Harnessed Water Powers Oxford Sawyers Mill
Joseph Montriski Diverts a Stream to Create Hydraulic Force for Saw
Shaping Custom-sized Lumber; Heart of Antique Turbine Cast in Bristol
Story by Thomas R. Egan, Waterbury Republican American
Photos by Thomas R. Goodman.
Joseph Montriski, Oxford, makes his living from an anachronism. Water
power belongs to a previous century, but not as far as he is concerned.
A current drives his machinery, but not an electrical current. His is
diverted from Little River through wooden pipe and is one of his most
valuable liquid assets.
Only don't go looking outside his sawmill on Park Rd., Oxford for a
waterwheel like the two which rotted away in Waterbury's Hamilton Park.
There isn't any. The power unit is down in the subcellar and a person
with 20-20 vision can stand right near it and not see it because it is
inside a cypress case.
The case looks like an overgrown hogshead which, if filled with 100
proof bourbon, would take care of a large and convivial family's New
Year's Eve requirements for at least a century. Mr. Montriski
built the case when he bought the mill 25 years ago. The old one
had rotted away. So he bought some cypress from a lumber company and
built the new housing. He chose that particular type wood because it is
highly resistant to water-caused rot. "You can't get it (cypress)
It is necessary to take his word for what is inside the big barrel. The
heart of the contraption, he says, is a metal wheel made at the
Bristol Water Wheel works in Bristol. He said that the wheel was
installed in the mill 80 years ago.
It consists of two flat metal discs about two and one half feet in
diameter, set eight or more inches apart. At intervals between
the disks and at right angles to them are metal walls, slanting from
the circumference almost to the center and so dividing the wheel into a
series of compartments.
The wheel lies horizontally within its cypress case. Water rushing in
acts on the walls causing the wheel to turn. When it does, so does a
vertical shaft attached to it.
The rolled iron shaft, tho and seven-eighths inches in diameter, runs
from the subcellar to the ground floor and is the principal agent for
transporting power to the sawing machinery.
The cypress case serves to confine the force of the incoming water and
the arrangement of the wheel, case and shaft adds up to a turbine which
utilizes the reaction principle discovered about the middle of the 19th
Were Sir Isaac Newton, discoverer of the law of gravity, to come back
to life and visit the sawmill one can picture his smile of approval at
the location of the turbine. Since it is set down in the
subcellar well below its source of water, its feeder pipe must follow a
sharply inclined plane; consequently the inflowing water utilizes the
force of gravity to help turn the blades.
Such an arrangement would not be possible except that topography enters
the picture to form with water and gravity an inanimate version of the
Tinker to Evers to Chance combination.
The mill is located just around the corner from Route 67. The site is
hilly and the unpainted frame mill structure utilizes the split
level principle to follow the slope of the land.
The river naturally followed the low point of a ravine. A stone dam,
strategically placed backs up the water and raises its level. That made
it possible to cut the intake grate for the pipe which feeds that
turbine at a point maybe 20 or so feet higher than the turbine itself,
and still leave enough downslope so that the water flows from the
turbine back to the river.
The stone dam, Mr. Montriski said, was built entirely without cement,
because in the days when it was put together transportation made cement
too costly. The dam consists of two dry walls with a layer of hard
packed clay between.
One element in favor of water power is that you can't beat the price.
The water leaves the river, flows through the turbine and flows back,
little the worse for its service. There are no generating costs and no
bills from the utility company.
Elbow Grease Needed.
"The only electricity used is for lights," Mr. Montriski said.
But there was plenty of elbow grease used when he took over the mill
and some must still be used to make the mill operate.
Mr. Montriski says that the mill is at least 80 years old. Originally
it was operated as a grist mill. It was owned by a man named Pritchard,
a man named Lounsbury (he doesn't know their first names) and by an Ed
Hoadley from whom Mr. Montriski bought it. He said that the machinery
had not been used for five or six years when he took over.
The intake gate was shut up so he crawled into the dry wooden pipe.
What he saw made him crawl back out in short order. The wood was in an
advanced state of decay. Force was used on protesting machinery,
rusted after years of disuse to open the intake gate. A stream of water
rushed into the pipe which responded by caving in. Mr. Montriski
salvaged the old iron hoops, bought new lumber and set about rebuilding
a new conduit.
The first step was to dig a trench and remove the rotted pipe. While
the trench was open -- affording a passage from dam to stream -- he
decided to work on replacing the old intake gate. At that point
Nature reared back and threw a curve.
Force becomes fury.
A sudden storm sent a head of water rushing down the river and the
venerable intake was not up to withstanding this new pressure. It gave
way, letting a torrent of water through the trench.
Fortunately, the sides of the trench did not cave in but the flood left
it littered with debris. The trench was too deep for the rubble to be
lifted by hand so Mr. Montriski built a"freight elevator."
He put together a scaffold and inside that a platform which could be
raised and lowered. He attached a stout rope to the platform, ran it
through a pulley and tied the rope to the axle of an old car. To raise
the elevator he threw the car in low and drove forward. To lower the
platform he shifted to reverse and backed up. When the sloping
trench was finally cleared, he built his new pipe along the bottom, put
new planks in the intake gate, built the cypress cage for his wheel and
filled in the trench.
Home to Boot
Then he put together what he calls a mill, a long cradle that rolls on
a truck and forces a tightly clamped log against a revolving circular
Nor was this the full extent of his do-it-yourselfing. He built a
two-story split level addition to the unpainted frame structure and
fixed up the second story as his living quarters.
What Mr. Montriski calls a "mill" is the device to which the villain in
the old time stage melodrama tied the heroine. It carried her
slowly but inexorably toward the revolving blade, while the
audience, knowing perfectly well how this would turn out, nevertheless
sat gripped by suspense. Just as the heroine's long curly locks were
about to be transformed by a butch cut, Hearbreadth Harry, the hero,
arrived and displayed surprising familiarity with the workings of a
sawmill by throwing the proper lever precisely in the nick of time. No
one was more accurate in his timing than the hero of an old time
Plenty of bull work.
Loading the mill requires the periodic application of elbow grease,
since it is an operation to which water power has not been applied and
manpower must take over. Logs are first rolled onto a hand-pushed
truck and from that onto the mill. Both operations require plenty of
push -- with a Peavey stick, the lumberjack's hook on a pole.
Mr. Montriski made his mill from two others which he bought second
hand. They were two different types but he fitted them together and
made them work. When he had everything in place a stream of water
flowing 20 or 25 feet below transmitted power from a vertical steel
shaft, rolled steel pulleys, and leather belts to the circular saw and
the log-carrying trolly which Mr. Montriski calls a "mill."
An arrangement of hand-operated cranks which activate worm gears moves
the log out for a new cut each time the saw slices off a plank.
The same principle applies as that utilized by the ham-slicing machine
at the corner butcher's.
On a Fee Basis.
Mr. Montriski operates his mill as a contract sawyer, he saws other
people's logs into lumber and charges a fee. He's not likely to become
a millionaire, nor is he likely to get ulcers. He works when the
weather is right and if he has logs on hand to cut. The reason that
weather is a factor although his mill is under cover is that the mill
shed is open at both ends, permitting the outdoors to crowd out the
His work is brought in to him. If a farmer contemplating a building
project such as a new barn has a big poplar or oak tree on his place
that he can very well do without, by cutting down the tree, cutting it
into logs and carting the logs to the Montriski mill, the farmer also
cuts his cost of material. Modern power saws make the
tree-cutting and log-cutting job easier.
Always on Top
Mr. Montriski says the living above the mill is a convenient
arrangement because he is usually at home to accept any business that
may be brought in. The long strips that his circular saw blade slices
off logs may look like boards or planks to others, but they're bread
and butter to Mr. Montriski.