John Goffe's Heritage



THE narrow valley was half blocked with the rubble of the ruined milldam, which had been a ponderous construction of rough field stone. But repeated floods and frosts, together with the ceaseless pressure of the trees that now swarmed over it, had toppled much of the gray masonry down into the brook below. With infinite patience nature was slowly demolishing the rest. The cellar hole of the old mill was similarly choked with fallen stones, all overgrown with creepers and bright with ihe orange glow of jewelweed. Among the rotting timbers arose the rusted limbs of the machinery. The stream murmured placidly through the shattered sluice.

It all lay peaceful and very quiet in the bright September air, thus halfway between the handiwork of God and man. Man had once thrown back the wilderness and tamed a fraction of it for his use. Then the human hand had relaxed, and nature had crept slowly back again to reassert its ancient heritage. But I, too, had a heritage here in the long-dead ruin of the mill my great-great-greatgreat-grandfather had built. The millsite, water privileges, and flowage rights had come to me by direct inheritance, for I was John Goffe’s lineal descendant. It was not exactly a golden legacy, or even an unusual one. As a security in the financial sense it was definitely “unlisted” — like stock in a buggy whip factory. In this small country town there had once been thirty-five such mills in operation. They were all as dead as this one now.

Dead as it undoubtedly was, the old mill contained a vital element for us as we sat there under the butternut tree and thought aloud our hopes, our fears, our aspirations. There were three of us. At the age of thirty-six, I had given up professional scholarship to make a new start. Connie, my wife, was beside me on the tipped-up millstone, and our baby was sleeping in his soapbox wagon. Before us lay the three elements that we proposed to weave together into the fabric of our new lives: the past in the ruins of the ancient water mill; the present in ourselves and the near-by farmhouse where we lived; the future in our growing child and the woodland that surrounded us. These formed our heritage and were the materials we had to work with.

As we walked slowly homeward against the slanting sun we made the decision. It was not hard, for there were few alternatives. We would rebuild the mill and animate the long-motionless machinery. We would revive the elemental sawmill industry that went with it and, from the tall pines that stood so dark against the sky, make our living. It had been done before and could be done again, provided we had inherited the capacities of those who had preceded us.

The first step on the long road back would have to be taken by professional stonemasons. The dam needed someone of the temperament of Désidère La Tulippe and his supporting cast to galvanize the peaceful scene. They approached their problem in the blythe and dramatic spirit of French Canada. Désidère was one of those rare people who have succeeded in becoming tall and fat simultaneously. Despite his vast and egg-shaped outline he was as agile as a chipmunk. Moreover, The Tulip came equipped with a sea lion’s voice, which he employed at maximum capacity on any and all occasions. The three helpers who came with him were, in contrast, dispirited, gnomelike little men, Fat Pete, Old Frank, and Little Joe.

In rhythm with the boom of the stone hammer The Tulip’s hoarse voice thundered through the fall air. Profundo, fortissimo, and frequently profano it rumbled across the empty pond hole.

Désidère viewed the boulder lying pulverized at his feet. “Hey!”

His three dog soldiers working below him on the dam spun around as if shot.

“Donnez ycit la goddam big sledge hammer, là bas!”

They joined to hand him up something like a sport model pile driver. He whisked it over his head like a badminton racket, and the serenity of the New Hampshire countryside vanished in the uproar.

We had had to carry the repair down below the foundations and build the dam slowly up again, canting the great stones shingle-wise against the thrust of the stream. Restored to its original form, it extended fourteen feet high, twelve feet thick, and seventy feet across the little valley. It was a big undertaking, but by no means the end of the task. There was the mill building itself to frame, for nothing of the former structure remained. The iron turbine that we had salvaged from the wheel pit would have to be reset. Both would require expert and therefore hired labor. Once these things were done I proposed to finish the job myself.

There is something highly personal about small mills like this. I found myself working along with my hired help all day, every day. I was probably doing just what all the prior incumbents of the property had done before me. In fact, all along, it seemed as if shadows of the past kept drifting across the old millsite as, little by little, it came back from oblivion. There were constant reminders that I was not the first; others had worked here long before me. Below the deepest underpinnings of the dam we found rum jugs, drained and broken by the men who first built it two hundred years before. We added a twentieth-century bottle or two to bring the record up to date.

Among the cribwork of the apron we found charred timbers bearing the marks of broadaxe and of adze. They must have been part of the original building, which was burned in 1845. “Uncle Odie” Goffe — the grandson of the original owner — the then proprietor, was at meeting that summer Sunday when the mill burned. It was rebuilt the following year with “new & improved mechanickal devises,” including among other things an iron turbine in place of the wooden overshot wheel. We found this turbine in the rubble-filled wheel pit just where “Odie” had installed it. Down here, too, the one serious accident in the mill’s history had taken place. Around 1800, “Grandsir” — Odie’s” father —was down here coopering the wheel when Bernice Pritchard, the hired man, inadvertently laid the water onto it. “Grandsir” was squoze so bad he died of the injuries a few years later, nipped off in his prime at the age of ninety-two.

We found, among the debris, fragments of the great “Up & Down” saw. I could not help wondering if this was in use at the time of the indignant entry in the mill book for 1820. The rusted ink of the script still quavers with anger at the fecklessness of the younger generation. The mill had just got the spring water. The rollway was full of the winter’s logs. What had the owner’s boys done but skipped out on him. They had walked eighteen miles to the next town to see a hanging and lelf him to run the mill singlehanded. And when you get your water is no time to wait for anybody, hung or unhung.


BY the time Henry came to help me frame the building, the season was already far advanced. Autumn had turned to winter. But Henry had framed too many buildings in his time to hustle now, no matter what the temperature. Framing is a specialized department of the builder’s trade and as such holds an exalted position in the hierarchy. About the only thing that could ruffle Henry’s habitual calm was calling him a carpenter. He wished it distinctly understood that he was a “framer,” not one of them perverted, condemned, genetically confused fabricators of backhouses. He was no objet d’art perched on the ridgepole of anybody’s mill. He was a lean and gangling old man, unkempt, alcoholic, and profane. His straggling mustache was perpetually fringed with tobacco juice icicles, and screened a breath which, if ever breathed o’er Eden, would have revised the Pentateuch.

Gradually the massive frame of the building rose from the wheel pit to the straddle pole. Together we lugged and levered the heavy timbers into place. Henry would lay out and cut the tenons and the mortises; then I would drive in the treenails locking them together. It seemed a preposterously heavy framework for so small a building. It was not bigger than a small cottage house, and yet enough lumber went into it to build five. But it would have to support a heavy weight of machinery and withstand vibration. It needed to be strong.

Henry was right in taking time to do a superlative job, although the moderate tempo of his work irked me a good deal in that freezing weather. By his own statement, he “warn’t as swift as some.” That and his propensity for reminiscing about a barn he had framed in Henniker, New Hampshire, in 1901. I came to know by heart all the specifications of this infernal building, as well as the admiring profanity of all beholders. Henry finally got through, leaving behind him the essential skeleton of a squat, low building, well designed and strongly put together. I hastened to board up the north walls against the blast. But the good weather held unusually late that year, almost until New Year’s.

I was finishing the boarding, an unskilled carpentry job, unworthy of the framer’s art, when Kitty, the last of the specialists, materialized upon the scene. It was just as well that Henry had departed, for such mighty opposites would have made for discord. Where one was all profane garrulity, the other never spoke; where Henry piddled over small details, Kitty worked deftly with astonishing speed. There was an unverified hypothesis locally that Kitty could speak, but actually his eloquence was confined to three expressions. “Yup,” affirmative; “Uh,” indifferent; “Nope,” negative. In silent sorrow he lowered himself into the wheel pit to commune with the ancient turbine. Almost before I had become used to his presence there, he rose up solemnly, pronounced a valedictory “ Yup,” and silently evaporated. The job was done and well done.

The rebuilt stone dam was now as strong as ever; the low mill building was complete in all essentials; the turbine, joined to the penstock, lay ready for action in its pit. All the rest was up to me. Alone in the gathering dusk of the winter evening I pulled the wedge out of the sluice gate. With a rumble and a splash it fell into its place, sealing the dam. The murmur of the stream abruptly ceased. Silently the black water rose to fill the pond for the first time in thirty years. According to my calculations it would take about eight hours to fill up. My heavy workboots clumped in the frozen ruts as I plodded home, tired but with the satisfaction that comes when a hard job has been finally completed.

When Connie and I went down early the following morning, a wholly unfamiliar body of water met our eyes. Dark, smooth, and steaming in the morning sun, it had filled the pond hole from bank to bank. Except for a low parapet of stone, the pond side of the dam had vanished. An unbroken sheet of water slid over the tumbling vent and burst foaming on the apron below.

Inside the mill I gripped the gate wheel with both hands to lay on the water for the first time. A jet of white shot out of the wheel pit and scurried off down the millrace toward the river. The turbine gave out a hollow groan, and slowly at first, but with gathering speed, the gear spokes turned around. Faster and still faster they spun, even, strong, and true, until they merged into a blur of moving parts. Two hundred years old and with the seventh generation at the water gate, John Goffe’s Mill was alive again.


THE dam held back some sixty horsepower of water. The turbine connected with it was ready to run at a twist of the gate wheel. The mill building, although far from a finished product, was adequate for the purposes of the moment. It only remained for me to install the productive machinery and to connect the turbine with the actual working mechanism on the floor above, which was a sawmill. There would be many more machines installed subsequently, including a gristmill, but for the moment Goffe’s Mill was going to be a sawmill again.

There were, however, two salient features in all this. One was that I would be setting up a sawmill alone and I knew absolutely nothing about it; the other was that the mill had to be ready when the spring water came through. Working alone presented no emotional obstacles, at least. After the personality problems of La Tulippe, Henry, and Kitty it would be rather a relief. My ignorance of sawmills, profound at that time, was something God and I would have to adjust between us as we went along.

The first and most vital installation was the horizontal main drive shaft of the mill. Connected with the vertical turbine shaft by a bevel gear, it was the prime mover from which all the upstairs machinery would be activated. It was as thick as one’s wrist, twenty-six feet long, and garnished with an assortment of cast-iron gears and pulleys. Altogether it weighed well over a ton. The bearings for it were all aligned and bolted in place, but I could not boost the long, awkward object from the floor onto them. The entire shaft needed to be lifted bodily up three feet and then swung over and gently lowered into position. Intense cold had made the iron bearings as fragile as glass.

The big shaft was flexible to a limited extent. The half-ton-capacity hoist could lift one end three inches, about the limit of flexion, at which point it could be secured with a log chain suspended from the ceiling. The hoist could then be moved over and the center section similarly sprung upwards. Finally the other end could be drawn up and the whole thing would be level again. A day or two later, when the proper elevation had been reached, it was blocked there with heavy timbers.

Now it had only a short way to go sidewise. I could just roll it into place. Suddenly my greasy mittens slipped and I lost my hold. Like a live thing it sprang forward and fell into place with a crash that shook the building. Horrified I checked each of the maltreated bearings, but they were all intact. It certainly was not my fault that they were. I rejoiced — until I saw something on the floor in one corner. A bright bronze washer lay staring up at me. My bowels turned to water at the sight. It was the thrust washer that went on the turbine end of the drive shaft. It had to be there. It was an imperative, categorical and mechanical. There was only one way to do it. The shaft had to be lifted off before this miserable object would slip on.

The sovereign truth about anything to do with sawmills is a point in self-discipline. Always pretend you are working by the hour and for someone you do not like. Down any other road lies hamburger. This is especially true of circular-saw mills, the most ill-tempered and perverse of the breed. “Up & Down” mills such as the one we later devised, featuring the now well-known principle of the " Woodbury-Burrowes Flying Gee String,” may pound the unwary into the floor like a shingle nail, but circular saws prefer to divide their sawyers longitudinally like the models in Mr. Gray’s Anatomy. A circular mill-saw running at appropriate speed would travel 120 miles an hour, were it in contact with the ground. But they are very sly. Well balanced and running true, the sinister thing whistles contentedly to itself, just as though, after all, it really wasn’t meaning any harm. Let a log advance into it and there is a material change of attitude. With a screech it tears through the stout timber as though it were made of cream cheese. Loose knots or splinters are shot to the extremity of the mill like rifle bullets. If the saw breaks, the only safe place is in an adjoining county.

We “sprung out” early that year. Unexpectedly the freezing grip of winter relaxed and with it came the water. Snow and ice turned gray and granular, wilting under the March sun. This and the spring rains transformed the tranquil thread of Bowman’s Brook. The ice in the millpond started as the rising water cracked it into cakes. Crumbs at first and then great slabs detached themselves, and sailed deliberately over the tumbling vent to crash on the concrete apron below. Fed by countless loosened springs and swamps far up in the woods, the coffeecolored stream plunged onward with fierce energy. It seemed inconceivable that the stone dam, for all its massive masonry, could ever hold such power. Yet it must have done so many times before.

The forty-two-inch saw spun on its arbor faster and faster, until it had the momentum of more than a ton of heavy machinery behind it. Deep in the bowels of the mill the massive change gears rumbled in rhythmic cadence, “Going-to-work, going-towork, going-to-work.” They were somewhat worn after a century of use, but still serviceable. Very deliberately the first log advanced to meet the waiting saw. The low whistle rose to a scream as the saw plunged into the green pine. The heavy odor of fresh pitch filled the air.

Everything functioned according to prospectus — until I engaged the blower to clear out the accumulated sawdust. Obviously something was the matter with it. Instead of ejecting a plume of sawdust out the pipe, the blower sounded muffled, diminuendo, and rather study about it. Through the window I saw that there was nothing coming out. It must be plugged, and on the first log, too. There had been some trouble when I hitched it up. True to my usual form I had inadvertently arranged it so that it ran backwards —a sixty-horsepower vacuum cleaner. But I had rectified this error long ago and had not fiddled with the blower since. There came a confused scraping, scuffling sound from the pipe itself. It seemed to be progressive, moving outwards toward the end which projected outside of the building like the nozzle of a howitzer. A few straggling wisps ol hay shot out. Then, with a resounding “thoop,” a bolus of hay mixed with sawdust shot far out from the building. In the center of it was a badly disheveled squirrel. He rolled over several times after he hit the ground, then dashed up the nearest elm tree in a hysteria of excitement. All the rest of the day he chattered and swore at me.

Roll and saw, roll and saw, back and forth to the alternate whistle and scream, log after log went into lumber. The rollway slowly emptied at one end of the mill; the lumber piles at the other grew taller and taller. Under the blower pipe the sawdust pile came to resemble a scale model of the Matterhorn. Goffe’s Mill was turning out a thousand feet a day of merchandisable lumber - which was creditable enough for an obsolete mill run by an equally obsolete professor, who must also fell, yard, sled, and draw the logs, with one man to help in the woods. Each evening, at quitting time, Connie and the baby came down to fetch me home.

By the beginning of summer, just as the heavy water was going by, the last log went through. I hung up the cant hook and the files, greased the sap-stained saw, and closed down for the season. The reconstructed machinery had run steadily and well. It had turned out useful and valuable lumber; it had abundantly repaid the labor of its resurrection. We had proved as well as improved our heritage of John Goffe’s Mill.