High-tech of the 1820s

GIVEN today's high technology, it should be easy to reconstruct a water-powered sawmill, vintage 1820s, right? Wrong. ''We are like visitors to another technology,'' says David Proulx, construction manager for the carefully crafted New England sawmill reproduced at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.

This mill, a full-scale model of a 19th-century sawmill at Bow, N.H., vibrated into operation for the first time late last month. It provides an additional touch of realism to Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum that portrays New England village life of the 1830s.

The result of Mr. Proulx's efforts is a sturdy-looking wooden structure perched precariously over a stream at the foot of a brimming millpond. It took 10 years of research, a $500,000 budget, and more than a year of construction before the mill finally could turn out plank timber that can actually be used for the village's construction needs.

In the early 19th century, a mill like this was a necessity for settlers. A water-powered sawmill was among the earliest structures to go up in pioneer communities because plank timber, needed to build homes, could not easily be hauled in from a distance. So, although the new mill seems to be an anachronistic novelty here, it comes to the village unrealistically late.

The mill reproduction here is an example of a dilemma faced by many living history museums. Like other such museums, Old Sturbridge Village often has had to decide to what extent it should use historically accurate reproductions, when originals are not available, says Lilita Bergs, assistant director for marketing and communication. Because an authentic New England sawmill of the period was unobtainable, the museum chose to create a reproduction that was as accurate as possible in both structure and methods of construction.

Duplicating as much as possible the old methods was one of the challenges facing construction manager Proulx. He played a major role in finding the appropriate mix of old and new technology to duplicate the 1820s structure.

Proulx, whose undergraduate studies were in archaeology and Arabic, says his college education comes to bear on his current job wielding ax and saw. ''In those days I looked for relics. Now I make them.''

Despite the advantages of a modern education and a modern way of thinking, Dave Proulx is quick to point out that all was not easy.

''When we tried to duplicate the old technology, we had several disadvantages. The workers back then had more time to learn slowly on long apprenticeships,'' he says. ''But from the very beginning we had to learn much more quickly how to use the old tools, such as hewing with a broadax or using chisels and mallets to make timber joints.''

Another difficulty, explains Proulx, was that the Sturbridge workers had to follow written plans for the Bow, N.H., sawmill. (The original mill was destroyed in a 1938 hurricane, leaving only detailed documentation of the mill by the Historic American Building Survey in 1936.)

Thus, while using old, unfamiliar methods of construction, they also had to work from these Bow records. The Sturbridge builders could not inspect and copy an existing building, but were dependent instead on documents describing it. The surviving documents were based on improvized adaptation by the Bow builders to the Bow site - improvisations that now had to be altered for the Sturbridge site.

''BUT we had one important advantage,'' chuckles Proulx. ''We are more intelligent.

''The 19th-century workers could have been as young as 14, after leaving school in the sixth grade. Their construction methods were learned by habit, not by thinking. I am 26, with a BA in archaeology. Our workers are better able to solve (problems) by using skills of abstract analysis.''

A look at this model of the Nichols-Colby mill of Bow shows a stark contrast between the ax-hewn wood beams and forged iron of the 1820s and today's machine technology relying on plastic and steel. An even closer look shows that, in the interest of restraining costs, today's builders have had to compromise by using modern tools and materials.

For example, the mill's posts and beams were not hand raised, as they would have been in the old days when as many as 100 men and 10 oxen pitched in to build a village sawmill. The position of this site over a stream made that too dangerous, according to the museum's Lilita Bergs, who says a crane was used instead.

In addition, the stone for the footings of this sawmill has been strengthened with cement fittings - contrary to 19th-century practice, which used mostly stone, rubble, and logs.

''Stone alone would have crumbled in a few years, and with today's costs we simply could not afford the maintenance that would require,'' Ms. Berg says.

But there's plenty for the purist - from the use of wooden pegs instead of nails to the timber joints carefully crafted with chisels and mallets.

There is the rough, grizzled-looking iron saw, an authentic early 19 th-century piece that zips up and down 80 to 100 times a minute. The same piston-like up-and-down motion created by the turning reactor wheel turns another, intricate rachet-governed wheel and slide modeled after those on the Bow mill. The slowly turning wheel slides a wooden carriage, which bears logs of up to 26 feet, toward the blade.

By gazing down through an opening in the floor, visitors can watch the spinning reactor wheel-style water wheel. This is the ''high-tech'' heart of the mill. Maine inventor Calvin Young patented it in 1831 as an improvement on the bulky revolving-wooden-bucket wheels that go back to the Middle Ages. This bucket-style mill is employed at Old Sturbridge Village's grist mill.

THE village's own blacksmith shop provided authentic-style bolts, nuts, and other iron parts that are widely used in construction. As for the wood itself, much of the planking was fashioned by a modern hydraulic-power mill which simulates the surface texture of planking produced in an old-style mill.

For the most part, Dave Proulx and others who built the sawmill learned their construction skills on the job. Proulx took his early training as a cooper at the village, where he made barrels.

The sawmill joins more than 40 other authentic or reproduced structures in Old Sturbridge Village. Most of the buildings are authentic originals, moved from other parts of New England. On the other hand, many of the furnishings and displays, unlike those in more orthodox museums, are modern reproductions rather than antiques.

Old Sturbridge Village opened to the public in 1946 under the patronage of the Wells family, owners of the American Optical Company in nearby Southbridge. It is one of more than a dozen living history museums in the United States.

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