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Old Houses and the Sawmills That Built Them

By: Conrad Neuf , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Musings, In The News, Old House History
Cedar Mill, Oregon Sawmill in its Prime

Cedar Mill, Oregon Sawmill in its Prime

While biking this morning, I heard the sound of a big, buzzing saw and knew that the farmer with the small sawmill was hard at it cutting up logs again. Last fall, I had watched him from a distance as he cut up decent-sized trees from the adjacent mountains. This morning, I decided to take a break from the heat, so I walked up to get a closer look as he and his son turned a large log into 2×4 and 1×6 boards for a storage building the son was constructing.

As I watched, it occurred to me what a large part small local sawmills have played in the development of our country. Many small towns exist today because they were built up around sawmills located on nearby creeks and rivers. If you have an old house built in the 1700s or 1800s, there is a good chance that the lumber used to construct it came from a local sawmill.

A Seemingly Endless Supply of Wood

When I see pictures of the large sawmills of the 1800s, I am reminded of stories about the huge buffalo herds of the Great Plains that were hunted almost into extinction. I imagine most of the mill owners thought there would always be an endless supply of trees for their saws. As the country expanded westward there was an incredible demand for wood to build the houses and buildings for the new towns, and wood was also needed to build the railroads tracks that carried many of the people to those new towns.

Old Sturbridge Village in New England, a collection of old houses and businesses that were moved to a central location from elsewhere in the area, has a sawmill from the 1800s. The description of the sawmill states that there were about 31,000 sawmills in operation in 1840. When you look at the operations of the sawmills in Cedar Mill, Oregon, and Thurmont, Maryland–and you imagine 31,000 of these mills sawing lumber–it’s a wonder there are any trees left in this country!

Use Sustainable Lumber from Sawmills with FSC Certification

Luckily we now have the knowledge to practice responsible tree harvesting, and we have organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to monitor growing and cutting operations. I wrote several months ago about Sustainable Northwest Lumber in Portland, Oregon, and how they support local sawmills and their use of FSC certified wood. There are many other distributors and sawmills such as Hull Lumber Products that are now working with the FSC to ensure that we use our natural resources responsibly. If you need lumber for your old house, support the sawmills that are following sustainable growing and harvesting practices.

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  1. 1 Response  to “Old Houses and the Sawmills That Built Them”

  2. Jonny
    Aug 29, 2011
    A great resource for environmentally friendly wood, is salvage logging. This is where old logs that are submerged in rivers and lakes are brought to the surface and milled into high grade boards. Not only is this wood old growth, so it is better quality than new wood, but it means that (theorectically) new trees can stay in the forest. Flathead Lake(MT) and Coeur D'Alene(ID) are 2 giant lakes that have thousand of submerged logs left over from the heyday of western logging towns. These logs produce some of the best wood I have ever seen.