Fifty Years in Mills and Timber


In 1838 I was 14 years of age, and then in the wilds of Maine. My father lived four miles from the city of Bangor, and his farm, then nearly all covered with forest trees, bordered on the banks of the Penobscot, a stream with many old-style sash saw mills, all run by water power. My father’s land was well covered with fine timber. The rift timber my father would fall, and with a cross-cut saw we made it into blocks, which we hauled into a back shed, where we split it into shingles with a froe, then with shingle-horse and drawing-knife my father shaved the shingles smooth. My own business then was to rive (that is, split) the bolts up for shingles, and keep up a light by throwing shavings on the fire in the old fireplace.

About two bunches was a good evening’s work for winter. I also bunched the shingles ready for the market. Each bunch was 22 inches wide, 22 courses high, and four of these bunches made 1,000 shingles. These we hauled to market and sold for about $2 per thousand. In the other room my mother was either spinning wool on the large wheel, or weaving wool cloth on the old loom that set up in one corner of the room, or on her little wheel for spinning flax, the sound of which, whiz, whiz, whiz! I imagine hearing to this day. Then there was the old fireplace with the andirons and the rock maple or yellow birch back logs. With these good-sized back logs, a fore-stick, and wood piled on to make a roaring fire, here were my happiest days.

About two miles from my home was a small brook or stream that emptied into the Kenduskeag near my father’s. At about 14 years of age I hired with the owner of this so-called “Thunder Shower Mill.” The reason it took this name was that in summer, when there was only a driveling stream of water running, and we heard it thunder, we would roll a log down the roll way, get it on the carriage and saw while the water lasted.

After the saw made its run through the log, we would go and hoist the gate, let the water onto the old wheel buckets or plank fastened into the mortises made in the lower end of the round shaft which run up under the mill floor, with wooden cogs or gears that meshed into those that were in one side of the carriage track. After the water set the old wheel and shaft going, by pressing against a lever on the mill floor we could push the upper end of the upright wooden shaft over and through the cogs into gear, and in from three to about six minutes, according to the length of log sawed, we could get the carriage back.

When working in this old “Thunder Shower Mill” I have actually started the saw into the cut, walked over the top of the old mill dam and hoed a short row of potatoes while the saw was going through a long log during low water, and got back into the mill when the cut was made. This seems a pretty tough story but is actually true.

The owner of this old mill was something of a millwright. On one occasion when the early spring rains came and raised the water with the floating ice, some two or three feet in thickness, and covered with logs that had been hauled in to be sawed, some leaks were made in the old dam near the bottom, which we stopped by closely tying up some hay, tying that to the end of a pole, then pushing down and sinking the bundle of hay to the bottom and above the leak; the pressure would draw it partly into the hole, hold it there and stop or nearly stop the leak.

On this particular occasion, either some heavy buttings or other sunken material had gone through the gate sluice and broken nearly all the buckets out of our gig-back wheel. Now here was a cold job to be done, but there was no backing down for cold ice water. So with saw, axe, hammer, &c., and a few plank, we went down, and in a few hours, with cold streams of water spurting through cracks and holes in the old dam, we got the buckets in.

My employer was standing on some short pieces of plank that lay across the tops of the buckets or paddles. Said he to me: “Now you run up into the mill, and when you hear me call, throw the cogs into gear and I will stay down and see how it works.” I climbed up the steep, frozen, icy bank, then climbed into the mill over a pile of saw logs that were on the roll way, but no sooner than I reached the lever I heard my employer call out. So up came the gate, and the old wheel started.

I thought that I would look down through one of the holes in the old mill floor and see if it was going all right, when, to my horror, there was my employer hugging the shaft and whirling around as wet as a drowned rat, but with ice water. Well, down went that gate, and the wheel into gear, so as to stop it just as soon as possible, which was soon done.

My employer stood for some half a minute or more, about as dizzy as a whiskey bloat just out of a beer shop, looking first up, then down. At last he shook some of the water off his face, and looking up, seeing me peeping down through the crack, called out: “You dod darned fool!” His hand saw had gone one way, his chisel another, his auger another, and none of them were found until the next summer, and all were never found.

The fact was that he had called for me to bring him down a handful of long spikes, but the running water over the dam made so much noise that I did not understand what he said. He afterwards said I let the water on so quick, and the wheel, being unloaded, started so suddenly that he had no time to call out until the water made such a roar that it drowned his voice, and that although he knew just what had happened, that he could not have held a half-minute longer. But if ever he had lost his hold he would have gone to “David Jones’ locker” sure.


The Wood-Worker – March 1888

—Jeff Burks

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8 Responses to Fifty Years in Mills and Timber

  1. Riveting story, hated for it to end. Thank you for posting it

  2. toolnut says:

    Welcome back Jeff. Thanks for posting.

  3. fitz says:

    I second toolnut’s comment!

  4. tsstahl says:

    Well, he didn’t die. That makes it hilarious! Good story.

  5. smbarnha says:

    “walked over the top of the old mill dam and hoed a short row of potatoes” – favorite part of the story.

    Thanks Jeff!

  6. kendewitt608 says:

    Loved the story, reminded me of two abandoned saw mills and two likewise dams in New Hampshire.
    They were on the Gile Brook in the Gile Forrest. They would saw upstream in the morning and when the water ran out they would walk a mile or two downstream. Then by opening the second dam they could saw in the afternoon.

  7. m46opie says:

    Dull the fig !

    Mark Singleton
    Santa Maria, Ca

  8. Ha ha ha! The millwright’s instructions were followed well. Who was the “dod darned fool?”

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