|Norm Abram Makes Public Apearance|
David: ?This Old House? master carpenter Abram boosts sawmill restoration.
By Bradford L. Miner CORRESPONDENT
STURBRIDGE ? The unmistakable tang of freshly sawn white pine.
The rush of water through the flume.
A saw blade chewing its way through a log at more than a hundred strokes a minute.
Add to the experience the fact the entire mill vibrates as if alive.
No wonder the replica of the Nichols-Colby sawmill, circa 1820, Bow, N.H., is one of the most popular of the working exhibits at Old Sturbridge Village.
But as with all structures at the living history museum, time and the elements have taken a toll, and the mill this summer will be getting a new shingle roof along with the replacement of a weakened roof timber.
To help in raising the $100,000 budgeted for the work, Norm Abram of ?New Yankee Workshop? and ?This Old House? fame, a Milford native and a longtime friend and trustee of the village, is lending his support.
Mr. Abram will be on hand Oct. 5 for a rededication ceremony at the completion of the work, and those who?ve donated $100 to the Save Our Sawmill fund will have a chance to meet the master carpenter and attend his discussion of the project.
Barbara Welsh, vice president for development at OSV, said $60,000 has already been raised.
As to the popularity of the sawmill exhibit, Mr. Abram said that is true of most exhibits at the village demonstrating a process where there is mechanical activity taking place.
?The grist mill is a similar example. The kids are fascinated to see how it works, especially with waterpower. Common in the villages of the early 19th century, it?s not something one is likely to see today other than at places like the village,? he said.
Speaking to the challenges facing Brad King, vice president of museum operations, Mr. Abram said historical accuracy is a priority in the maintenance and repair of museum buildings.
?Even with replicas such as the sawmill, the goal is maintaining a sense of the original character and historical authenticity, not compromising it by construction methods not available to the original builders,? he said.
As a member of the village?s Campus Operation Committee, Mr. Abram said he?s continually amazed at how much is accomplished within the limitations of a small staff and a tight budget.
To augment available resources, he said a public appeal was launched to bring in the money needed to complete this specific project.
?Those folks who contribute to the project, such as replacing the sawmill roof, have a personal connection to it, understanding they?ve helped restore the exhibit for the enjoyment of all for generations to come.
Aside from its value as a history lesson, Mr. Abram said the rough-cut lumber produced when the mill is operating is used throughout the village.
?When one of the buildings needs timbers we have the equipment to get the job done. As an example, the Small House was built using traditional techniques and lumber cut at the sawmill.?
Mr. Abram said those who have donated $100 or more toward the sawmill roof project will receive a ticket to the opening in October, where he will give a presentation about the sawmill?s history and present interesting facts that some may hear for the first time.
Tom Kelleher, curator of mechanical arts, said the original sawmill was built around 1820 in Bow, N.H., and came down in the 1938 hurricane.
?Fortunately for us, the sawmill was documented a couple years before by the Historic American Buildings Survey, a make-work program of the Roosevelt administration for architects, draftsmen and photographers.?
?They filled seven notebooks with mechanical drawings and dozens of photographs. In the 1970s, some museum researchers identified the Nichols-Colby mill records in Washington, D.C., and had copies made from the archives. Using those detailed records, a replica was built in 1984 on the millpond site on which David Wight Jr. first built a sawmill in the 1790s. Much of the work, Mr. Kelleher recounted, was done by interpreters in period costume.
?That was especially true of the ell where the rafter failed. The lumber for the ell was cut on this mill. The Nichols-Colby mill didn?t have an ell until 1839. We finished the mill in April of 1984, and added the ell that September.
Mr. Kelleher said that framing timbers for buildings in New England villages during the 1600s and 1700s were primarily oak, but by the early 19th century softwoods such as pine and hemlock were used.
?The original sawmill was just that, mostly pine and hemlock with some timbers of oak and chestnut. We used oak for the diagonal braces, the waterwheel cribbing and the flume.?
It was customary back then to overbuild, taking into account weakness from knots in the wood.
Another point, Mr. Kelleher said, was that sawmills during the period, and there were as many as seven in Sturbridge on ponds and tributaries of the Quinebaug River, were not built to last forever.
?They knew they were not building a cathedral.?
?They were built with the expectation they?d last for 10 or 20 years, and by then the owner might have sold it, or died. They knew that every 20 years or so the mill would need a new roof, if not more extensive rebuilding,? the curator explained.
Mr. King said this is not the first time the sawmill has needed work. Because the sawmill is in a water environment, some of the pine and hemlock timbers had deteriorated. That section of floor was disassembled and rot-resistant timbers were put in place.
A structural engineer has looked at the building, he said, and the replacement of the roof and the weakened roof timber will begin this month. ?As with any project, once you get started other issues may come to light. We?re thinking we may put some inconspicuous metal plates in place to stabilize some of the joints.?
Stripping the roof, we?ll replace the deteriorated shingles with red cedar. As with other roofing projects we?ve done, we?ll use a contemporary underlayment that gives the new roof added longevity. It doesn?t affect the appearance but with this many buildings to maintain in period character, and $1.6 million in deferred maintenance, we?re looking to extend life expectancy of our roofs as long as possible.?
The project should take a few months, with a completion date no later than Oct. 1.
Mr. King and Mr. Kelleher said the sawmill will not be closed and will be operated as usual, except during the period when the rafter in the ell is being replaced.
?To ensure visitor safety, we?ll be using OSHA-standard staging, which may detract from visitor experience, but the mill will be open. Our recent experience working on the grist mill roof and wheel was that visitors were fascinated, despite the use of some contemporary materials,? Mr. Kelleher said.
?Rebuilding a waterwheel is something our visitors don?t see every day. Again, the process of how things are done is a big part of the village experience,? the curator said.
The up and down saw, Mr. Kelleher said, simply applies a power source to the act of sawing by hand. It was a common technology in Europe and by 1840 there were an estimated 31,000 sawmills in the United States. Of those, 13 were in Sturbridge, and the town was by no means some big lumber capital.
Mr. Kelleher explained that the cast-iron outward-flow reaction wheel is 7 feet lower than the pond level, and the water under pressure exits through cast-iron jets at a rate of about 300 gallons per second.
The wheel makes 120 revolutions a minute and counter-weighted cranks on the same axle lift long connecting rods. The saw cuts through the log on the down stroke and advances the log on the up stroke.
He said that cutting pine, the saw teeth are sharpened about every 600 board feet, which for an active mill during the period would be about once or twice a day.
?Cutting hardwood, the saw has to be sharpened more often. Oak is not only a more dense wood, but it absorbs silica from the soil, which dulls the saw teeth more quickly,? he said.