They Sawed Up a Storm

by Sarah Smith


The Turkey Pond Mill crew January 1943: l-r Mary Plourde, Barbara Webber, Violet Storey, Carmilla Wilson, Lucy DeGreenia, Ruth DeRoche, Daisey Perkins, Chimney dog, Laura Willey

The MPPA thanks Sarah S. Smith, Forest Industry Specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, for her wonderful presentation given August 29th at Tracy Library and sponsored by the MPPA.  Sarah can be reached at (603) 862-2647,  The following article was published by Northern Woodlands magazine, Autumn 2002.

I can just imagine Laura Willey sitting in the snow emptying Turkey Pond out of her boots that brutal winter of 1943.  It would not have been unusual for the person who tended the floating logs to lose footing the icy conditions, slip and fall into the water.  Laura Willey, then 43, was one of 12 women hired by the United States Forest Service to operate the government sawmill at Turkey Pond in Concord, New Hampshire.

I became acquainted with the women's mill at Turkey Pond through a conversation with John Willey, Laura's son, John, who operated a sawmill in Andover, New Hampshire, at the time showed me his mother's scrapbook - a tattered collection of snapshots and newspaper clippings depicting the women at work between 1942 and 1943.  The snapshots revealed a rag-tag group of local women bundled against the cold.  In contrast, clippings form the Boston Globe and other newspapers include glamorous photographs in "Rosie the Riveter" style of the younger women gone to work for the war effort.

Violet Storey, "take-away", Barbara Webber, "edger" sending a log down the conveyor to be sawed into two-foot lengths for scrap.

The mill, one of two at the pond, was constructed to saw timber blown down by the great hurricane of 1938.  Logs were dumped into ponds throughout New England for protection from insects and decay.  In New Hampshire, the federal government used 128 lakes, as well as 110 fields, to collect and store logs from the surrounding woodlands.  The federal program, the Northeast Timber Salvage Administration (NETSA), purchased logs and sawed them to prevent timber markets from collapsing.  NETSA operated form 1939 until the end of 1943.  Eventually, 600 million board feet of timber was salvaged in New Hampshire - an amount equivalent to 60,000 tractor-trailer loads of lumber.

To process the wood, the Forest Service contracted with hundreds of private sawmills to set up at the ponds and fields.  And, because many of the local mills were sawing to their limit, portable sawmills arrived from as far away as Wisconsin.  In 1941, the first mill was built at Turkey Pond by the Durants, a family of sawmillers from Maine.  Eventually, Turkey Pond received the largest deposit of logs anywhere - 12 million board feet of white pine.

About 30 yards from the pond, I found the remains of a sawdust pile buried under a shallow layer of humus, just where Tim Durant said it would be.  "We set the first posts on Turkey Pond the 13th of June in 1941, " recalls Marie Durant who, along with Tim and two children, lived beside the mill in wooden camps.  "Sized to haul on a truck bed," Tim adds.  The extended Durant family, including Tim's parents and his sister's family, migrated to New Hampshire to join the timber salvage effort.  "We hauled water from a local farm," Marie Durant remembers of their sparse living conditions.  Despite the hard work, the Durants were glad to have an income in post-depression New England.

As the United States became more involved in World War II, many of New England's sawmills experienced labor shortages.  The Durants were no exception; they struggled to keep a crew of men working at the mill.  By the summer of 1942, it became obvious to the Forest Service that the Durant family would not finish the work at Turkey Pond by the end '43, the Forest Service's target date.  Attempts to attract other mills to the pond were unsuccessful for the same reason - lack of workers.  Copying other wartime industries who were hiring women for what had traditionally been men's work, the Forest Service built a sawmill - designed to be operated by women.  The women's sawmill was built in the fall of 1942 on the north side of Turkey Pond on land owned by St. Paul's School.

Although newspaper headlines touted the mill as including "novel features to be used to protect workers, eliminate heavy lifting and hauling of hurricane lumber," US Forest Service manager Bob Evans described something different.  "We did not do anything more in setting up this mill (the women's mill at Turkey Pond) than any employer should do if he gave full consideration to safety and working conditions for his men."

Women were recruited form the families of local sawmill workers.  It was felt that they would be more reliable and have an understanding of the work requirements.  Three left jobs at the State Hospital to work at Turkey Pond while others were recruited form the US Employment Service in Concord.  The starting wage was $4.00 per day, well above the typical women's wage in 1942.  At the time, a female worker could expect $1.40 per day as a server or $1.80 as a retail clerk.  After a one-month training period, the women at Turkey Pond were paid $4.50 per day - the same as men at other government sawmills.

Norma Webber, front, and Ruth DeRoche taking the finished boards from the conveyor and piling them according to size in the "pit."

Laura Willey, mother of four, was also the head saw-filer at the mill.  Her job, maintaining and sharpening the teeth of the massive circular saw, required considerable skill.  She occasionally took over as sawyer to spell her husband, Marshall.  The sawyer, who controlled the transformation of log into lumber by guiding logs through the saw, remained a male-held position.  Despite the "all woman sawmill" reputation, the government felt that a woman could be trained as sawyer.  By the end of the salvage program, the thinking had changed.  "A heavier built woman unquestionably can be trained to saw.  That is the only position that we did not train them in," reported Evans.  Laura Willey may have changed the thinking.  "My mother was very determined and at over six feet tall, people tended to get out of her way," John Willey said.

Barbara Webber, machine operator, was 23 at the time.  "I did many jobs including running the edger and the winch that brought logs up and out of the water."  She remembered the winter of 1943.  "We wore men's boots with lots of socks to keep warm."  Barbara talked about her experience at Turkey Pond matter-of-factly, as if it had been a small blip in her life.  "I never talked about it because when I did, no one would believe me," she said.  Barbara and her sister, Norma, then 18, thought it would be something interesting to do while their boyfriends went to war.

The women's mill at Turkey Pond operated for just over a year, but despite its short life, it was a success.  Evans wrote in 1943, "Snow, rain, or sub-zero weather never slowed them up.  They never missed a day.  One woman fell in the pond and would not stay in the warming shack and dry off.  She went right on working."

The topic should be of interest to all Messer Pond residents as our pond was also a site where logs were stored after the 1938 hurricane.  Many of the logs still remain on the bottom and occasionally have floated up.  If anyone sees one with the official US stamp on it, Sarah would be most interested in a viewing.

For more photos of the Turkey Pond Mill operation click here

For another related article, LUMBERJILLS REPLACE LUMBERJACKS, click here





Messer Pond Protective Association

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