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) anymore."


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.

Newton's Delight

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 century.  

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.

Diversionary Tactic.

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 saw blade.

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 melodrama.

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 indoors.

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.