The Sawmill at Merrimac

1857 to 1861

  Day's Sawmill in Valton

Day's Sawmill in Valton

In court, the first of which is that he is dead. “Never mind the other thirty nine”, replied the Judge.

So I will only mention two reasons for the disappearance of these mills.

First, steam power cannot compete with water power; secondly, in the case of the saw mills, the supply of logs from the river was cut off, when lumbermen found it more economical to cut the lumber at the base of supply, and built large mills in the pineries and rafting only the lumber down the river. In the case of the flour and feed mills the blow came later. With the advent of railroads increasing transportation for cities, the introduction of the roller process in milling, establishment of monster mills as at Minneapolis, these sounded the doom of small grist mills, and one by one they succumbed to the inevitable. Now we see the ‘dam by the mill site’ but do not see the mill by a dam site.

With others my father saw the need of a mill at Merrimack. He was promised aid in the construction of a grist and saw mill by two parties one agreeing to furnish the machinery for a saw mill, the other the machinery for a grist mill, if he would furnish the buildings.

This agreement unfortunately was not reduced to writing as it would have been if my father had been a good business man.

In 1857, he began his part of the contract.

A few acres of ground were secured as a mill lot, several roads up the river from the old tavern. On this he built a two story building about 30 by 50 feet, to be used as a grist mill. Next adjoining this building on the north he built a one story building with basement about 24 x 60 feet extending east past the end of the larger building. The upper part of this was to be used as a saw mill, and the basement as an engine room. North of the saw mill, was the boiler shed, extending the length of the Engine Room.

None of these buildings are left, now where they then stood. Only the building intended for a grist mill, is still in existence, that is doing good service as a barn on the farm once owned by Char. Pigg and sold by him to the Heinze Bros. If any one is curious to know what an old fashioned timber frame was like, it is a perfect example and well worth the trip there to see.

The timber in this frame was hewn out in the pineries and was on its way down the river in a raft when my father bought it. Saw mills must have been in operation further up the river at this time, as he also bought the boards used in the construction of this building in a raft and I am quite certain that George Shepard took the contract to draw this lumber out of the river and pile it on the bank where it could dry off.

This may have given origin to the saying “Let George do it.” As the buildings neared completion, the panic of 1857 occurred and the parties who were to furnish the machinery declined to keep their promises, leaving the buildings vacant. If my father had taken this first loss it would have saved him several years hard work and part of his money. In trying to save what he already invested, he attempted to carry the project through alone by eliminating the grist mill. He fitted out the saw mill with castings bought in Milwaukee of a firm when Charles Pigg, then a young man, was learning the trade of machinist, and he did some of the work on the wheels the saw carriage ran on. The engine was bought in Janesville, Wis. of Norman Wiard, afterwards an inventor of a steam gun used in the Civil War. Mr. Wiard had financial troubles of his own about this time, and failing to have the engine ready it was taken before fully completed. The boiler and smoke stack was 2 ½ to 3 feet in diameter and in two sections and when joined was about fifty feet high. It lay on the ground near the buildings for some time before being raised and my sister and I used to run through it. The engine, boiler and two sections of smoke stack were hauled from Madison, then the end of railroad transportation. I think my father used oxen to haul the boiler. The journey from Madison and the crossing on the ferry, hauling up the steep road to the town and final arrival on the mill lot was an object of great curiosity and interest.

Early in 1858 the sawmill was started up and for a time seemed to be destined to succeed. Evan day and night shifts were worked to supply the demand for lumber.

The saw was an up and down muley and two to three thousand feet of lumber in an ordinary day was about its limit of production. The horse power of the engine had been calculated as sufficient for both saw and grist mill and with the large building unoccupied power was going to waste.

At this junction Maynard Partridge of Lebanon, New Hampshire, the town we moved from, decided to remove his chair factory from there, and concluded to try Merrimack as a location, putting his machinery in the large building and renting the extra power. He shipped his machinery to Portage by rail, loaded it on to a scow boat there and started down the river. At Dekorra or near there the scow ran onto a snag and sank, with all but the crew, in about ten feet of water.

Taking another scow to the wreck the machinery was fished up and loaded and finally landed at Merrimac. Mr. Partridge put in many a weary hour wiping off the rust caused by this accident, but in time had the machinery in place and started the manufacture of furniture. But he was not in the right place and soon moved the plant to Baraboo where he could get cheaper power and timber more suited to his needs.

The manufacture of wooden ware was also considered for a time and a full set of machinery for that purpose, which had been in operation for a spell at what was known as the Rathburn Mill a little east of Okee, was bought and placed in the large building but for lack of funds, probably never was put in operation. The saw mill continued in operation until financial reverses took it out of my father’s possession in 1861-61.

It then passed into the hands of the mortgager R. H. Ela of Rochester, Wisconsin, and afterwards was sold by him to Crites and Machintosh, newcomers. They run it at a loss for a year or so and sacrificed what they had paid on the property, letting it go back to Mr. Ela, who kept it until finally the machinery was sold for old junk price to be removed and the buildings also sold to be removed. The real estate came back into my father’s possession by purchase. At first seven or eight men were considered necessary to operate the saw mill, but as profits gew smaller economy had to be practiced and three men were found to be sufficient. I have heard of a ball player so swift that after pitching the ball, he would run to catcher’s place and catch it. My father worked on this plan at least tending both ends of the saw carriage until he found I could help out to some extent, then two men and a boy under twelve did the work in the mill.

The portion of the river upon which the mill was located was the worst portion of the river, as it was divided by a large island about one mile in length. In those days this portion was more direct and used most often by rafts or steamboats. At the mill the depth of water was about ten feet. When the government was building wing dams to reduce the surplus in the National Treasury a dam was built across the head of this part of the river turning most of the water into the east portion, and today where once was the main channel we now have nearly dry land. A pier of a frame work of logs and filled with large stones was built out into the river and a boom made of two timbers framed together and spliced on to make continuous, was fastened to this pier by a chain, and extending up the river for several rods, was fastened by a chain to a tree on the point of an island, which was near to the shore there. This enclosed several acres of water and logs were placed in this enclosure by swinging out the upper end of the boom sufficiently to prevent it. Rapid pieces would be let in just as they were rafted at times.

Rafts passing down by here it was quite common for the rafts men to attempt to fasten to this boom in trying to tie up, but there was not only forbidden to do this for fear the boom would be broken, but also threatened with punishment if they disobeyed.

I remember at one time a fleet of log rafts had been bought and had been placed in this boom and the crew of rafts men had gone to the old tavern for their dinner before leaving. While at dinner, a man from the mill rushed in saying some rafts passing had tied to the rafts inside the boom, the boom had broken and all its contents was coming down the river. Talk about your crack fire companies getting to a fire. They would be slow compared with the way these men jumped from the dinner table, rushed to the river bank in front of the old hotel, and as the rafts swung around the point there, some waded, some swam, some found boats but in a short time the rafts were manned and landed down the river a mile or so.

The work of towing them back by hand poling and pulling on cables took much more time. It is sad to relate that the sayings “fierce”, “going some”, “I should worry”, etc. were not in vogue then, but other words that served to express ones feelings were. From the collection of logs inside this boom, those wanted at the time were drawn up into the mill, by means of a long inclined plane, reaching from the upper part of the mill to the river. A strong horizontal drum in the top of the mill operated by cogwork and so arranged as to be thrown in or out of gear with a moving cog wheel had a sufficient quantity of strong chain wound upon it to reach to the river, possibly one hundred feet. This chain had two strong hooks, or dogs as they were called, at the end, which were firmly driven into the butt of a log, then the wheels were thrown in gear by a lever, and the log was drawn into the mill and when in position to be rolled on to the saw carriage the cogs were thrown out of gear and the log was ‘next.’

Sometimes these dogs would pull out, the chain would fly sidewise and the log would ‘shoot the chute’, into the river with a tremendous splashing.

One time we had a log so large it was thought it would take the full power of the engine to get it up into the mill. It was decided to not even attempt to throw out the gear for fear the strain on the cogs would not permit it to be done. The engineer was to stand at the throttle, and at a blast on the whistle, when the log was in place was to top the engine. The honor of pulling the whistle cord at signal from my father was given me. I had to stand over the boiler and by the side of the long chain.

The log started up the slide in good shape, the chain creaked and groaned, and I began to see in imagination what a disfigured corpse there would be if the dogs pulled out or the chain broke and took a swipe at me, as it surely would. Finally as the log looked into the mill the strain became terrific. I couldn’t emulate Cassibionca, but instead of waiting my fortunes permission I pulled the cord and jumped away. The engine stopped at the instant, the log wavered a moment, then started back with a rush into the river stripping every cog off the wheels. I ran into the large building up to the highest part and hid myself from the expected wrath to come.

After I thought time enough had elapsed for them all to think what would be appropriate to the occasion I came down to listen to a very uncomplimentary remarks on the part of the help, and what would be done to me were I a son of theirs. My father went to work to repair the damage my cowardice had caused him, and although it took several days, he only said in reproof to me, that he was to blame for placing me in so responsible a position. It was thought necessary at first to employ a regular engineer, but as economy became necessary it seemed that less experienced help might fill the position.

A young man, Wm. Pierce (some of whose relations still live at Baraboo, I think) a machinist by trade was thought to be fully able to handle the engine. He thoroughly understood the mechanics, but lacked the experience but he soon got that. The pump supplying the boiler with water, had a bad habit of going through the motions but not accomplishing its purpose, while it looked to be pumping, it would not be delivering the goods.
There were three test cocks on the side of the boiler at different heights, and the engineer kept track of the amount of water in the boiler by occasionally trying these. The pump had been on good behavior for quite a spell and Pierce grew careless about testing and one day the pump took a vacation without giving any notice. Shortly there was a terrific scream and roar accompanied by a blinding cloud of steam, followed by a complete stoppage of the machinery. The head sawyer was just driving in the dogs on the saw carriage with an iron bar and in his excitement ran and threw the bar down into the engine room, and then ran for dear life out of the mill.

Mr. Partridge’s brother ran out of the chair factory and got behind a neighboring black oak tree afterwards peeking out and calling to his brother “For God’s sake come away Maynana she is going up.” Not knowing what the matter was I was not scared.

When examination was made it was found that the boiler was saved from explosion by the packing around the manhead blowing out, thus giving free vent to the gas and steam. The scream, which was our first knowledge of the trouble, really announced the end of the danger.

Two of the flues in the boiler were strained but were soon repaired. The man head repacked and all was well again. Pierce had learned his lesson and from that time on until he quite, was on his guard. Many logs were drawn to the mill by farmers especially hard wood. There were many pines standing on government land on the bluffs, and in those days it was considered proper to take away timber wanted belonging to Uncle Sam. Pine logs were cut on the bluffs about Devil’s Lake and rolled down the bluffs to where they could be got at with teams. Often in the rolling down they would strike rocks and a piece become imbedded in the log, to be found later by the saw at the mill. The language this would cause to be spoke by the sawyer was far from being a dead language, as it meant an hour or two’s filing of the saw.

In 1859 my father had to give up the tavern and we moved into a new house he had built, above the mill on some ground, given my mother before she would sign the mortgage on the old tavern that was now being foreclosed. The mill was also in process of being taken away from him in some way and he was merely staying in it as long as the law would permit.

With a young man John Hodgedon as engineer and what help I could be to him he was running the mill.

We used to take the Friday Weekly State Journal of Madison and it arrived in the afternoon of Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday by stage running from Madison to Baraboo. 

The Post Office, in 1861, was kept by Ct. Percy in a store at that time between the mill and the tavern.

I will remember the day when the paper contained the news of the firing on Ft. Sumpter. I as usual went for the mail and when I returned to the mill my father took the paper, glanced at the heading and seeing what had occurred told me to blow the whistle for a shut down, and call John. 

Afterwards as we read the account of what had been done at Charlestown, we realized that Civil War was upon us in earnest, but we could have no conception of what it would be before the contest was over. In a few weeks John was on his way to the front, to die as nobly and gloriously, for his country, from the effects of undue exposure, as if he had fallen in battle. This was the last of the operation of the old mill, until it was purchased by two parties mentioned earlier who soon gave up their struggle to succeed where a better man had failed.

April 13, 1915