Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Set My Lath A-Going by Wind

Fisher's silhouette of himself

To my mind, one of the more fascinating things I discovered in my Jonathan Fisher research is the windmill he built for himself in 1812. When Fisher came to Bluehill in 1796, there were already several water powered sawmills in the town. (Lumbering was a big industry in Maine’s history. Haven’t you ever heard of Paul Bunyan?) Fisher recorded numerous trips to the ‘head of the bay’ to purchase lumber. He often would borrow a neighbor’s ox and cart to haul the boards back to his house.  

Always an inventor and entrepreneur, Fisher was looking to make labor and production more efficient and, like all of his contemporaries, Fisher highly valued increased mechanization for the reduction of monotonous labor. (Who doesn’t?) On one Massachusetts vacation, he recorded, Went and made a visit and dined at Mr. Bingham's. Went to Uncle Avery's. Went thence to nail and cotton factories. Consulted Mr. William Howe about setting up a factory. Mr. H advises is what is called the water frame rather than the throttle frame because each set of spindles may be stopped by itself. Water frame from 18 to 20 dollars a spindle - one dollar more a spindle than throttle.”

Shortly after visiting these factories, he began constructing his windmill back home in Bluehill. Though this windmill was built primarily to power a sawmill for the production of lumber, Fisher also set up his shop space in the newly constructed mill building he referred to as his “wood house”. He utilized the wind power well before he was “sawing wood by wind”. Perhaps as a trial, Fisher first powered his grindstone by wind. Apparently the success was encouragement enough that he decided to gear up his lathe to run by the windmill. On June 18th, 1813, Fisher recorded with an inferred satisfaction, 

“Worked upon turning gear and set my lath a-going by wind.

Fisher's turning chisels
Probably the lathe Fisher powered by wind

This is a remarkable statement. Neither I nor any of the colleagues I have consulted are aware of an explicit reference to a chairmaker powering their lathe by a windmill. In early nineteenth century coastal New England, windmills were a very common site but almost all of these mills were designated for grinding grains. Well before the Industrial Revolution, wind energy was harnessed to power all sorts of industrial activities including grinding paints and sawing lumber. This was not unique to Fisher. What is unique, however, is this application having been recorded.

The mill no longer survives. At some point, the mill was taken down by his son Willard. In an 1888 photograph of the “wood house” the mill is conspicuously absent. 

The wood house without the windmill

More research into this windmill and Fisher’s compelling use of it will be pursued. In the meantime I wonder what you all know about this stuff. Have you ever heard of such a thing?


  1. Hi Joshua, there was an amish furniture builder near Lancaster who used wind power to drive lathes and a saw of some sort if I remember correctly. His name was Henry Lapp. His work is being collected by the Philadelphia museum of art. He lived a little later than Fisher, he was born around the time of the Civil War.

    Harlan Barnhart

    1. "A Craftsman's Handbook: Henry Lapp", Philada. MoA, ISBN 1-56148-014-2
      "... The Lancaster County Atlas of 1899 indicates three buildings in his name on the north side of the Philadelphia Road, approximately halfway between the villages of Bird-In-Hand and Intercourse. One of these is the L-shaped house where he lived with his sister. ... Lapp's shop was just east of the other two buildings, and here he sold his products and carried on his work. His saws and lathes were powered by a large windmill which worked efficiently when the wind reached a velocity of five miles or more per hour."

  2. I would check out the belt makers like Page Belting in Concord NH. They were about 100 years after the time you are looking for but they might have some old history around or could lead you to someone else

    Ken De Witt