A lot has changed over the past one hundred years in Vermont, and in the building industry. But in the village of Moretown, Vermont one family’s lumber business is still going strong, and hasn’t changed that much, after 130 years.
The Ward family has roots in America that date back to the early 1700’s. Major General Artemis Ward, from Massachusetts, served General George Washington in defense of Boston Harbor during the American Revolution. Today, in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts there is an active museum at what was the home of Artemis Ward. The next two generations of the Ward family settled in various towns and communities around New England.
The member of the Ward family to forever change Moretown, Vermont was Hiram O. Ward, (often referred to as H.O.), who built his first mill in Duxbury, Vermont on the Dowsville Brook. Located on the hill in Duxbury across from what is now Harwood Union High School, Hiram built that mill and purchased the surrounding land for timber. An entrepreneur in the best sense of the word, Hiram continued to acquire land for timber and explore other areas for mill sites, and soon had a mill on the road to Camel’s Hump.
In simple terms, mills were built at a point on a stream or river where the flow of water and the head (vertical drop) of that flow would create the most force to provide energy. It is the same principal used today to run water turbines. In the early days, once the dam was constructed, the head provided powerful forces to drive the waterwheel. And it was exactly this reason that brought Hiram to Moretown. For the Mad River, as it flowed through Moretown, had a significant drop in elevation. Therefore, it provided the head necessary to drive the mill wheels.
In the early 1870’s Hiram purchased the gristmill in Moretown, which was located on the site of the current Clapboard Mill (which is still in operation). He operated that mill and then built the Lower Mill. It was followed shortly thereafter by the Upper Mill. Although he continued to own and operate other mills, Moretown became the home base for Ward Lumber Company, and became the town’s largest employer.
The operation of the mill was passed on to Hiram’s son, Burton Ward who, with his bride, moved into the family home, the large Victorian house which still stands on the Main Street (Route 100) in Moretown. Behind the Ward house stood the horse barns that housed the horse teams for the logging wagons.
The lumber business is a complex operation at the least. During the early years when everything was done by hand, the mills were extremely labor intensive. They required the skills and hard labor of strong men who worked in extreme conditions of weather to keep the mills operational. Although all aspects of the lumber business were rigorous and demanding, no one was tougher than the loggers. These men went up into the hills, cut the trails, spent days and weeks up at camp, and cut, limbed and loaded logs weighing thousands of pounds. Their only source of support were their teams of horses who were trained to take the logs down to the header and return by themselves to the logger in the woods. From the header, the horses were driven down from the mountains, loaded with logs and a man riding the logs trying to keep the horses ahead of the incredibly heavy load barreling down behind them.
Horses were kept in the mill yard until 1945, long after trucks became the mode of transport. One of the last great teamsters was Sam Farnsworth, who never did have much patience for modern truck transportation. He proved his point one day when a ten-wheel truck loaded with 30,000 pounds of logs got stuck in the mud at the mill and could not get out. Sam hitched up his best team of horses, attached them to the front axle of the truck and helped pull the truck and its 30,000 pound load out of the muck.
There are two kinds of woods—hardwoods and softwoods. Hardwoods found in New England are primarily maple, ash, oak, beech, and birch. These were sawn to the Lower Mill by band saw. Hardwoods were graded and were used for furniture and flooring. Softwoods are primarily spruce, pine, and hemlock, and these were sawn at the Upper Mill and sold to the construction industry for home building. By far the largest market for Ward Lumber was the Boston market. Lumber was loaded on wagons, and then later on trucks, and driven to Middlesex, where the lumber was loaded onto rail cars and taken by train for distribution in Boston markets and elsewhere.
From the moment logs arrived in the mill yard, they were handled by men skilled in a particular task. The logs were passed through a steam pond. Men with peaveys (a type of hook maneuvered the logs to the point where they were attached with chains and moved up the slip and into the mill. The sawyer was a key man on the team, as he had to decide the cut and the grade of the log. The filer was also a critical man, because he kept the blades sharpened and tensioned. His job was central to the functioning of the mill. The lumber then had to be stacked outside to dry.
Burton Ward had three children: Marian, Kenneth, and Merlin. Kenneth and Merlin became the next generation of Wards to operate the Ward Lumber Company. These brothers had learned the lessons of their father and their grandfather, who were both thoughtful conservationists. Following in their tradition, Kenneth and Merlin began an extensive reforestation program. As Burton had done before them, they bought up old farms and turned them into plantations, often planting pine and spruce in alternating rows. Even today people in Moretown can remember being part of the planting junkets that happened in the spring. Young seedlings, purchased from the State Forestry Service, were planted row after row by young and old alike. The mills closed down during the planting so that everyone could participate. This reforestation not only replenished the forest lands, but it helped protect the water tables.
Today, Ward Clapboard Mill is still owned by the family and is run by Hiram’s great-great grandson, Holly Ward. The Ward Clapboard Mill continues a four generation tradition in Moretown. The clapboards that come from this mill are beautifully crafted and still sawn by the original machines. The mill concentrates on the quality of its Bevel Siding and remains committed to Moretown. In 1987, Ward Clapboard Mill added a plant in Patten, Maine (north of Mt. Katahdin), not only to meet demand, but to be close to the source of premium spruce logs ensuring only the finest Bevel Wood Siding.