The pond is still, and the saw is silent – just as it would have been in the 1800s when the pond was too low to power the mill. Brian, our guide, points to a rock high on the shore that marked the water level needed to power the old sawmill. The pond's surface is at least 5 feet below that rock, so the mill sits quietly, waiting for rain.
My Sustainable Agriculture students from the N.H. Technical Institute are on a field trip into the past at Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon, where everything old is new again. The farm, according to its website, “is a place for people to learn how to work the land in ways that are sustainable and self-renewing.” It's a place that speaks to current needs for community and old-tech inspiration.
Back in the late 1800s to early 1900s, farmers would bring corn and wheat to be ground in the grist mill upstream from the sawmill. The water flowed from an 83-acre pond, rushing through the grist mill, turning its heavy grinding stones, then spilling into a small mill pond that would be tapped to power the sawmill.
Skilled workers gauged pond levels to keep the right amount of water in the mill pond. Not only did this small pond power the mill, it was used to float logs up to the ramp of the sawmill where hooks, chains and pulleys, also powered by water, winched the logs into the mill.
Local farmers would drop off bags of corn or wheat, and the Sanborns would grind it in the evening after the day's chores were done. A few days later, the farmers would pick up the flour or corn meal and pay at the farmhouse. Similarly, logs would be dropped off into the pond and, when the water level cooperated, the Sanborns would pull the logs from the pond and cut them into boards or posts. Each log was identified to be sure the owners retrieved only their own lumber.
At Sanborn Mills Farm, when water power isn't being used, Willy and Rose take over. They are a pair of Percheron horses that work as a team to plow and weed Sandborns' gardens or haul logs to the sawmill. When Willy and Rose take a break, Bill and Ben, a pair of oxen substitute for them.
You know that horses need shoes to protect their feet, but did you know that oxen sometimes need shoes as well? Ox hooves are cloven, which means, unlike unified horse hooves, they are in two parts, requiring two half-shoes per foot. Because oxen have difficulty standing on three legs while being shod, an ox stand with belly straps and wooden posts for support allowed an 1800s blacksmith to shoe each ox comfortably. At my farm, I use a similar structure called a “squeeze chute” when I trim my cows' hooves. My chute is metal, but works in the same way as the Sanborn Mills antique wooden chute.
The Sanborn blacksmith shop also had a machine for putting metal hoops on wooden wheels, sort of like tires.
While each farmer worked hard to be self-sufficient, places like Sanborn Mills made the community more self-sufficient. Oxen could be shod, hoops put on wheels, corn ground or logs sawed – all within a short walk. That was local.
Sanborn Mills Farm was the center of the local universe in its time, and today it is a place where students, like those in my NHTI class, can learn what local means – from a time when farmers relied on their neighbors for a variety of services. The farm offers workshops in Blacksmithing, Fiber Arts, and Draft Animals. For more information, visit the website sanbornmills.org.
Agricultural advances of the past century have caused us to depend on technicians, biochemists, suppliers and others from “away.” As some of us realize that's a mixed blessing, Sanborn Mills Farm gives us a window into a time when “locally sourced” and “sustainability” were not buzzwords; they were a way of life.