East Hampton, Connecticut — To the left of the driveway is a
circular steel sawblade hung in an oak-post frame, bearing the
name of the family business painted in red: “STRONG FARM
AND SAWMILL.” A pile of white pine boards with cross sticks
in between is set to one side; a handwritten sign advertising
them for “90 cents a board foot.” An old, gnarled white oak
stands sentry in front of the house, its scaly bark looking like
armor, almost four feet in diameter at the base and more than
250 years old. A wood table leans against the tree, supporting
a faded red-and-white cooler, another homemade sign, “fresh
chicken eggs 4 dollars a dozen,” and a jelly glass for cash.
Their small house made of stone has an old-world look, a
young chestnut tree in the backyard, the faded red shed that’s
Steve Strong’s workshop, and barns farther back.
Sawmills have always interested me. There’s so much going on:
the motor’s wild roar, the sawblade’s whir and hiss, wood against
wood, wood on the iron. And best of all is a family sawmill. With
the house and saw on the same piece of land, it’s an easy walk
between them. Where you can hear the saw from a chair in the
kitchen. That’s how this mill is. Often, they’re small mills. This is
a small mill. Just Steve Strong sawing and somebody to help carry
slabs – his two sons when they can, his brothers Curt and Don,
sometimes a Saturday friend. Because sawmills like this are often
passed down from one generation to the next, grandparents live
nearby and stop over a lot. That’s the way it is here.
Steve’s father, Curtis Strong Sr., ran this same mill with his
brother in the 1970s and into the 1980s. They ran it as a custom
mill, not necessarily sawing every day. Before that, Curtis Sr.’s
grandfather worked it with a brother, sawing hardwood railroad
ties for use in World War II, firewood, fence boards, oak beams
for a house.
These days, the mill is set up mostly to saw timber for Steve’s
own timber-frame construction jobs. The work’s laid out well
– logs before you reach the shed, a sawdust pile in front of the
saw, pine slabs on the hill in back. His sons, Ray and Tim, cut
up the slab wood and sell it for firewood to summer camps in
The mill’s carriage, setworks, and tracks were all manufactured by the Amidon Manufacturing Company in Willington,
Connecticut. Amidon made small portable sawmills from the
early 1900s until the 1950s. Amidon mills were considered to be
some of the best of their kind in the country. There’s no name
on the sawblade, worn away by work and the weather. In fact,
Steve is the first to have the saw under any roof at all since it was
bought new in the 1930s.
Story and Photos by Tony Donovan
At Work Sawing Timber at
Strong Farm and Sawmill
The first day I took pictures, his youngest son, Tim, was helping
him saw. Standing at the end of the tracks on the far side of the
skids with a wooden-handled cant hook in his hands. He cuts the
point of the hook into a log. His father does the same with his
hook. With one heave together, they turn the log onto the saw
carriage and it slams into the blocks. All the carriage iron rings.
They turn the log, once, twice, as many times as needed to
settle it safely onto the carriage. On his father’s sign, Tim pulls
out the back taper to align the log with the saw, lifts the saw
dog up and out, drives its tooth into the log, tightens the dog
and takes a step away as the log starts to the saw; “tail-sawing,”
they call it. The log they are cutting is more than 21 feet long,
three feet in diameter, and weighs approximately one ton and a
Sawing out these long pine logs sets the pace of the work here
– makes its particular rhythm. First, there’s a period of full, fast
effort for both father and son. Forty, fifty seconds? Sometimes
more. Rolling the log onto the carriage, turning the log into
place. Then it’s the sawyer alone, racking the log in line with
the saw. Fifteen, twenty seconds more. The sawyer pulls the saw
bar to him and the log starts into the saw. Maybe it takes twelve,
fifteen seconds to saw down the length of the pine log.
Sawing makes a soft rippling sound at first, like plastic beads
bouncing against something hard – then, listen carefully and
you hear a “pop-pop-pop” beneath that as the saw teeth rip
the wood fiber. Holding the saw bar almost straight stops the
carriage on the far side of the saw. Steve’s oldest son, Ray, grabs
hold of the slab as it drops off and pulls it away from the blade.
He cuts it in half with a small green chainsaw. “Carrying slabs,”
they call it.
Because this is a pine mill – that is, mostly pine is sawn here –
the machinery is black with pine pitch; even the wooden cant
Steve Strong (whose father taught him) explains the finer points of sawing to his son, Ray.