Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: April 1980 Volume 18 Number 2, Pages 61–62

Sawmills During the American Revolution

Douglas Maryott

Page 61

Sawmills played a key role in the war for Independence. They cut boards for many important uses, such as wagons and ships. Sawmills first appeared in America about the year 1630. They were commonly built near or on an available stream or river. It was not unusual to walk into a town and find a sawmill and a gristmill sharing the same structure. According to many historians, no community was complete without at least one sawmill.

Many men were trained sawyers, who sawed logs in pits called sawpits. For each sawpit there were two sawyers; a bottom man who worked in the pit, called a "pitman", and a top "sawyer" who worked outside the pit.

Page 62

The top sawyers job was to pull up on the saw and guide it along a chalked line, while the pitman's job was to pull down on the saw. Being a sawyer was a very strenuous job. As a result, the sawyer was usually heavily muscled.

The logs that were being sawed were held in place by spikes, and the sawyers moved the saw against the log. The sawpit was not a very efficient system, because even the strongest, most skilled sawyers could not cut more than two hundred board feet a day. The sawyers were experts in their line of work. They could differentiate between the best kimds of wood for cutting and what types of wood were soft and hard. They could tell the strength, flexibility and curing of the wood.

By the time many towns accepted the sawmill, some earlier communities that had established their sawmills had already found many easier ways to work with the sawpit.

Some early sawmills are these: York Sawmill, Maine, 1623; Portsmouth Sawmill, New Hampshire, 1631; and Scituate Sawmill, Massachusetts, 1640.

The idea of using water power to drive a saw is supposedly from Scandinavia. The English were the last to adopt water-powered sawmills, probably because riots broke out when the sawyers' jobs were threatened.

The first water-powered sawmills were vertical type. The blade of a normal saw was about six feet long and six inches wide, with jagged teeth spread about two inches apart. The blade was attached to a wood frame that moved vertically between notched side blocks. These blocks, called fender posts, steadied its motion. The saw's frame was connected to a crank by a long rod, called the pitman rod. The pitman rod was geared to the water wheel shaft.

There were several different types of saws: the whipsaw, the type used in sawpits; the broadsaw, with its wider blade; and the pitsaw, later considered common but still somewhat of a novelty until the nineteenth century. Although the whipsaw was easier to use, the broadsaw cut a straighter board.

The most common type of water wheel was the flutter wheel. The sizes varied depending on the amount of water available. The ideal speed of a water-powered sawmill was about 120 strokes a minute, but this speed varied by the hardness of the wood.

Our young nation's sawmills played a vital role in winning the Revolutionary War. Wood products produced by the sawmills were used for wagons, ships, ferry rafts and barrels, all of which were highly important for transportation and storage uses.

For the past few years Upper Team pupils at the Hillside Ele­mentary School, under the supervision of their teacher, Miss Barbara Whiteside, have participated in the annual essay con­test sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

For the current school year, the assigned topic for the essays was Trades and Industries of Colonial Times. These two articles were written by two of the sixth grade pupils for the contest, with the essay by Steve Pearson on blacksmithing the local Great Valley Chapter winner.


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