far back as 1621 in New England, long before similar mills were used in Europe (see Michael Williams, Americans and Their Forests, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992, p. 167.)

The size and shape of the mill building is the giveaway that it’s a saw mill. Saw mills were long, narrow, one-story buildings, while grist mills were squarish, boxy, multi-story buildings. The only convenient early way to grade wheat or flour and meal was to drop it from a height to sift it and scatter trash contamination. Wheat and corn storage bins were also located in the attic, so that the grains could be funneled into the stones from above.

This building has no attic space, and is long and narrow (look at the pitch of the roof- the building can be no more than 15 feet wide). It’s powered by an elderly-looking overshot wheel; the feed from the head race is positioned so it hits the wheel at about 11:55 on a clock face, just slightly off center, so that the wheel rotates counter-clockwise (also evident from the placement of the buckets, designed to fill up and be pulled down by gravity to our left). As the water buckets filled and the wheel turned, the large iron gear mounted on the left side of the wheel turned at the same speed as the water wheel, since they are the same size. But the slow rotation of the wheel was transformed into a fast motion to be transmitted to the saw mill by the large gear being meshed with the smaller gear to the lower left. I can’t really tell how many teeth there are (which would determine the gear ratio), but this arrangement might have powered the saw at a speed as much as 8 to 10 times the speed of the water wheel.

No work is being doing now, though- the wheel is stopped for the photograph. We can tell that because we can actually see the buckets; if the wheel were moving they’d be a blur, due to the slow speed of 1890s photography. And we also know it’s stopped because most of the water is flowing over the side of the tail race behind the wheel, indicating the head gates are closed beside the man (the miller? The sawyer?) standing beside the gate atop the wheel.

I wish this photograph had a location more helpful than “located in the neighborhood of the county seat of Randolph County.” That covers a lot of territory! And I would love to be able to go to this place and compare this photograph with what remains in place, where ever it was. But at least we’ve rediscovered the picture, so as to remind us that we once had a landscape with saw mills such as this.


Tags: ,

3 Responses to “Sash Sawmill”

  1. Carl Skyrman Says:

    I’m trying to find plans or reconstructions of western sash mills (Oregon, Idaho, Washington, California). Some were built using scrap iron salvaged from wagons, the only available iron source. How they were made with minimal iron amazes me. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks, Carl

  2. Warren Dolphin Says:

    For information on sash sawmills, check this www site

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: