Book details NH’s historic female sawmill at Turkey Pond

Posted April 09, 2011, at 2:49 p.m.
Last modified April 09, 2011, at 3:53 p.m.

CONCORD, N.H.  — Other states had Rosie the Riveters. New Hampshire had Lady Log Rollers.

In September 1938, a devastating hurricane killed more than 600 people in New England and caused property damage equal to $5.5 billion in today’s dollars. It also blew down 2.6 million board feet of timber — enough to frame more than 170,000 homes.

More logs ended up in Concord’s Turkey Pond than anywhere else after the U.S. Forest Service launched a massive salvage effort to harvest the tangled mess of timber and bring it to portable sawmills set up near storage ponds and fields. But by 1942, with men flocking to join the military during World War II, the sawmill at Turkey Pond couldn’t keep up.

Enter “the gals,” as the federal government called them.

As millions of women went to work elsewhere as welders, riveters, and machine operators to support the war effort, Turkey Pond became home to what the Forest Service promoted as the nation’s first sawmill to be operated by women. A new book, “They Sawed Up a Storm,” captures their brief and largely overlooked history.

Though the mill got a lot of media attention at the time, the story all but disappeared over the years, said author Sarah Shea Smith, a forestry specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

“You can find the veteran Concord historian and they had no clue. It was just really interesting how it fell right off the radar,” she said. “Even in the information on the ’38 hurricane’s impact in New Hampshire, you couldn’t find it.”

Smith was working with a sawmill in Andover in 2000 when the mill manager John Willey approached her with a scrapbook full of photos of his mother, who had worked at the Turkey Pond mill for the year that it operated. Laura Willey had died years earlier, but her son helped Smith start piecing together the history of the mill and its female crew. Of the 10-15 women who worked at the mill,  Smith was able to interview just one and believes the rest have died. But she interviewed several of the workers’ relatives, and federal archives proved to be a rich source of information and photographs.

In a newsletter dated Nov. 19, 1942, the U.S. Forest Service described the “experiment” being conducted in Concord as “going along nicely.”

“It is most surprising and gratifying to see the way those gals take hold of the job. In addition to the jobs we anticipated women could handle, we have found them capable of rolling logs on the deck, running the edge, and for ‘show purposes’ even running the head saw. Maybe it will be possible to actually man a mill 100 percent with women sometime in the future.”

Though the women weren’t trained to guide logs through the saw, Laura Willey occasionally took over to spell her husband, the sawyer, prompting the government to rethink its position, Smith said. By the end of the salvage program, U.S. Forest Service manager Bob Evans was quoted as saying, “A heavier-built woman unquestionably can be trained to saw.”

Willey was among several women who were hired from local farming families by recruiters who thought they’d be rugged and reliable, Smith said. Others left jobs as waitresses, seamstresses and housekeepers, happy to more than double their wages at the mill, where they were paid the same $4.50 per day men earned. The oldest was in her 50s and nicknamed “Gram;” the youngest was 18.

Violet Story, who lived on a farm in Hopkinton, was responsible for the most physically demanding work at the mill — rolling logs and hefting boards. The youngest of her six children, David, remembers her coming home from work and cooking a full meal for the family every night.

“She was always a hard worker, and when this job came up, they called her,” said David Story, 75, who still lives on his family’s property in Hopkinton. “I know she was always really proud that she did that. They always talked about that and how they always tried to beat the men — because there was a man’s sawmill across the lake — and the big deal was to see if they could out-saw them, which they did, a lot.”

Others didn’t see their experience as a big deal, said Smith. Barbara Webber, who was 21 when she and her younger sister worked at the mill and now lives in Maine, told Smith, “Why would you want to know about that?”

“She never told anybody,” Smith said. “She didn’t think anybody would care or believe her. It just was a different time.”

The book, (Jetty House of Portsmouth, $15) is available at the New Hampshire Museum of History and several independent bookstores around the state, and through Smith’s website: www.turkeypond.com.

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