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Saw mill restorers have work cut out for them

Seek funding to dredge pond, keep things going

CALAIS, Vt. -- At first glance the faded barn boards and the old rusted pipe of Robinson Sawmill could give the impression it's just a long-abandoned building by a small stream waiting to be destroyed by time and the elements.

But more than two centuries after one of the town's earliest settlers dammed a small stream near a major crossroads and built the water-powered sawmill, the roof line is straight, the metal roof shiny, and the timbers sound.

About once a month during the summer, a group of local men open the sluice gate, and the water fed through the pipe, known as a penstock, spins the blade on the "Lane 00 Left Hand Rotary Mill" -- state of the art when it was fashioned in Montpelier in 1876 -- and makes lumber.

"We may be the only mill in Vermont that can saw using waterpower. We may be the only mill that's standing in good shape," said Elliot Morse, 69, a great-great-great grandson of Joel Robinson, the Massachusetts man who moved to Calais in 1792 and built the mill in 1803.

The building was used as a working saw mill until about 60 years ago.

Restoration work on the mill building began in the 1960s, but no efforts were made to resurrect the machinery itself until about a decade ago, when Morse was told it couldn't be done. It first cut again in 2003, the 200th anniversary of the mill's opening.

In the world of historic preservation, reviving old equipment can costs thousands and thousands of dollars. The cost to get Robinson Sawmill running? About $600, Morse said.

But now Morse and the others are looking for some help to keep the small mill pond from silting in completely, which would mean there wouldn't be enough water to spin the saw blade.

"If there's no dam, environmentally they won't let you build another," Morse said.

Water-powered mills helped carve New England out of the wilderness. A book by the Maine State Museum says that between 1630 and 1850, thousands of sawmills sprang up along the banks of virtually every stream or river in the state with moving water. Under the common technology in use in those days, the saw blades moved straight up-and-down as the logs moved forward.