Upper Delaware Magazine

Grist for the mill

It was hard work getting lumber to the young United States. But the Joel Hill Sawmill did its part

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 9/23/20

LOOKOUT, PA — Back in 1865, just after the Civil War, William Holbert and John D. Branning built a sawmill.

Wood was a major industry back then. Wood for houses. Wood for heat. Wood could be …

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Upper Delaware Magazine

Grist for the mill

It was hard work getting lumber to the young United States. But the Joel Hill Sawmill did its part

Posted

LOOKOUT, PA — Back in 1865, just after the Civil War, William Holbert and John D. Branning built a sawmill.

Wood was a major industry back then. Wood for houses. Wood for heat. Wood could be turned into chemicals like turpentine, resin, acids and more. Sawmills covered the landscape here like the trees they drew in and spat out as boards, chips and dust. “It was a pretty lucrative business,” said Greg Quaglio of the Equinunk Historical Society.

Holbert and Branning owned a number of sawmills in the area, but by the end of the 19th century, they sold this one particular mill, in Lookout, PA, to Joel Hill, who also acquired 1,500 acres of woodland, plus Duck Harbor Pond.

Quaglio was at the Joel Hill Sawmill with several volunteers, all from the historical society, demonstrating for a socially distant, masked group the way such a mill would work back at the beginning of the 20th century.

Now the mill is a phenomenal look at a critical part of the region’s economy and the chance to see just how much work and risk went into the creation of lumber and chemicals back then.

The Joel Hill mill perches alongside a stream from the Duck Harbor Pond. Once upon a time, there was an actual water wheel that powered the mill, but the wheel was lost in the infamous Pumpkin Flood of 1903. It was replaced with a turbine that generates power to run the saws now.

Yes, even now. The mill ceased operation in 1974, and it was given to the Equinunk Historical Society by the Harcum family in the 1980s. It is back in running condition as a museum.

The timber went down the Delaware in rafts, at first, to Easton, to Philly, feeding America’s insatiable need for wood and more wood.

The era of rafts ended. The Erie Railroad came through, and the wood and wood products were shipped down that instead.

People forget, the late Fremont historian Jack Niflot used to say. They forget that the forests here are mostly new-growth because the trees all came down and were turned into lumber and chemicals for the rest of the country.

The tour started at the waterfall, which was in terrific shape thanks to the recent tropical storm.

For over a century, logs of maple, pine or oak were hauled either from Hill’s woods or elsewhere. Water from Duck Harbor Pond poured down the stream, turning either the wheel or the turbine depending on the century you choose.

You get to see the mill’s underpinnings, the network of belts and pulleys that power the machinery. You get to see the massive stone foundation that has kept the mill up since 1865.

At times, the whole mill vibrates. Quaglio says later, “It’s amazing it’s stood so long.”

Then you head up to the main floor of the mill, either walking around the long way or up the stairs.

Inside, there are different saws, plus a planer to smooth the boards, because of course wood doesn’t fall off a log in perfectly smooth two-by-fours.

Here’s what people always want to know, Quaglio says: How many people were injured?

Easier to talk about the danger. (Back in the day, did they even keep track of the injured? Possibly not, possibly only the families remember).

The sawblade is full of rapidly moving teeth. Once in a while “the blade rotates at 750 rpm,” Quaglio says. “If a tooth comes off, it’s moving at 100 miles per hour.”

You don’t want to get in the way of that.

Mills burn down. Logs are heavy and cumbersome. The mill has a shield to protect the sawyer from flying bits of wood, but that’s a newfangled thing.

 You have to be careful and watchful through the whole process, and not just because of yourself and your co-workers. Quaglio talks about the damage a single sheetrock screw did. “It destroyed fifty percent of [the saw’s] teeth.”

What happened in winter? “In winter, the mill was inoperable,” Quaglio said. Winter was when trees were cut and the logs stacked on top of a slope at the mill. Ice was sawn off the millpond and put in the icehouse, covered in sawdust from the  sawmill. Nothing was wasted.

“What do you do with the lumber?” a visitor asked at one point.

“How much wood do you want?” Quaglio asked, joking but not joking.

“Everything in the mill runs,” Quaglio said as the sawyer and other workers gathered and the visitors backed up, out of the way. A pine log was clamped in place.

Then the men started up the saw. A wheel was spun to get things going, the belt rolled by and, with a whine, the saw was in motion.

The mill floor shudders, but the mill itself holds steady.

Volunteer Blair Kobelin feeds the log through, cutting thin slices, cranking the log forward and back, cutting again. Other volunteers put the slices through the planer. Wood showers over the workers and watchers standing a bit too close.

It was the same process, the same motions, that men had been performing in the Joel Hill Sawmill for 150-plus years.

Logging has changed, forests are managed and hills are less likely to be stripped bare. Mills have changed. But a trip through the Joel Hill Sawmill reminds us of the dangerous lives people led to produce the wood that built this country. It reminds us that the wood was once trees.

In the Joel Hill Sawmill, the air filled with the smell of metal, and burning, and wood, and history.

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