DURHAM — Few know Concord was the site of the nation’s first sawmill run by women, something Sarah Smith, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension forestry specialist is working to change.
She tells the story through her new book, “They Sawed Up a Storm,” which also explores the hurricane of 1938, the cause behind the mill’s establishment. She also touches on the influence of World War II, which led to the hiring of the all-female crew.
Smith said the idea for the book first came to her in 2000 when she was working with the New Hampshire forestry industry on education to improve the sawmill in Andover.
“It literally dropped into my lap,” she said.
Smith was eating lunch when John Willey, the mill’s manager, approached her and handed her a photo. The photo was of Willey’s mother, Laura, with several other women she worked with. Smith said she became intrigued with the story and knew then that she had to learn more about the mill.
“I think it’s newsworthy and part of history,” Willey said of why he told Smith about it. “A lot of people never knew about the sawmill and what they did during the second World War … It’s the only women sawmill I know of in the world.”
Smith said research for the book was difficult at first. She said she mainly consulted Laura Willey’s scrapbook, where she had kept an account of her time at the sawmill, and Willey to learn about the little-known history of the mill.
Because of the time that had elapsed, Smith was only able to find two women who were still alive that worked at the sawmill. Barbara and Norma Webber were 21 and 18 when they worked at Turkey Pond in 1942. Smith said she was able to interview Barbara, but Norma declined and later passed away.
At 90, Barbara Webber Ford is the only known living worker from the sawmill. She lives in Maine, but declined an interview with Foster’s.
Through the work, Smith said she learned the process of researching and writing a book takes time. It took her 10 years to put together the story of the Turkey Pond sawmill. With advice from fellow colleague Jeff Bolster, UNH associate professor of history, Smith went about trying to contact relatives and gave speeches on the subject in the hope that people would volunteer information.
Many, she said, came to her to describe what the 1938 hurricane was like. It was one of the most destructive natural disasters to hit New England. More than 600 people died, and the property loss was equivalent to $5.5 billion in today’s dollars.
Wind during the storm reached an excess of 100 miles per hour. It destroyed 15 million acres of New England forestland, with 12 million board-feet of white pine taken to Turkey Pond in Concord, the largest deposit of hurricane-salvaged logs anywhere. The amount of wood taken to the pond would be enough to frame 800 homes, Smith said.
Because most of the trees fell on private land, the federal government set up areas at ponds or fields where people could drop off timber. The government would then buy the timber.
“It was a big deal moneywise,” Smith said. “There was not much during this era.”
These particular trees were stored at Turkey Pond because they were white pine and spoiled easily. By putting the logs in the pond it cut off the oxygen to the tree, and the colder temperatures helped preserve them.
There was already a sawmill at the pond, which worked to turn the fallen trees into lumber, but the work soon became too much for the Durant Family’s sawmill.
When they began to lose male workers due to war, a second sawmill was built in 1942 at the pond to be operated by women. The mill was dubbed the first women’s sawmill in the country.
Many of the women, Smith said, found work at the sawmill through an employment service in Concord. They tried mostly to find people who had machine experience, and many of the women that worked at the sawmill had previously worked on farms, but several hadn’t, such as the Webber sisters, who were looking for something fun to do while their boyfriends were at war. Two other women came from the state hospital to work there.
Smith said the average wage for a woman during this time was not even $2 per day, but the starting pay at the sawmill was $4. That price eventually went up to $4.50 after the forestry supervisor lobbied to give the women the same wages men were getting, which was unprecedented at the time.
“He was so impressed with them he figured why should they make less than guys in the same job,” Smith said. “… The organization was so surprised how good the women were, how dedicated and loyal they were to the job.”
The business broke the social norm of the time, she said.
“They had to step out of their traditional role to do this,” she said. “It was a very big deal.”
Typical roles for women during this period included being a housewife, clerk or secretary.
“It wasn’t easy,” Smith said. “Their family and friends would ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’ There was a lot of pressure not to do it. Society didn’t feel they should be doing” sawmill work.
But despite the pressures against them, Smith said many of the women felt it was their duty to work at the sawmill.
Barbara Webber Ford “said she was doing it for the country and for America ¿ They saw it as a challenge. It was a job in front of them and they thought, ‘I can do it. I’ll do the best I can, make money and serve my country.'”
“They assumed that was what they had to do and were not looking for any pat on the back or medal on their necks,” Willey said.
Willey was around 11 at the time his mother worked at the sawmill and remembers playing outside while his parents worked.
“I couldn’t go into the mill itself because it was dangerous,” he said. “… I would play there and watch the two Webber sisters walk on logs and bring them in so they could pick it up by a chain to take into the mill. It was a slimy, slippery job because the logs were out in the water and the bark becomes slippery.”
The women’s roles at the mill ranged from running machinery to stacking lumber. There was only one role done by a man, head sawyer, a position that controlled the process of making a log into lumber by guiding logs through the saw.
Willey’s father, Marshall, also worked this position at the male-run Durant Family’s sawmill. Willey said it was a family tradition to work with lumber, and he also had two brothers working at the Durant sawmill.
Willey said Marshall would often work at the male-run mill, then take a second shift at the women’s because, at the time, it was believed only a man would run the mill.
“In a summary statement by the forestry department later on they said it no doubt could have been done by a woman,” Smith said.
And often it was, by Laura, who was the head saw-filer at the mill. She maintained and sharpened the teeth of the circular saw. Willey said his mother was a large woman who stood over 6 feet tall and weighed a couple hundred pounds.
“She could probably outwrestle most men,” he said. “When my mother spoke, you listened, and she had the experience behind her” to run the saw.
So often, Laura would run the sawmill in place of her husband.
While the number of women who worked in the mill ranged from eight to 12 with a few coming and going, the attention the sawmill received remained strong. There were several articles written about the women, and an Associated Press photographer snapped photos of them, as did New York documentary photographer John Collier Jr., whose pictures Smith uses frequently in her book.
“His pictures were much more sensitive and everyday,” Smith said, comparing the photos to the AP images. “You could tell the women were more relaxed around him.”
The mill stopped operations after a little over a year on Nov. 23, 1943, when the work had finished. Much of the wood from the mill was used in the war effort to build crates for ammunition and supplies.
Smith said the work the women did was done “very fast.”
“They had no chainsaws or skidders,” she said. “They had an ax, crosscut saw, horses and ox. It was basically done by hand and animals.”
After their work was finished, Smith said many went back into the social norm, like Barbara Webber Ford, who married and had a family.
The woman “never told anyone” she worked at the sawmill, Smith said. “She didn’t think anyone would believe or care.”
It is for this reason Smith wants to share the story of the Turkey Pond sawmill.
“It’s a piece of women’s history in New Hampshire,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of that … It’s the coming together of a number of historic events: the hurricane, salvage effort and World War II. It’s a piece people should know about as much as any other New Hampshire history.”
“I think they did one hell of a job now that I look back on it,” he said.
Published by Jetty House/Peter E. Randall Publisher, “They Sawed Up a Storm” is available athttp://www.turkeypond.com and https://extension.unh.edu/Forestry/Forestry.htm. It can also be purchased at the RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth.
John Willey/Courtesy photo The crew of the women’s sawmill at Turkey Pond assemble for a picture on January 14, 1943. Left to right: Mary Plourde, Barbara Webber, Violet Story, Carmilla Wilson, Lucy DeGreenia, Ruth DeRoche, Daisy Perkins, Laura Willey and Chimney the dog.
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