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Exploring an 1803 Sawmill

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Eliot Morse stood with one hand laid casually on the carriage framework of the old sawmill that his great-great-great-great-grandfather had built in Calais more than 200 years ago.  He was talking to the group of visitors at the Robinson Sawmill’s recent annual meeting about some of the stories that had been passed down to him.  He explained to us how the water-power mill had worked and told us about some of the sawyers who had run it.  His stories helped me imagine some of the other hands that had been laid on the carriage framework in the more than 150 years the mill had operated.

When I heard about the Robinson Sawmill restoration project and was invited to the annual meeting, I knew I had to go visit.  Nineteenth-century water-powered sawmills are key features of the Vermont landscape history interpretation work I do.  Virtually every Vermont town had one in the early years of European settlement.  Sawmills fashioned the lumber for the buildings that sheltered the early settlers and their animals – their homes and barns.  Most water-powered sawmills are long gone now, abandoned when fossil fuels replaced waterpower.  When I’m leading field trips, I frequently stand with people at old sawmill sites, but I usually have to wave my hands a bit while I use nineteenth-century maps and old photos to conjure up the old mill in the mind’s eye of my group.  When the Robinson Sawmill restoration is completed, I can look forward to being able to refer people to this living history teaching resource.

In the sawmill memorabilia laid out on one of the annual meeting lunch tables, I found a clipping from the local newspaper about the mill restoration group’s work in 2007 that made me chuckle.  Journalist Mel Huff described the mill thus: the mill operator “turned a wheel to raise the gate to open the pipe that carried the water that powered the blade that sawed the logs.”  The chain reaction described made me want to explore the whole building and grounds to see if I could see all the parts and steps along the way.

 

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I started at the carriage framework where the talk had been and worked my way backward through the process.  The carriage had a log on it, and you could see that the carriage could be mechanically ratcheted across the floor on steel tracks toward the circular saw blade.

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The circular saw blade, which replaced the original 1803 up-and-down saw blade in the last half of the nineteenth century, was mounted on an axle and the other end of the axle had a large metal wheel on it with a leather belt.  If I leaned over and looked down through the opening in the floor, I could see that the belt transferred energy from another wheel down there.

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When I went down to the next lower level, I could see that the energy to turn the metal wheel had been transferred from a set of toothed, intermeshing bevel gears in an attached lean-to.  Leaning over again and looking down one more level, I could see the horizontal turbine and the brook water below.  This was the contact point between the liquid natural resource and the solid mechanism I had followed thus far.  Next to the turbine, I could just glimpse the end of the squared wooden pipe that delivered the water.

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To really see more, I realized I needed to get outside the mill building, so I left the mill and got out onto the road below it to get a better view.  From there, I could trace the whole water feeding mechanism back.  The wooden pipe came out of a metal pipe, and the metal pipe came straight out of the gate on the dam.

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Up at the top of the dam, the gate could be opened and closed by a wheel that turned.  I had finally reached the starting point where the whole chain reaction began.

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I walked up and stood at the top of the dam for a few moments looking at the ponded water, and I couldn’t help but contrast its stillness with the potential energy I now could feel it had.  I could picture that when the quiet water was let out, and with the help of gravity, all the metal and leather parts below would spin with their synchronized movements, and a newly sawn log and sawdust would come out at the end of it all.  As I looked up the hillside across the pond, I saw a beautiful old nineteenth-century wooden barn.  After my explorations around the mill, now I could not only understand in detail the sequence of steps that connected the sawmill to the built landscape we love surrounding it, but also truly understand which came first and that one required the other.

 

 

Vermont Master Naturalists Explore Vermont Family Forest’s Wells Farm

This first appeared as a guest blog I did for the Vermont Family Forests website on April 27, 2019.  Here is the original posting:  Vermont Family Forests Blog

 

Geographer Jane Dorney discusses the Wells Farm Middle Barn architecture and associated land use with participants in the Bristol-area Vermont Master Naturalist training program in April. Photo by David Brynn.

Vermont Master Naturalists from the Bristol Five Towns area visited the Wells Farm recently as part of an all-day field trip.  The day’s goal was to explore the human use of the local landscape over the last 250 years, and how that was tied to the natural landscape.  As a classic Vermont hill farm with its old barns, open fields, stone walls, and forest growing back in on the old fields, the Wells Farm had a lot of stories to tell.

The group was led by geographer Jane Dorney, who started the tour with the barns.  By looking at how the barns were used – the bays for hay, the stables for cows and work horses, the overhead storage area for wheat and oat sheaves, and the central threshing floor – the group could infer how the farm’s landscape in the nineteenth century was used.  The fields of wheat and oats, the pastures, and the woodlot that supplied the timber for the barn itself were easier to imagine after spending time understanding the barns themselves.   The group could also see how the barns had been reconfigured to evolve through the changes in agriculture over the 200 years that had elapsed since the farm family had first settled here.

The group next looked at the field patterns of the farm, both from what could be seen from the barnyard, and from a LiDAR image of the site.  Stone walls could be seen around the edges of the meadows that surround the barns now, and the LiDAR showed more in the woods up above the barnyard.  The source of the stones was from advancing glaciers leaving till at their base, but the stone’s placement into lines of walls showed the past use of a plow in that field.  Open fields areas had a new “crop” of frost-heaved stones each spring that needed to be picked out to avoid damaging the plows used to prepare the soil to plant farm seeds.  The stone walls helped the group ground the inferences they had made about the wheat and oat fields that had been here with the actual landscape spread out in front of them.  The walls in the woods uphill were also part of story of more recent forest regeneration as the hill farms were abandoned later in the twentieth century.

In the end, the stories the group were able to read from the Wells Farm gave participants a concrete example of how one farm had evolved through time.  By seeing that similar stories were repeated many times over across the Vermont landscape, they came away with a deeper understanding of the place we inhabit and love.

 

Sliding from 1877 to 2018 in Burlington

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1877 Map: Birdeye View of Burlington and Winooski, VT., drawn by E. Meilbek and published by J.J. Stoner of Madison, WI.  2018 Map: William Morris.

In a roomful of map lovers at the Shelburne Museum, cartographer Bill Morris demonstrated his recent creation that literally let us slide from Burlington in 1877 to Burlington today.  He had created this interactive map for the Museum’s recent exhibit on historic birdseye views of Vermont towns.  Although the end product was simple to use, the two original base maps needed some serious work to make them align, and Bill had the rapt attention of his audience as he described the process.

Bill showed us how he used an open-source digital tool called Map Warper to upload a historic map, and geo-rectify or digitally align it with our modern coordinate system.  Then, he made a present-day map using Mapbox in roughly the style of the old birdseye view map with buildings in 3-D.  By laying one map on the other with a slider, he created an image that allows anyone to easily move back and forth across the 140 year divide to see the changes block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood.  In one effortless swipe, Perkins Pier goes from being a commercial wood warehousing area in 1877, to a park and wastewater treatment plant now.  The remains of the ravine through the center of the city can be seen in the old map, but are gone in the present one.  The old multi-story grist mill at the Winooski Falls dominates the scene in 1877, but is entirely gone in the present.

It’s likely that not everyone at the presentation would be able to duplicate the technical process Bill used.  But I don’t think there was a person there that did not go home, type in the link to the map, and get drawn into moving the slider back and forth and back and forth and back and forth as they navigated around the city.  I know I did.  Now it’s your turn: https://birdseye.one.

Old Wooden Barn Posts

IMG_3335 (2)When I saw the contrast between the two wooden barn posts standing right next to each other, I knew I had found what I was looking for.  I was doing reconnaissance for an upcoming Vermont Master Naturalist field day, and I needed to find some easy-to-understand nineteenth-century farm features that would capture the essence of the landscape in the two halves of that century.  The beautiful old barn I was in had been built in several sections over the long farming history on the site, and, after canvassing the inside, I realized it would be perfect for the field trip I was planning.

The tall wooden post on the left was about ten inches wide and as many inches deep. It was etched with broadaxe marks distributed along its length as far as I could see.  Hand-hewn is the word used to describe the marks, and, pausing a moment to look at them, it was not hard to imagine the person wielding the broadaxe.  Even though the post had been standing here holding up this barn for something like 200 years, each broadaxe mark still showed which direction it had bitten from.

The post on the right was roughly the same size as the hand-hewn one.  Its surface, though, was not hand-hewn.  It was dark in the barn, and I had to get in close to really see the surface.  But even though it was about 150 years since it had been shaped, the arcing marks of the large circular saw that cut it were still clear to see.

When the hand-hewn post was made, the landscape here was mostly wooded.  The earliest settlers were making small clearings on their large lots, but they were spread out all across the town.  There was a saw mill at the waterfall two miles away from this barn at the time it was being built, and the smaller barn siding pieces that were milled were probably cut there.  But the posts (and beams) in the barn had not been taken to the mill.  Hand hewing barn posts was typical of that time period, and these posts fit that pattern.

When the circular sawn post was made, the landscape here was mostly open.  Farmers had cleared the landscape over the intervening decades for sheep and then dairy farming, although there would still have been wood lots in town that supplied the tree for the post.  The saw mill down the road would have had a circular saw blade by the second half of the nineteenth century, and it was likely the post was milled there.

It would be easy for someone visiting this barn to walk right by these two posts standing a few inches apart.  But if they had stopped and looked more closely, they would see that they are also separated by fifty years, and they came from two very different landscapes.

 

Great New Mapping Tool

 

 

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Three Field Naturalists from UVM were making a public presentation in a local school cafeteria about their research on the wildlife and other natural features in the new Richmond town forest.  As they neared the end, they showed a map they’d made that summed up their work, and it immediately grabbed me.  The map used a new technique I hadn’t seen, and as someone who makes and uses a lot of maps, I knew it was something special.  It combined a series of different maps into one they called a habitat heat sensitivity map.  I wasn’t able to speak with the FNs after the meeting, but I now had this new mapping technique on my radar, and knew I had to keep an eye out for more examples.

How lucky I was to see the Field Naturalists’ work again a few weeks later at the Forest Ecosytem Monitoring Cooperative Conference in December.  The FNs, Grace Glynn, Eric Hagen, and Meredith Naughton, had made a poster of their research results for the afternoon poster session, and I had ample time to look it over.  They described their task as “to provide the tools needed to build trails with wildlife in mind” in the new Richmond town forest (Andrews Community Forest).  They made six maps of features such as stream buffers, cliffy areas, wetland features, and state significant natural communities.  Then, they combined them all into one map using sensitivity scores and heat index colors to show the amount of overall habitat sensitivity (with red being the most sensitive and blue the least).  Now, when planning the new trail system, this one map can guide the trail builders toward areas of low sensitivity for a suite of natural features and away from areas of high sensitivity.  Combining lots of data into an easy to read and interpret single image is not only elegant, it’s also practical, too.  What a great tool!

To see the whole poster called “Recreation and Wildlife: Finding a Balance in the Andrews Community Forest in Richmond, VT,” use this link.

 

 

Sycamores at the Edge

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As I drove along River Road in New Haven, I was scanning the roadside for sycamore trees.  I knew this area was the very northern edge of the sycamore’s North American range, and I wanted to see if I could close in on the most northerly tree in the New Haven River watershed.  I also knew that winter was the right time to look.  With the leaves off the trees, the distinctive white bark of the sycamore’s upper trunk was easier for the eye to catch.

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As the road neared the river to cross it, I saw the first sycamores of the day.  Not surprisingly, they were right along the river bank where they are happiest.  I turned into a pullout and got out to get a closer look.  Crunching through the snow along the road’s edge, it was hard to believe that these trees were just as much at home on a  Texas river as they were here.  As I got closer to the trees, I could see the distinctive mid-section bark:  large flakes of mottled gray, green, and brown plates with the white showing through underneath.  As I tipped my head back, I could see the many seed pods high on the branches.  I knew these were one of the keys to the story of the sycamore’s range, and they and the sound of the river water in my ear made me stop for a moment and reflect.

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Sycamores hold onto their seed pods all winter long.  In early spring, the trees drop them as the highest melt-waters are receding.  The river carries them downstream, and they come to rest on the sand and gravel banks where they like to sprout.  From what I could see, it was clear that the downstream reaches below these trees would have a good source of new recruits next spring, and place them just where they love to grow the most.  The vast watersheds between here and Texas were all repopulated this way.

But I was really focusing on what was happening upstream to the northeast, since I was in search of the most northerly sycamore in this watershed.  Any trees upstream would have been from seeds dispersed by the wind, not water.  This was the mechanism for the northerly reach of the tree’s range here.  I had to keep going to see what I could find.

The next stretch of the road followed the river more closely, and many sycamores stood out in the woods along the river.  As I neared Bristol, I knew Sycamore Park on the river shore was close by and full of my target trees.  But soon the road diverged from the river for a stretch, and I couldn’t see the river or sycamores anymore.  By the time the road rejoined the river on far side of the village, the sycamores were nowhere to be seen.  I needed to continue north toward home, and couldn’t double back to narrow the search.   I had to be content with knowing that somewhere between Sycamore Park and the far side of the village was the most northerly sycamore tree in the New Haven River watershed.  Maybe in the next installment of this search, I’ll have to continue it on foot.

Bookends

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On a recent road trip, I came across this scene just across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, but it could just as easily have been in Vermont.  The surrounding area was all open farmland, but these two features across the road from each other grabbed my attention.  They were only about 100 feet apart, but they were probably 200 years apart in origin – one from the early 1800s and the other from the early 2000s – and both part of the farming history of this place.

The barn looked to be a 30′ X 40′ English style barn that was commonly built in the first half of the nineteenth century to support the mixed agriculture of the time.  These barns included an area to store hay for farm animals to eat in the winter.  It had the right footprint, height, roof line, and placement near the road that is typical of this type of barn.  In the era it was built, the hay would have been stored loose, since baling had not been invented yet.  Although barns were sometimes moved as farmers modernized their farmsteads over the years of ownership, it is likely that this building has been in this exact spot for 200 years.

In contrast to the barn, the round bales on the right side of the road are the modern way to store hay.  In our climate, dry hay is now tightly wrapped into a round package with a piece of specialized farm equipment: the round baler.  Although round bales are designed to shed water more than the previous square bales or the even earlier haystacks, the round balers now also wrap each bale with plastic to keep them even drier through our wet winters.  With these innovations, hay no longer needs a building to be kept dry, and can be stored right in the field.  Without a need for haylofts, our modern barns just need to be one-story high for the cows.

This one scene can simply be enjoyed for its bucolic feel, but there is much more if you dig a little deeper.  In fact, you can look at these as the bookends of the roughly 200 continuous years of agriculture in this area.