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Musings of an Energy Nerd

A Visit to a Water-Powered Sawmill

This New Hampshire mill is powered by a brook

Garland Mill in Lancaster, New Hampshire, is 165 years old. The mill equipment is powered by water flowing from the millpond on the right to the stream below the dam. On its way through the mill, the water spins the blades of a turbine.

Over the past few decades, when I’ve stopped by to visit friends and neighbors in my small town, and I’ve discovered them busy at a variety of tasks. On casual visits, I’ve come across my rural neighbors milking cows, boiling maple sap to make syrup, cutting grass with a scythe, building a barn, burying a waterline, removing stumps with an excavator, pulling stones with a chain and a pickup truck, canning tomatoes, shelling peas with an old wringer washing machine, skidding logs, splitting firewood, butchering a hog, digging a pond, rototilling a garden, grafting apple scions to a wild tree, building a stone chimney, pruning Christmas trees with a machete, and collecting eggs from the henhouse.

If you live in a rural area, and you bring your kids with you on visits like these, your kids will learn a lot.

If you live in a city or the suburbs, on the other hand, you and your kids probably won’t have as many opportunities to watch skilled neighbors engaging in the types of everyday activities that our grandparents took for granted.

Making boards the old-fashioned way

In early May this year, I visited my friend Ben Southworth, a designer and Passive House builder who lives in Lancaster, New Hampshire. When I stopped by, Ben and his cousin Dana were doing something I’ve never seen before: they were cutting red oak logs into lumber at a water-powered sawmill.

Ben Southworth
Ben Southworth is a timber framer who lives in Lancaster, New Hampshire.

The mill was built in 1856. The first family that owned the mill, the Garland family, gave their name to the stream (Garland Brook) that powers the mill. The mill stayed in the Garland family until 1888, when it was sold to William Alden. Eighty-six years later,…

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6 Comments

  1. Dan Moore | | #1

    Thanks for the article. I have had the opportunity to visit a few of these mills and was very impressed. The few we have remaining in our area (that are operational) offer a unique service and glimpse into our history. As a biologist by day, I would be remised if I didn't point out some of the negatives these have cause over the years. I continue to attempt to restore the impacts of the hundreds of these on the north shore of Lake Ontario, big and small. Although most don't operate, they continue to hold water and impact local ecosystems by reducing connectivity, increasing water temperatures, and altering hydrology. They are often left in disrepair until someone is forced to clean them up or they fail, hopefully not killing anyone or damaging infrastructure downstream in the process. Like all power sources, there are always pros and cons to each. All that said, they are very impressive and I hope the few we have operation continue to function for many of the reason you list in your article.

  2. Russell Chapman | | #2

    I always knew Ben was a cool guy, but this takes the cake. Brilliant!

  3. Charlie Sullivan | | #3

    Readers might also be intersted in Ben's Mill, in Barnet VT, named for a different Ben. It is now operated as a museum, with lots of old machinery on display.

    https://www.bensmill.com/

    Does Garland Mill offer tours to the general public?

    1. Paul Kuenn | | #4

      Thanks Martin!

      We do have a few in WI, but I do love to visit Ben's mill. Not a lumber mill but all the gadgets for machining are awesome. My bro Roland pretty much rebuilt Ben's mill for Hiram. If this Ben needs his belts repaired, my brother made an ingenious tool for making the seam easy to deal with even under stretched load.

    2. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #6

      Charlie,
      To the best of my knowledge, Garland Mills is an operating sawmill that focuses on lumber production rather than tours. Perhaps Ben or Dana will see your question and respond.

  4. Expert Member
    Peter Engle | | #5

    I once had the pleasure and honor of reproducing the ironwork for the crane used to lift, flip and sharpen the millstones at a grist and sawmill in NJ. These old mills have real tales to tell, and seeing one still in regular operation is a special opportunity. Thanks for sharing.

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