The Family Sawmills

 

It is not surprising that a family living in Vermont for over 200 years became involved with sawmills. A sawmill was often the first improvement in a new town, even before the first minister arrived or the first school was built. Towns often offered incentives to settlers who would establish a sawmill or a gristmill; in their absence, the residents could build only with hand-hewn timber or rough logs, and might have to haul their corn or wheat many miles to have it ground. But Vermont's rough topography and numerous streams and brooks, while creating difficult conditions for farming, were well-suited for building mills. And of course, the state was covered with hardwood and softwood forests providing ample raw material for the mills.

But Kenfields did more than just run boards through the saw. They built mills; they owned mills; they managed mills; they kept the machinery running. They were master sawyers, but also were blacksmiths and foundrymen, millwrights and machinists.

George the Elder settled in Morristown in 1793, and moved to Sterling in 1803. But first, he built a sawmill in Bow, New Hampshire. (Did he move to Fryeburg, Maine to build a sawmill there? Did he move to Morristown to build a sawmill there? Intriguing notions for future research.) One of his sons was probably a blacksmith in Elmore, and his grandson Frank later built a sawmill on Kenfield Brook in Morristown. While Kenfield Brook is easily found, and is identified as such on modern maps, the exact location of this mill has not yet been researched.

Meanwhile, another of George's grandsons, Benjamin, apprenticed to a blackmith in neighboring Johnson, then set up shop in Fletcher. By the 1840s he had joined up with Ansel Shepardson, who had acquired the sawmill his father had built in Fairfax. Benjamin married Ansel's daughter, and when Ansel built a new woolen mill, Benjamin teamed with his brother-in-law to buy the original sawmill, blacksmith shop and foundry complex. Here's the deed, from 1847.

This mill has been located, in Shepardson Hollow in the southeast corner of Fairfax. In addition to the traditional and painstaking method of correlating deeds with the original lot survey of the town (we used this method to locate George the Elder's 1793 Morristown farm), we were able to obtain a reproduction of the map from an 1871 gazetteer. These old publications are marvelous resources; they often include the location of all the houses and businesses in a town, identified by their owners' names. Here's the southern portion of the Fairfax map. And here's a blowup of Shepardson Hollow. The map identifies Benjamin's blacksmith shop and foundry; two houses owned by Benjamin (we're researching the deeds for these); brother-in-law Merritt Shepardson's sawmill; and father-in-law Ansel's new woolen mill. The mills are on Stones Brook.

With the aid of this map and other research, we visited the site. The roads shown on the map still exist. Stones Brook crosses under Chaffee Road just east of its intersection with Shepardson Hollow Road. The brook runs through a ravine or gorge perhaps 40 feet deep. There is a small island in the brook, and just visible through the foliage is a pillar built of flat stones. It's the gray area just to the right of center. When we saw it, we suspected this pillar was a remnant of the foundation for the water wheel that powered the mill, but the foliage blocked any clear view. So we returned to the site a year later, after the foliage fell. We climbed into the woods, up the steep hill to the left of the stream. And here's what we saw.

After examining the site from various angles, I believe the island on which this foundation stands is artificial. When the sawmill was built by Ansel Shepardson in 1820, an artificial channel was built along the left bank of the stream, in which the water wheel turned. Looking stright down from the bank into this channel, one can still see vertical flat rocks, that I think formed a retaining wall for the bank. (Don't be confused by the horizontal tree trunk in this photo; it is simply a fallen tree. The white object on the left is a birch tree, which is vertical. The shot is looking almost stright down into the channel.) You can see turbulent white water from the main stream tumbling sideways into the channel. Digging the channel created the island, on which the foundation wall was built. I think timbers were then placed from that foundation across the stream to the stone ledge on the right bank, with the mill built on top straddling the stream.

On the same return visit, we explored Stones Brook downstream. Benjamin and his brother-in-law bought the sawmill when Deacon Ansel Shepardson built a new woolen mill. And a portion of that mill also remains today.

The blacksmith shop was located on top of the ravine, to the left of the stream in the first photos, next to Shepardson Hollow Road. Today, that area is completely overgrown with forest. Benjamin's house was located on the Hollow Road just south of the intersection. A modern house is located there now.

At some point in the 1880s, Benjamin retired from the business, moving to a house in the village, and his son George Renslow took over. In the 1900 census, George was listed as a manufacturer of lumber.

In 1905, Benjamin and his wife died. Within the next five years, George Renslow sold the business, and retired to Enosburg Falls. In 1910, his sons Frank and George Royce (who was known as Royce to distinguish him from his father) also were in Enosburg, and working at yet another sawmill. Early research suggests that this was the "Guy Green sawmill," located on route 108 south of West Enosburg. We are working on identifying its exact location. It probably was on a stream called Tyler Branch, a tributary of the Missisquoi River. A cousin has provided several photos that may show this mill.

Frank may have remained at this mill (later he helped organize the Enosburg electric company, and owned one of the first electric stoves in town), but his brother Royce moved to western Massachusetts to teach school for a short time. With the coming of World War I, he returned to his native habitat, the sawmill. But in a very unusual context.

After the war, Royce returned to the sawmill in Enosburg. It seems he remained there until the mid-1940s, when he retired from the lumber business and returned to teaching. He taught machine shop at Burlington Trade School until the late 1950s, also serving as Chief Engineer of the SS TICONDEROGA, the last remaining sidewheel steamer in the country. Instead of keeping a sawmill running, he made whatever parts were needed to keep the ship's steam engine running. He and his students built from scratch -- and from memory, no drawings needed -- a working miniature reproduction of the Ti's steam engine. You can see it on display aboard the Ti at the Shelburne Museum.

So the 1940s brought to an end the Kenfield involvement with sawmills. But not with wood, or with machinery. George Royce's son Morris added an academic overlay, earning degrees in mechanical engineering. Grand-daughter Brenda continued the Kenfield metalworking tradition; she built a carrer as a machinist making parts for jet engines. And Kenfields nationwide continue to feel a love for wood.

For those interested in sawmills: here's the Robinson Mill in Calais, the oldest remaining sawmill in Vermont.

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