Three foundations in the far northwestern corner of Nelson are the remains of a steam powered sawmill that operated between 1855 and 1860. The complex is composed of the mill site itself (B-5-7) and two supporting buildings that have inground foundations (B-5-6) and (B-5-8). The property itself was part of a large farm owned in the early nineteenth century by Timothy Russell Buxton. By the time it passed out of the Buxton family in 1851, the farm consisted of 240 acres – a substantial portion of the 240 acres was harvestable timber. That became the basis for the development of the site. The steam mill was short lived, but the complex seems to have had an economic life a few years beyond its operation as a steam mill.
The Buxton Farm was purchased by Daniel Holt in 1851 for $1050. Holt sold to brothers Justus and Pembroke Fisher of Keene for $1800 a few years later. They recruited Henry P. Wheeler of Worcester, Massachusetts to develop the site as a sawmill selling him nine acres on which he built a steam powered sawmill. Not located directly on nearby Otter Brook, Wheeler secured the right to carry water from a small brook nearby in an “aqueduct over the Fishers’ land not to exceed 30 rods in length.” Having built it, Wheeler sold the mill and timber rights to 230 of the 240 acres to his brother-in-law, Royale Earle of Rockingham, Vermont, for $4000. The mill was powered by charcoal produced on site – an activity specifically permitted in Earle’s deed. Charcoal burns at significantly higher temperature than wood and produces less smoke. The mill seems to have been in operation by the winter of 1855-1856. It is likely that Wheeler built the structure at B-5-6 to house the mill office and as crew quarters for the mill employees. There would have been mill operators and loggers.
In four years, teams felled trees, hauled saw logs to the mill with horses, sawed the logs into boards and hauled them out through Sullivan to market. The mill and harvesting rights were purchased in 1855 for $4,000 and sold in January 1860 for only $200! The difference can be attributed to the removal of the mill equipment and the reduced value of the timber.
The remains of the steam mill itself today is a 38’ x 52’ foundation built into the side of a small hill with the downhill side open. It looks like a barn foundation one can find at many old Nelson homesteads, but it clearly is not an old barn. The area below grade is not tall enough for animals and their keepers. The deed makes it clear that this was a steam powered sawmill. A floor at the level of the 3-4’ back wall would have provided enough space for a circular saw to operate with its axis slightly above the working floor. It also has other, unusual, features that do not have a clear purpose for such a mill. It contains three 10’ x 10’ stone lined pits with associated drainage ditches. There is a pile of broken brick and mortar fragments outside the building footprint and there’s a large piece of cut stone weighing approximately 4,600 pounds just outside the line of the foundation. What could explain this unusual layout?
The mill operated under the ownership of Royal Earle until, perhaps early 1859. The nine-acre lot “reserving the building and land standing thereon formerly occupied for a sawmill, with timber in the yard until said Earle removes said building” was sold to Elliot Davis in January 1860. The sawmill was gone along with the associated building. Earle, his wife, Emeline Woodley, and their three youngest children moved to Galesburg, Illinois in 1860. He died there in December aged sixty-five.
Less than a year before the mill ceased operation, Elliot Davis bought an acre and a half on the east side of the mill lot and constructed a house at B-5-8. After the mill closed, he bought the mill site for $200. Davis used the old mill headquarters as a shop to support his activities. He took over a site where the mill machinery and, perhaps much of the building had been removed. Probably he converted the site into a tannery. There would not have been enough headroom to make access to the stone lined pits comfortable, but the pits were probably constructed after the mill was dismantled. Indeed, Alan Rumrill, Director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, has suggested that the three stone lined pits and associated drains do suggest the site was used as a tannery. Tanneries need water and the aqueduct would have provided it. In any case his tenure was short; Davis sold the entire holding to Mark A. Tarbox and Daniel O. Beverstock for $350 in 1866. The deed provided “Davis reserves the building which he uses as a shop and the land on which it stands until he moves the shop away.”
Active for only eleven years, the site was abandoned – the buildings moved away.