Thursday, July 24, 2014
My Account  | Login
Nashua;80.0;http://forecast.weather.gov/images/wtf/small/sct.png;2014-07-24 17:40:13
Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Area’s last sawmill struggles against global competition, even as it donates land to conservation

MILFORD – Wilkins Lumber Co. might be the region’s oldest family business, turning logs into lumber for eight generations, but its survival these days depends at least as much on horse riding as on housing.

“There’s more demand for bedding to put under horses than there is for lumber,” said Sally Wilkins during a Saturday morning tour of the company’s sawmill on Route 13, the last operating sawmill in the region. ...

Sign up to continue

Print subscriber?    Sign up for Full Access!

Please sign up for as low as 36 cents per day to continue viewing our website.

Digital subscribers receive

  • Unlimited access to all stories from nashuatelegraph.com on your computer, tablet or smart phone.
  • Access nashuatelegraph.com, view our digital edition or use our Full Access apps.
  • Get more information at nashuatelegraph.com/fullaccess
Sign up or Login

MILFORD – Wilkins Lumber Co. might be the region’s oldest family business, turning logs into lumber for eight generations, but its survival these days depends at least as much on horse riding as on housing.

“There’s more demand for bedding to put under horses than there is for lumber,” said Sally Wilkins during a Saturday morning tour of the company’s sawmill on Route 13, the last operating sawmill in the region.

Wilkins bought a shavings mill – “like an enormous carrot grater” – that reduces entire logs to nothing but a pile of shavings, producing no lumber at all, just to serve the equine market. It’s another revenue stream that has nothing to do with sawing lumber for
construction, similar to turning discarded bark from logs into sought-after bark mulch.

“Bark was a giant waste product until it became a classy thing to put around your house to keep weeds down,” said Wilkins.

She and husband Tom provided this insight to about 25 people who showed up for the tour, run by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

The main purpose of the gathering was to praise the Wilkinses for providing dirt-cheap conservation easements on about 520 acres of land in Mont Vernon and Amherst, and start a funding drive to raise the $190,000 needed for the easements, most of which will go to pay for surveying and title searches.

While times are tough for small sawmills, Wilkins is far from calling it quits.

They will continue to harvest timber from the land, which under the easements would be left open to non-motorized public recreation, including hunting and fishing. They’ll also continue to cut logs harvested from other area landowners, as they have done for the past 205 years that the family has operated a sawmill in Milford, near the Mont Vernon and Amherst town lines.

A visit to one of the donated parcels, on Beech Hill Road in Mont Vernon, was part of the attraction to Saturday’s tour, but an inside look at the only softwood sawmill left in Hillsborough County was definitely more of a draw.

“I have bought a lot of lumber from Wilkins through the years. I came to see the operation, the mill,” said Martin Fry of Nashua, one of many who showed up for the tour.

The discussion Saturday morning quickly turned to the endangered status of sawmills in southern New Hampshire as they succumb to low prices in the “global wood system.”

Dave Anderson, education specialist with the Forest Society, drew parallels to an hourglass. In the top are the state’s forests and at the bottom is the lumber we buy, both of which are plentiful. Squeezed out in the middle is the state’s sawmill and logging capacity.

“It shows the fragility of the forest products industry,” he said, noting that local sawmills are more likely to treat local woodlots well, as the Wilkins easements demonstrate.

“If we lose our sawmill capacity, we’re outsourcing to a place where we don’t control the resource,” he said.

Tom Wilkins said his business employs about 6 people, including Dennis Cluche, the “sawyer” or man in charge of the actual sawing , who has worked there since 1969. He admitted that it is struggling.

“Things don’t get better, I don’t know how much longer I can hold on,” Wilkins commented.

One problem is that the sawmill produces rough lumber, not planed lumber, that doesn’t carry the stamp of the Building Officials Code Administrators. This BOCA code approval is increasingly required by developers and home builders, he said, partly because it provides legal protection if problems occur.

Wilkins said he can’t compete with huge mills that can churn out two eight-foot pine studs every second, and as a result the boards we buy at local chain and independent lumber yards are rarely cut hereabouts. It’s hard to survive on the small volumes of rough-cut lumber bought for sheds and barns.

“The restoration market is good for us. If you’ve got a 7 by 9 (inch) beam to replace, you’re not going to go to Milford Lumber and get it,” he said.

Wilkins Lumber Co. dates back to 1808, when E.L. Hartshorn built a water-powered sawmill at what is now the southern end of Hartshorn Pond, across Route 13 from the sawmill. (Wilkins moved to its current location in 1980; the old mill, used for storage, still stands, although it had to be rebuilt after a 1949 fire caused by lightning.)

The sawmill business has been handed down through eight generations of Hartshorns and Wilkinses after the name shifted through marriage a century ago, making it one of the longest-running family business in New Hampshire.

The land being placed under easement is 5 large parcels throughout Mont Vernon and Amherst, having been acquired by the family in earlier decades as woodlots, providing raw material for the sawmill. Much of the land was bought for little money after the Civil War, when New Hampshire farmers abandoned their stony ground and rode the new railroads west, where farming was easier, Sally Wilkins said.

That history helps explain why it will cost so much to put legal conservation easements on the land. “The chain of title is a nightmare on some of these,” she said. One parcel in Mont Vernon, for example, originally consisted of “20 or 22 original farms homesteading.”

Brian Hotz, director of land protection at the Forest Society, was effusive in his praise of the Wilkins’ move. “They are virtually donating the easements,” he said. “It’s a 95 percent bargain price.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com.