The Sawmills of Mosquitobush, 1850-1940

Kirsten “Bee” Tolman
From Common Threads, the Newsletter of Harrisville, NH, August/September 2007

The period from 1790 to 1830 has been called the Age of Self-Sufficiency in northern New England. Nearly everything needed for daily living was made on the homestead. For exceptional needs, there were local shops, the most prevalent of which were grist mills and sawmills.

There had been sawmills in Nelson since before the Revolutionary War. But it wasn’t until about 1840, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, that woodworking became a viable business in New England. In Nelson, a chair factory in Munsonville became the town’s largest enterprise.

Water-powered sawmill at Mosquitobush

Soon after came a group of sawmills and shops in Mosquitobush, an area in the southeast corner of Nelson (now part of Harrisville). These mills met the needs of the woolen mills in the area, supplying fuel, lumber and later wood products for the factories and related buildings and settlements.

The first mill in Mosquitobush was probably the one built by Joel Bancroft around 1850. Also about that time, a Bancroft in-law named Parmenter built a grist and sawmill a few hundred feet downstream of the Bancroft mill.

Michael Hall, a professor of history at the University of Texas, wrote a thesis on early Nelson history, describes another mill – about 2 miles upstream from Mosuitobush, just below the Long Pond (Lake Nubanusit) dam, where the channel is narrow enough to create some velocity of water. This mill was owned by Plummer and Rugg and had a clothespin machine, a gauge-lathe, a fluting machine, and a roller for polishing. With these tools, the shop made washboards, clothespins, mop handles, shingles, and bobbins and battens for the wool factory, in addition to its usual production of lumber.

None of the mills lasted long under original management. The Plummer and Rugg mill is missing from maps made in 1858 and 1885. The Bancroft mill, consisting of a sawmill, clothespin shop and several houses, was sold in 1860 to Eben Cyrus Tolman and a Mr. Sheldon. The mill was fed by a channel dug 5 feet wide and 4 feet deep. The water was diverted at a 90-degree angle by a 10-foot stone-supported diversion bank and dam before it turned 90 degrees again to go through the mill itself.

In the summer of 1875, during a lunch break one day, a fire started in the shop and burned the mill to the ground. Eben Tolman was not out of business, however, because he had also bought the Parmenter mill. And it turned out to be an auspicious time. The advent of the steam engine in the textile industry, combined with the arrival of the railroad, which further encouraged manufacturing, provided much work for the sawmills.

Eben Tolman’s first and perhaps only large contract for large-scale lumbering was for John Colony of the Cheshire Mills in Harrisville. In the early 1860s, Colony wanted to raise the water level of Long Pond to further insure a steady supply of water for his growing woolen mills. He contracted Tolman to log the timber around the lake’s edge and to saw it to lumber for the mills, much of which was needed to build housing for French Canadian immigrant labor who had arrived to take the place of local men who had enlisted in the Union Army.

By 1870, Nelson (population 450) had two chair factories, a clothespin mill, a shingle mill and three sawmills. Harrisville had four woodenware shops and a chair factory, in addition to its textile mills.

Wilmer Cyrus Tolman, Eben’s son, worked in the Mosquitobush mill all his life and inherited and continued the mill after his father’s death. At the time, a man like Wilmer Tolman might log timber in the winter, make maple sugar in the early spring, plant in late spring, work as a carpenter during the summer, and harvest in the fall. Hardwoods were a cash crop, often sold as fuel, while softwoods were used for building.

Wilmer would buy or lease, for example, 20 acres of Lake Nubanusit shorefront, log it, then resell it to “summerfolk” who were just becoming prevalent. It was mainly spruce (for making shingles), white pine (for construction lumber and clotheboards, or battens, for the Harrisville mills) and hemlock (for house interiors). Logs were skidded on a sled drawn by oxen and horses over a trail that ran through the Great Meadows (aka The Interval) – the 2-mile stretch of marshland surrounding the stream that runs from Lake Nubanusit to Harrisville Pond, and is the center of Mosquitobush. Horses were also used to pull the watering sled at night, when more ice was needed on the skidding trail.

Mosquitobush Sawmill. Block print by Fran Tolman

The main mill building straddled the stream and was about 40 feet by 20 feet – a typical small sawmill. It had one story, with saws and woodworking machinery at floor level and the turbine, shafts and belts beneath.

The mill pond was held by a plank dam on the east side of the mill and by a wooden spillway blocking the entrance to the turbine. The dam and the spillway were made of Wilmer’s low-grade lumber and had to be replaced every couple of years due to rotting. Flash boards were closed at the end of the day so the mill pond would fill up for the next day’s sawing.

A gatewheel upstairs was turned to open the flash boards and let the water in. Then, as reported by John Borden Armstrong in Factory Under the Elms, “you could feel the whole building move up and down … even the big supporting timbers would begin to shake” as the iron Humphrey turbine went into action, powering the whirling belts and two 5-foot-tall Atkins steel circular saws.

A skidway brought logs in from outside, where they had been stacked during the winter, and a carriage took the logs through the screaming saws, after which pieces went to other machines: a slab saw, a roller planer, a shingle saw and a “sticker.” A cart on a set of small rail tracks brought cut lumber from the south end of the mill to a drying shed about 100 feet away. The shed had slatted walls that let wind dry the green lumber.

Wilmer sold only the best wood and used the rest around the mill. With little sound wood in its structure, the building began to deteriorate in the 1930s. At the same time, business had fallen off, wages had risen above $2 per hour, Wilmer reached his 70s and was ready to retire, but the future of the business was uncertain. Then, in 1938, the hurricane that tore across New England damaged both the mill and the mill pond dam. In 1940, Wilmer sold the mill’s 15-inch timbers to Walter  “Buzzer” Hall, Michael Hall’s father and a Princeton history professor, who built his home from them in New Jersey.

A remaining part of Mosquitobush Mill foundation

As the lumber industry consolidated and became more mechanized, the Nelson and Harrisville sawmills were unable to make the transition, and the era that had made Mosquitobush a center of activity came to an end. Still, today, much can be seen of the foundations of the mills amid the beauty of the forest and wetlands of Mosquitobush.

Bee Tolman’s description of the Mosquitobush sawmills is excerpted from a paper she wrote for a History of Landscape Architecture class at Williams College in 1978, on the rise and fall of the New England sawmill. Edited by David Lord for Common Threads.