the Robinson Mill

 In Calais, Vermont


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Calais, Vermont Index

The History of Logging

The History of Sawmills

Water Powered Grist Mill Restoration in Whitefield, NH

The Robinson Mill Index

History of logging in the Great North Woods Region of northern New Hampshire.


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Our ancestors were glad to take advantage of new technologies such as water powered saws, turbines and Lane circular sawmills. Click here to learn how to enjoy the advantages of the latest in proven lubrication technology!

This section of created, written, developed and maintained by Ed Sanders.

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The Robinson Mill is the oldest water powered sawmill still standing in Vermont. It was built by my 7th great-grandfather, Joel Robinson in 1803. You can click here to see the Robinson genealogy. Click here for the exact link to Joel. The mill is presently owned by the Aldrich Memorial. I am helping the many other dedicated people preserve and restore it.

The Robinson Mill from the road.

Sign in front of the Robinson Mill.

Panorama of the mill area about 1875.

Center of panorama.

Same view August 23, 1990. Notice all the trees that have grown up.

View further to the right. Kent Tavern in the middle.
A version of hand sawing lumber from logs. A more used method was to dig a saw pit, one sawyer would stand below the log in the pit to pull down, the other would stand above the log to pull up.

A crude up and down water powered sawmill. The blade went up and down, the log was advanced upon the carriage which would run on two tracks. When this faster, easier method of cutting was invented many people who worked in the saw pits were almost as upset as the Luddites in England were over textile mills. They simply saw themselves forced out of a job by the new technology.
A Lane circular sawmill. In the picture the sawyer is holding the handle to the action to advance the log sideways across the carriage. In real life he wouldn't be holding it at this point. You'll see that the log is already started into the saw. If you moved it sideways at this point you would cause great havoc!

You will see two tracks at the bottom of the picture. These are what the carriage ride on. The log is rolled onto the carriage and is held in place by "dogs", sharp metal points that are driven slightly into the wood. The carriage has been backed off away from the saw using the handle you see him holding. Once the log is secured to the carriage, he advances it toward him to make the first cut. Then he applies pressure to one of the belts in the feed mechanism to move the carriage with the log past the saw.

The power to run a water powered mill is stored in the weight of the water held back in the dam above. There are several ways of converting the weight to power. You have probably seen pictures of overshot water wheels. There are also undershot wheels, and wheels that get power from the current of a river without using a dam. In the 1800's a Vermonter invented the turbine. The Robinson Mill has one of the earlier turbines sold by his company. The water flows through a "watergate" or "penstock"down the large metal pipe you see below to the turbine. The weight of the water and the power of the current it creates spin the turbine.
The dam was last worked on in 1961 as can be seen here.

A lower view of the pipe with the waterfall from the dam on the right.
A view of the waterfall and the structure of the mill from beneath the mill.

Another view of the pipe going to the turbine house.
The Turbine house.

The end of the pipe near the turbine. The little white lines you see are a cloud of bugs. After we restore the turbine, we will build a connection between the pipe and the opening to the turbine.
The opening to the turbine. There is a metal door that slides up and down to closely control the flow of water into the turbine to control the speed of the saw. The sawyer would have to vary this in relation to the size of log being cut and the type of wood. Soft woods require less power, hard woods more.

Another view of the turbine. The center part with the shaft coming out of the top is what turns.
Looking into the turbine at the center bearing. This is made of lignum-vitae wood, which lasts for a long time and is self lubricating.

Another view of the turbine.
Looking down on the turbine from in under the mill.

The power from the turbine is transferred from the vertical shaft to a horizontal shaft using wooden cogs as gear teeth. There was one wooden cog mill that made replacement teeth for the cogs in water powered mills in the western hemisphere, located in Lancaster, New Hampshire. The local school district took his property and put him out of business, then the "powers that be" decided not to build a school there after all. What was once a historic working treasure is now the parking lot of the new courthouse in Lancaster.
Part of the mechanism the sawyer uses to control the flow of water. Notice the curved marks on the wood. This shows that it was cut on a circular sawmill. If the marks were straight, you would know it had been cut on an up and down sawmill or a bandsaw mill.

The sawmill, looking from the end where the logs are loaded on.
The mill, looking from the end where the lumber is taken off after it is sawn.

The carriage that the logs are rolled onto and held while cutting.
An "Underdog" that is used to hold a timber that is being cut when the carriage is close to the saw when the "top dog" isn't enough to hold the wood safely.

Another view of the underdog showing part of the mechanism.
The handle and mechanism the sawyer uses to move the log sideways. This determines the size of the piece of wood that is to be cut off.

A closeup of the mechanism that controls the size of the piece of lumber. There is a ratchet on the left that is engaged with different sets of teeth on the wheel depending on the amount the sawyer wishes to advance the log to cut off a larger or smaller piece of lumber. The teeth that are far apart will advance it a great deal, those close together a little. Some are one inch per stroke, 3/4 inch, 1 1/2 inch, 2 inch, etc. It also quickly dis-engages and works backwards to quickly run the carriage back to receive another log.
The "business end" of the saw. The wooden lever at the right is linked to the door on the turbine. The shaft the saw is mounted on is called the "saw arbor".

The pully on the other end of the saw arbor. A large belt transfers the power from the horizontal shaft below to this pulley. The "stepped pulley" on the right provides power to the carriage feed mechanism.
A view of the feed mechanism power pulleys. The belt is placed on different steps depending on the speed of the feed the sawyer needs. If he is cutting large hardwood, the belt would be on the smallest section of the power pulley on the saw arbor shaft and the largest pulley section on the feed mechanism shaft. This would make the feed slower in relation to the speed of the saw. Conversely of he were cutting a softwood such as poplar, the belt would be on the larger section of the arbor shaft pulley and the smaller section of the feed mechanism pulley to have the carriage move faster. This way water wouldn't be wasted and the sawyer could cut as fast as possible.

Part of the feed mechanism.
The two metal pieces on either side of the saw blade help hold it in place when it is cutting for an accurate cut in the wood. There are small wooden plugs mounted in holes in the metal pieces so as not to damage tha saw blade. If the saw blade were to "whip" or move back and forth, the lumber would be crooked.

The small "saw rig" here is used to cut the slab wood into smaller sizes to be used as firewood. The outer parts of the log are useless as lumber and are usually cut up to be burned.
The disk here helps hold the wood being cut apart so as not to pinch the saw blade or ruin the lumber.

The saw teeth are if the insert type. That way when the teeth are ruined or beyond sharpening they can be replaced.
A bearing on the arbor shaft. Notice that it is "gimballed" to be able to easily align the arbor and saw to the carriage without worrying about bearing alignment. There is a small door in the top for adding oil to lubricate it.

The door open looking down at the shaft.
A planer in a lower section of the mill. This is used to "plane" or smooth the lumber. Lumber that isn't planed is called "rough cut" and is full dimension. In other words, a 2X4 will actually measure out at 2 by 4 inches dimension. After it is planed it will be "finished lumber" and only measure 1 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches.

Another view of the planer. Power is transferred to it via a flat belt to the shaft on the lower left. From there it goes to feed rollers that feed the lumber into the planer. Wide planer blades then shave off some of the wood and leave a finished surface. These baldes must be very sharp with no "nicks" in them. Look at planed finished lumber in the store. If you see small long raised sections lengthways in the wood, the planer blade was damaged.
An example of an up and down sawmill.

Part of the carriage feed mechanism from the original up and down sawmill built in 1803.

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Copyright 1990, 1997, 1998, 1999 by Ed Sanders.