THE DEVELOPMENT OF SAWMILLS AND THEIR ROLE IN THE PRODUCTION OF
Fred Harlev Hurl dies ton
12 December 1973 AE 685
A Sawmill for Virginia
Virginia Richly and Truly Valued.
This work began as a study of the production and distribution methods of exterior wood siding in the South and in Florida in particular. Through the course of investigation several points were learned which helped to change the scope of the project. The available records of sawmills and their production are are scarce; the majority of early finished lumber produced was done on a local scale in small almost temporary mills and, hence, mo records were kept. In addition, great amounts of clapboards were nroduced without the assistance of a sawmill since the circular saw was the first power saw that was able to produce clapboards with accuracy and it did not come into common use until the latter part of the nineteenth century.
The result of available information being scarce is a general study of the development of sawmill operations in the United States with attention given to Florida's role in the lumber industry. The early use of clapboards along with their production by hand and machine, is discussed.
The author was unable to find andy references to clapboards in Florida and feels that documentation of existing examples of wood siding should be made to record the variety of such a material and to provide a base for tracing the orign of siding to particular areas,
determining the possibility of differences in methods of production from area to area and mill to mill.
DEVELOPMENT OF SAWMILLS IN AMERICA
The first sawmills in America were built at Jamestown, Va. in 1625 and at Berwick, Maine in I63I. These mills existed before any like them were built in England. The handsawyers of England regarded sawmills with hostility since such mills were considered a threat to their livelyhood. England's first sawmill was erected by a Dutchman in 1663 but was quickly abandoned because of the less than friendly attitude of the local workmen. When a second sawmill was set up in I767 by a Mr. John Houghton, a London timber merchant, a mob tore it to the ground. A new mill was built shortly afterwards becoming the first sawmill in England to carry out the purpose for which it was built.
The first American colonists were not so particular as to where their lumber for housing came from. The sawmill used in the first American colonies consisted of a frame saw, with one or more blades, which was worked vertically up and down by a crank revolving on the end of the horizonal axle of a water wheel. Until the early nineteenth century, a framed pit saw was movedn not by men but by water, and that the moving carriage took the place of the long strips ("sidestrakes") and cross-pieces ("head sills" and "transoms," etc.) laid over the hand sawyer's pit; and that the log moved against the saw and not the saw against the log.
In the South, however, most lumber produced before IBdO war manufactured by hand, using a method known as pit-aawinT. When thi "5 method was used a timber was
i860 was manufactured by hand, using a method known as pit-sawing. When this method was used a timber was roughly squared with a broadaxe and placed over a pit, or elevated six or seven feet on a trestle. One man stood on the urper side of the log and pulled a crosscut saw up, and a pitman stood underneath and pulled the saw down. The saw cut only on the downward stroke. The top of the log was marked with chalk to serve as a guide. A good days work for two men was considered to be 100 to 200 board feet of blanks. Once the water powered mill began to apnear in the deep South, improvements in the design and operation of the carriage made this type of mill fairly efficient, and it remained in use, often in conjunction with a grist mill, until after
WWI. One in Alabama remained in operation until the 16
early 1920,s. v>
1803 is the date of one of the first recordings of a steam sawmill being established when a steam engine built by the Philadelphia inventor, founder and machinist, Oliver Evans, was sent down to New Orleans and installed in a boat that ran aground during a flood of the Mississippi River. A Mr. William Donaldson installed the engine and boiler in a sawmill he owned. The mill proved successftil being able to saw 3.000 feet of boards in a tweleve hour day until the local handsawyers, realizing that they were being displaced by machinery,
burned the mill and destroyed the machinery. '
Evans was not without competition as improvements in water powered mills continued. One came from his home state where, in 180^-, Mr. Moses Coates of Chester County, Pennsylvania, obtained a patent from the United States for an improvement in sawmills for accelerating the sawing of timber into boards and scantling. "A log 20 inches in diameter, and 1^ feet long, was sawed into inch boards, and the gate shut down, without being moved or acted upon by any other means, than supplied by the water, acting upon the mechanism of the mill; and the whole time employed in moving the log back, and the saw entering after each successive run, did not exceed half a minute." An analysis of the "improvement" from the written description only is most difficult but the new method implies a continued interest in the water powered sawmill when, at the same time, the steam powered sawmill was rapidly taking hold on the frontier regions of the country.
By 1812, Evans' had three engines sawing lumber in the Mississippi territory Donaldson's at Manchac and two at Natchez, one of which could saw 5000 feet of boards in tweleAre hours. By 1807, steam engines and boilers were being built by others in Kentucky and two or three at Bayou Sara on the Mississippi. These engines could be bought for only five hundred dollars each.
The greatest improvement in sawmill equipment was the invention of the circular saw in the late cen-
tury. This saw was invented in England and was in general use there by the 1820*s. When commercial mills
were set up in Alabama in the early 1880's, circular saws
were used almost exclusively as was steam power.
Band saws began to appear in the larger Southern mills after World War I and continue to be the most common means of sawing timber in commercial mills.
Cypress logs, cut from the numerous brakes found in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, were rafted down the river to sawmills in Vicksburg, Natchez, and New Orleans. (Both sketches are from Harpers New Monthly Magazine.)
Each mill had its own particular method of running its operations but, generally, when a mill received an order for certain size lumber, the sawyer would tell the millpond men what kind and size of logs to send him, the logs were moved from the pond to the log deck up the "jack ladder", which was a V-shaped trough inside of which operated a power driven chain.
After the log was slabbed, the sawyer began cutting boards or other stock according to the mill order. As they were cut from the log, they passed along a line of live rollers to the edger where they were made square edged and where boards wider than meeded were ripped into the desired lengths and trimmed the ends. Defective pieces were usually cut into short ones in order to secure the highest grade practicable. As the boards left the trimmer they dropped upon the grading and assorting
tatele where they were roughly graded and then assorted
as to grades, thickness, and lengths.
Red cedar lumbering at Cedar Key, 1882. From a drawing in harper's weekly, 1882. Courtesy of the Florida State Library.
The sawmill as a large commercial venture was slow in coming to the deep south due largly to a belief that southern pine was inferior to northern pine because the South lacked the cold winters which, supposedly, helped to produce a better tree with closer grain. This idea, of course, was found to be untrue.
The lumber industry centered in Maine for 200 years. By 1850, however, the center had shifted to New York where, in that year, about eight billion board feet were cut l_ and by I869 New York produced 20$ of the entire output of lumber in the U.S.
In i860, the industry was centered in Pennsylvania and Williamsnort with its thirty huge sawmills along the Susquehanna River became^ the center of the nation's lumber production. The next shift was to Michigan where its white pine became the most produced timber in the U.S.
The milling of southern pine on a national commercial basis did not become a major producer until 1909 with : the industry centered in Alabama until the Washington/ Oregon Douglas Fir became most desired of the lumber industry in 1926.
It is difficult to imagine, today, what the virgin pine forests of Florida looked like before major lumber operations/began. Descriptions have been recorded speak-
ing of driving through the virgin longleaf pine forest with trunks rising forty to sixty feet and spreading out their dense foliage which meet above "like the arches in a cathedral." There was little or no undergrowth, and the view faded into a maze of the column-like trunks.
Records of Florida's early lumber ventures are few; the majority of information available being derived from contempory sourdes containing brief descriptions.
The Spanish were the first to take advantage of the timber resorces of Florida to the extent of using it in their own local construction with small shipments to the West Indies. British records show that within a 50 mile radius of St. Ausrestine were five sawmills, or tracts surveyed for sawmills. Twenty miles up North River, a William Watson had 200 acres where 20 men worked to supply him with lumber and shingles. Barges or flats usually moved the lumber to market or to port. There was at ? least one lumber yard at St. Auerestine.
The Spanish settlements of Florida were described in 1810 as having little for exportation from the towns of Mobile and Pensacola except for some tar occasionally and a small quantity of lumbering. There was a sawmill with two saws, partly owned by Govenor Falch, on a branch of the Escambia about sixteen miles from Pensacola along with another which had just been completed. The plank
was pine and was sawed 13 feet long and 10 or 12 inches
wide. The output of the two saws was reported at 400
boards in 24 hours. At that time, Pensacola was devoid
of industry and contained only some house carpenters 13
and a tailor. However, by 1824, Pensacola had grown important in her lumber interests, exporting a quarter
of a million feet of sawed lumber a year.
Lumber was not easily obtainable in all sections of North Florida during the early years of American settlement as an account of Monticello in 1837 states that "The village is built almost entirely of wood, and the difficulty of getting boards has delayed its prosper-ity."
The early mills were pointed out in contempory descriptions such as Cornte De Castelnan's who, in March of I838 wrote "near the river Oclockone and the little stream Secheopoko(Sopchoppy), one has recently installed a sawmill. These descriptions should not be taken as to mean that sawmills were a rarity at that time. There had, of course, been a lumber industry in the South before the Civil War, but with the exception of a few mills on the coast, it served only local needs.
Florida's advance in the lumber industry accererated in the decade preceeding the Civil War. In 1850 the first circular sawmill in East Florida was erected in Jack-
sonville. Four years later there were five or six in
the town and. as many in the vicinity. Land was cleared
at an amazing speed for that time; the years of 1850-60
saw the amount of improved farm land in the state all 12
but doubled. The Civil War destroyed the progress that
Florida had madie in sawmill development. What the Union
troops didn't destroy, the local population did to keep
it out of enemy hands. A Union soldier's description
written in 1862 describes the general situation well.
"If you could see Jacksonville you could thoroughly realize what sec-cession has done for the South. Desolation and distress are before you. Before reaching the city you see the ruins of a larsce number of steam sawmills they were burned before our people reached them last season. I believe they were- owned mostly by Southern capitay* *
The Union soldier's belief that the majority of the sawmills were Southern owned is not entirely correct. Fifteen years before the outbreak of the War Northern crews came and cut lumber in Nassau and Duval counties; vessels took North much of this live oak, ceder, and pine, until 50,000,000 board feet were each year going out of the St. Johns River region. The strong control of Southern commercial lumbering continued through 1868 until
local businessmen began to take over control of the in-10
The railroads were instrimental in the rebuilding
of sawmills through the establishment of towns requiring
mills along the risrht of way of the rail lines, by the 1870's there were a number of steam sawmills in operation throughout the state. Along the line of the former Florida Railroad from one to three good steam sawmills for each settlement were located at St. Marys, Port Henry or Ond Town, Charles Bluff, Swann',s Brickyard Bluff, German-town, Woodstock Village, Kings Ferry, Orange Bluff, and 11
Not all sawmills were located in railroad towns. A letter from Micanopy in 1877 describes milling operations in that locale,
"It is about four miles to the nearest sawmill from where I am located. Lumber can be got here, but it is manufactured in the most slovenly manner possible, no two boards a-like and very seldom any one board will be found of like dimensions throughout. It will be thick at one end and thin at the other. The same may be said of the scantling and joists also. The greatest difficulty however, is the want of a planing-mill. There is none in all this section, and it is next to an impossibility to dress this Southern pine by hand. It is full of pitch and is harder and heavier than oak lumber. Unless the planes are kept as keen as a razor they will slide over the board as over a piece of steel.
Here the sawmill is usually located in the midst of the pine timber, the trees felled and hauled to the mill with teams attached to huge two-wheeled trucks, the wheels being
fully eight feet in diameter with a six-inch tire upon them. The tree is hauled in its entire lenecth of body, which is from 40 to 80 feet, and is sawed at that length, but is cut to dimensions with a side circular saw." 2^
The period of 1880 to 1914 is a prime example of
wasteful practices, outside exploitation, and rampant
laissey-faire capitalism. Lumber was exported in crude
forms because the South lacked the ability to fully
manufacture lumber, steel, cotton cloth, etc..
PRODUCTION AND USE OF CLAPBOARDS
Any study of early building materials and their production riquires the understanding of the vocavulary of another era. Siding, in terms of an exterior wall covering of wood, is a relativly mew term. The two important words to be delt with in studying early wood exterior sidina- are clapboard and weatherboard.
The New English Dictionary describes the old definition of clapboard as "A smaller size of split oak, imported from north Germany, and used by coopers for making barrel-staves..." and its use in the United States as "a board, thinner at one edge, used to cover the sides or roofs of houses, each board being made to over-lap that below it: a weather-board.11 This last definition held true in the American colonies as early as 1632.
Clapboard, by definition, was split, not sawn. Mill' sawn clapboard was probably unknown before the nineteenth century. The usual words for splitting, in the seventeenth century, were "riving" and "cleaving." The riving tool was the froe or frow, a course knife with wedge-shaped blade, and handle at right angles. A balk of g squared and crosscut timber was held steady on a frow horse, and the blade pounded down the grain with a wooden mallet called the frow club until the clapboard split off.
A traveling Dutchman, in 1679. has given one 0:6 the most detailed descriptions of. an English framed
"Most all the English, and many others have their houses made not otherwise than of clapboards in this manner; they first make a hewing frame, the same as they do in Westphalia and at Altena but not so strong; they then rive the boards out of clap wood so that they are like cooper's pipestaves, except they are not bent, these are made very thin with a large knife so that ith thickest edge is about as thick as a little finger, and the other is made sharp, lide the edsre of a knife, they are about five or six feet long, and are nailed on the outside of the fsrame with the edges lnp-ped over each other usually not so close as to prevent you from sticking your finger between them, in consequence either of their not beine: well joined or the boards being crooked. When it is cold and windy the best people daub them with clay."
The sheathing of a frame house in Virginia, in the eighteenth century was almost alw ys of sawn weatherboards. Horizontal flush boarding was primarily confined to dormers, porches, and outbuildings.
Weatherboards were usually about 7 inches wide. They were produced by "dividing ordinary boards through their thickness, each board supplying two weatherboards; the cut was diagonal, so as to give each board a wedgelike cross section." The right-angled(or outer) arris of the exposed edge of the weatherboard was usually , beaded; given a small molding with the use of a molding plane.
The weatherboards are nailed to the frame overlapping by about 1 inches, so each shows about 6 inches
to the elements.
The business of sawing had become independent of
water power with the development of the steam engine
during the nineteenth century and, at the same timek
the method of making clapboards changed. They were now
about one half an inch thick at one edge, and nearly sharp
at the other. The circular saw allowed clapboards to
be made accuratly by machine for the first time in history.
The process for making clapboards in a circular saw mill
is as follows:
"They are cut from the log by very ingenious machinery, A white pine log, cut at the proper length, is turned in a lathe to a diameter a little more than twice the width of the clapboard. This log is placed on a frame, and carried by machinery against a circular saw which cuts it from end to end mearly to the center. The frame then returns over the saw, which continues to revolve in the kerf; the same movements are repeated till the log is cut entirely into clapboards, the thick edges being on the outar circle, and the sharp edges meeting in the center of the log." z
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