In which Kevin time travels back to the Civil War era and marvels at human ingenuity
Hundreds of folks from all over the region trekked into the wilds of northern Wayne County this past weekend for a fascinating and entertaining event.
They came by car, van, truck and motorcycle to a remote spot along Duck Harbor Road in Lookout to witness a bit of living history.
There, surrounded by acres of farmland and forest, they were treated to a demonstration of a genuine Civil War era wonder.
The Joel Hill water-powered sawmill was nearly lost in the late 1970s, but saved from oblivion by members of the Equinunk Historical Society and local residents.
It stands not far from Duck Harbor itself, towering over the country landscape like a sentry from another time. The well-weathered wooden edifice is a rare survivor of a day when lumber was an integral part of Wayne County's economy.
Once, in the not-too-distant past, this mill churned out thousands of feet of lumber per day. The boards would be shipped to places as far away as Philadelphia and New York City via the Erie Railroad and Delaware River.
Now, the mill sits quietly next to the gently burbling creek … springing to life several times a year for events like this one when modern folks have a chance to glimpse its once-formidable power.
Carol Ann MacMaster is the Historical Society's longtime office manager and a member of the nine-person Board of Directors.
She oversaw the day's events and couldn't have been happier with the enthusiastic response.
“I am thrilled with the turnout!” Carol Ann exclaimed. “It's more than I expected. The weather couldn't have been better and it's so nice to see all these people.”
While many volunteers selflessly donated countless hours to the project, six in particular warrant special mention.
Bob Wood is the event chairperson and a fixture at the Equinunk Historical Society. Bob camped out at the mill's main entrance and happily answered questions posed by everyone from retired professionals to wide-eyed youngsters.
Blair Kobelin, Chuck Heyn, Greg Quaglio, Ian McIntyre and Kevin Fisher comprised a crew that actually ran the mill during Open House hours.
They worked like the proverbial well-oiled machine, putting on a demonstration that left young and old alike clamoring for more.
Cameras flashed and cell phones recorded video as these dedicated men brought the mill to life.
“It's a lot of work, but it's definitely worth it,” said Chuck, the mill's sawyer, gesturing to the dozens of people jockeying for good vantage points.
“I love history,” added Ian, who's originally from Florida but fits in seamlessly with the Wayne County natives. “This has been a wonderful experience for me.”
How it Worked
Operating a sawmill was a seasonal business, especially in northern Wayne County … a place renown for its long and sometimes bitter winters.
During the cold months when the pond was frozen over, workers busied themselves with the task of preparing timber for sawing the following year.
Loggers and farmers cut trees on their property and then transported them to a big empty field located across from the mill. They'd make the trek (sometimes through daunting snow drifts) using bobsleds drawn by huge draft horses.
Workers would then unload the wood (one log at a time by hand) and stack them in tiers where they'd sit until spring thaw.
The actual operation of the mill itself is a wonder of 19th century technology. Logs would be floated from the pond to the mill, steered by men with long pikes.
They're then hoisted onto carriages and fastened in place by “swing dogs.” The carriage would run back and forth on rollers until perfectly positioned for the blade. This in itself was a marvel considering some of these logs were more than 40 feet long.
The main saw measures 54” in diameter and runs at an eye-popping 850 rpm (average mills run their saws at 650 rpm). It is powered by water from the pond, which runs down into Little Equinunk Creek and eventually empties into the Delaware River.
Well then how's this for an impressive statistic: at its apex of production, the Joel Hill water-powered sawmill could churn out 5,000 board feet of lumber every day … and this with a team of just three men!
A Bit of History
The original sawmill was built by William Holbert and JD Branning sometime just after the Civil War.
No one is 100 percent sure of the exact date, but a good guess would be circa 1860-1870.
This mill was one of many operating in the areas that now comprise Lookout, Pine Mill and Equinunk in northern Wayne County.
There was another just downstream from Joel Hill's. This mill was owned by Isaac Young and stood right across the road from the Lookout Church.
Hill eventually consolidated his burgeoning business in 1898 by purchasing the original mill, about 1,500 acres of timberland and the 205-acre body of water we've all come to know today as “Duck Harbor.”
The little empire thrived, operating continuously right up until 1974.
Over & Out
The Joel Hill Sawmill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It is opened to the public several times a year by a hardy band of volunteers.
On this particular sun-soaked autumn afternoon, folks were treated to tours and demonstrations. Cider and doughnuts were provided free of charge, while a display of local history books and souvenirs was offered for sale.
If you'd like to check out the Joel Hill Sawmill next season, or perhaps attend one of the Equinunk Historical Society other events, please call 570-224-6722.