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Pocahontas County Bicentennial ~ 1821-2021

Based on Tumult on the Mountains
Dr. Roy B. Clarkson

The first white men to settle in this area arrived in the Eastern Panhandle in the early part of the 18th century. It was not until 1749, however, that the first settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, at Marlinton, Pocahontas County, was made.

The first settlers along the rivers must have been overwhelmed when they contemplated the time and effort it would require to remove the gigantic oaks, walnuts, elms, silver maples, and other trees that thickly covered the rich bottomlands.

When a building site was selected in a new area the first task was to clear away the trees in preparation for the new home and for growing crops. Timber was absolutely worthless in this section of the country at that time.

A few selected trees were utilized in constructing the dwelling; and chestnut, black walnut and cherry were used in making “worm” or “rail” fences. The beech, ash, sugar maple and other trees were girdled and later burned or cut and rolled into large piles and burned.

Enlargement of the farm meant a continuation of this toil, year after year. The very best timber in the state was thus destroyed.

The first dwellings of the settlers were rude affairs, built without the use of any instruments for sawing. All parts of the house – the log walls, the clapboard roofs, the puncheon floors (if such a luxury was obtained) and the furniture – were shaped with the axe, the adz and the frow.

Later settlers brought with them whip saws which made it possible to saw rough planks for floors, doors, roofs and furniture. The whipsaw was a rude, hand-operated saw, from five to seven feet long, with hooked teeth, and a handle at each end.

Squared With Axe

The timber intended to be sawed was first squared with a broad axe, and then raised on a scaffold six or seven feet high. Two able-bodied men then took hold of the saw, one standing on top of the log, the other under it, and commenced sawing. The labor was excessively fatiguing and about 100 linear feet of plank or scantling was considered a good day’s work for two hands.

An alternate method was to roll the squared log over a pit dug for the purpose. The workman who stood on top of the log and guided the saw along a chalk line was supposedly the better man and was called the pit-man, a name that later was applied to the wooden beam attaching the saw to the crank of the water-powered sawmill.

Despite their shortcomings, the whip saws supplied the needs of early settlers and continued in use in some parts of the state until after 1900.

With the increase in population and the growth of towns, an increased demand for lumber made the erection of sawmills a necessity.

It is not known when or where the first sawmill was built and operated in West Virginia. It is probable, however, that there were a few built by the early settlers who occupied the valleys of the Potomac River and its tributaries prior to the year 1755.

The first sawmill west of the Allegheny Mountains was built in 1776 near the town of St. George in Tucker County by John Minear. These first mills were run by waterpower and usually were combined with a grist mill. They utilized a device known as the “sash” or “gate” saw, a name derived from the immense wooden sashes or gates to which the saws were fastened.

In some mills, the carriage was “walked” back by stepping on wooden pins extending outward from the circumference of a large wheel connected to the carriage by cogs. The strokes were up and down in vertical fashion and in earlier mills were made at a speed of less than 80 strokes a minute.

Water Power Wasted

In the early water sawmill, more power was wasted than was delivered to the sash. Nevertheless, the sash sawmill was a great improvement over the whip saw and allowed two men to cut up to 500 linear feet of lumber in one day with much less backbreaking labor.

Improvements continued to be made in water mills, including the rigging of several saws side by side, so that several boards could be cut at one time.

One of the largest water mills in the state was located on the Great Kanawha River at Kanawha Falls, some two miles below the junction of the New and Gauley rivers.

Here, Maynard A. Cheney’s sawmill, powered by water through a rock-cut flume from the 22-foot high falls, attained 225 horsepower. It had a daily capacity of from 30,000 to 40,000 feet.

Hundreds of mills operated throughout the state during the 19th century. As late as 1860, seven-eighths of the lumber sawed in the state was sawed by water power.

While lumbering was beginning to take its toll on the forests of the state, other practices of the settlers were reducing thousands of acres of Virginia forestland to farms, pastures or wastelands

One of the most destructive practices previous to the Civil War was the clearing of large tracts of land by a system known as “hacking,” for the purpose of providing pasture for cattle.

This process including “girdling” all of the best timber on the land and leaving it to die. In a few years, the tract would be burned over, and this usually was all that was necessary to make conditions favorable for a natural growth of bluegrass, which soon occupied the land.

Hundreds of other acres, in freestone sections, burned over in this manner, were re-vegetated with bracken fern, which covers them yet today.

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