During WWII, Concord’s sawmill girls carried out New Hampshire history

Last modified: 5/19/2014 12:19:55 AM
“The female mill at Turkey Pond is going along nicely. It’s most surprising and gratifying to see the way those gals take hold of the job. In addition to the jobs we anticipated women could handle we have found them capable of rolling logs on the deck, running the edger and for ‘show purposes’ even running the head saw.”

– John Campbell, director of the Northeast Timber Salvage Administration, in the U.S. Forest Service’s “Washington Office Information Digest,” Nov. 19, 1942.

The only visual proof history was made on the northern edge of Turkey Pond in Concord are the long, circular timbers floating near the shore.

Even then, it’s not obvious.

But the banks of this small pond were home to the first women-operated sawmill in the country’s history. Called on by the federal government after the Hurricane of 1938 and at the height of World War II, the group of Concord-area women who operated the mill lugged, logged and cut their way into history. Before they became trailblazers, they were clerks, hospital employees, housewives and teenagers. In operation for two years, the women’s mill was an important part of post-hurricane cleanup in the region.

“For me, it was about being all grown up and working with a bunch of women that were older than I was. They were all good gals. They helped me, and I helped them,” said Florence Drouin Blake, 90, a Center Barnstead resident who worked the mill as a 15-year-old in Concord. “They never had sawmills here with all women. This is a first-time experience as far as women doing men’s work at a mill.”

The great hurricane spurred the creation of many new sawmills in the region. The storm downed so many trees the federal government scrambled to figure out a plan to get rid of them. Landowners were directed to bring their downed trees to designated dumping areas in ponds, lakes or fields. Turkey Pond, on the city’s western edge, had 12 million board feed of white pine, the largest deposit of hurricane salvaged logs in New England.

“They had to do something because of the hurricane. There was too much wood downed and they had to do something with it, so they threw it in the water,” Drouin Blake said. From 1941 to 1943, the H.S. Durant Mill, operated by men, sawed most of the pine in the southern part of the pond. The pond was still loaded with wood in 1942, after most salvage efforts had stopped and the mill’s workforce had dwindled because of World War II. The mill was in danger of defaulting on its contract with the U.S. Forest Service when the government decided to build a second mill on the northern edge of the pond.

This mill would be different, operated almost entirely by women. Even though the female workforce had swelled to more than 6 million, sawmill work was still dominated by men.

It was billed by the government as a first-of-its-kind operation. An Oct. 29, 1942, article in the Concord Monitor described adjustments that had been made for female employees: “The mill will have many safety devices never before considered necessary, for the protection of the women workers. It is also being rigged up with automatically operated saws and chain drives so that there will be no heavy lifting or pulling for the feminine crew.”

Starting pay was $4 a day. At the time, a waitress made about $1.40 a day, while retail clerks made about $1.80.

“In the wage information they had only two occupations recorded for women – clerk and waitress. That’s kind of a statement on where women worked and where it was acceptable for them to be working,” said Sarah Smith, an expert on the sawmill and author of They Sawed up a Storm, which chronicled the women’s mill.

At 15, Drouin Blake was one of the youngest girls in the group. She had been cutting wood since 13, when her father gave her an ax for Christmas.

“I was 13. I wanted an animal or a dog or something. I got an ax,” she said.

On Main Street in Concord, Drouin Blake said she overheard a few girls talking about jobs at the women’s mill.

“I was downtown and heard they were looking for women loggers. I didn’t know what it was about,” she said. “School was out, I had nothing to do. The girls were talking about this and I thought, ‘Why can’t I do this?’ Everyone needs a job.”

On the first day of work, an employee picked her up at her home and drove her to the mill. The days usually started at 9 a.m. and ended about 4 p.m., with forestry employees giving rides each way.

“I can remember her going to work early in the morning, coming home and then feed us, all six children and my father. Then she’d do what she had to do at home before going to work the next day,” said David Story of Hopkinton, who was a young child when his mother, Violet Story, worked at the mill.

Violet was in her 30s when she worked at the mill, and Story remembers his mother telling stories about days spent at the mill.

“There were so many stories and so much talking about it that I can almost remember being there. I wasn’t even old enough to know at the time,” Story said.

Cigarettes were smoked, naps were had and friendly competition with the all-male mill was common. The girls gathered around a small camp with a wood heater on chilly days and shared stories.

“The woman came in once with her short, short shorts,” Drouin Blake said. The male logger quit. “She was showing too much, and he didn’t like it. He left, but he came back.”

The women’s mill operated for a little more than a year until the Turkey Pond mills completed their government contract. Five years after the first logs were delivered to the Durant mill, the last timbers were sawed Nov. 23, 1943.

“It was intended to be an experiment. In the context of World War II, there was more interest and sort of social permission to do something like that. It was successful. It did what it was intended to do,” Smith said.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)

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