The Bedford Mills Sawmill

The sawmill at Bedford Mills operated continuously for almost 100 years, although it was expanded and improved several times during that period. It was started in 1831 by Benjamin Tett Sr., who operated it until 1848 when he entered into a partnership with Brockville businessman and entrepreneur George Chaffey. In 1851, Tett decided to withdraw from business, and entered into a lease with George Chaffey and his brothers William and John, who operated the business together until 1864. John Chaffey was in charge of local operations, and the two other brothers were responsible for the other family endeavours such as forwarding, shipbuilding, construction, etc. In 1864, John Chaffey took over the lease himself. John Chaffey was also married to Benjamin Tett’s oldest daughter, and he owned or operated other businesses in the area including a large sawmill at Mississagua Creek. In 1872, the lease was transferred to Benjamin Tett’s sons, John Poole and Benjamin Tett Jr., who operated the sawmill under the company name J. P. Tett & Bro. until the mill was finally closed.

At all times, the sawmill was powered by water, which flowed beneath the mill and down the waterfall to Loon Lake below. As the water passed through the mill it turned a large water wheel, which, through a series of cranks and gears, in turn allowed the saws to operate. The earliest sawmill was a very primitive one, using a single “muley saw”, which operated horizontally with a single blade moving up and down. Each log needed to be passed through the saw one cut at a time, then repositioned for the next cut. It was a slow process, and the earliest mill was designed for local consumption only. Tett could foresee the commercial opportunities that would be offered when the Rideau Canal was completed (it officially opened in August 1832), aware that the Canal would provide the means to transport lumber beyond local markets. Over the next 17 years, he made a series of improvements to the mill, adding additional saws to increase capacity. These included “gang saws”. A gang saw operated in much the same way as the muley saw, but with multiple straight blades held inside a frame. As it moved up and down, several boards could be cut in one pass of either a log as it passed through the mill. Each improvement meant that the dam, which held back the water at the Devil Lake end, was widened and deepened, allowing for a greater head of pressure to drive the saws. The sawmill operated 24 hours a day, six days a week, in two shifts. Work at night was illuminated by candlelight and, later, by coal oil lamps. As the logs passed through the mill the lumber was stacked on wharves below in Loon Lake, awaiting transport through the Rideau Canal by tugs and barges to markets in Montreal and abroad. Rather than being sawn into lumber, in the early years some large square pine timber was also produced, designated to be sent to England to be crafted into masts for Royal Navy ships.

The Chaffeys further improved the sawmill, adding one of the first circular saws in the area. In the late-1850s, John Chaffey constructed a small shingle mill and lath mill, located near the sawmill. Markets opened up in the US, and the Chaffeys shipped large quantities of lumber across Lake Ontario to Oswego and Albany NY. The mill was Frontenac County’s largest sawmilling operation. Over the years of the Tett – Chaffey partnership and lease, the mills produced in excess of one hundred and six million board feet of lumber.

Later, the Tett brothers further expanded the range of wood products, including the manufacture of broom handles and railway ties (fuelled by the construction during the 1880s of small railway lines in eastern Ontario). Later, special milling equipment was installed for the production of dressed lumber, tongue and groove flooring, and door and window mouldings. Due to declining supplies of large first-growth timber such as pine, the brothers had to rely on other types of wood, with about half being hemlock and one quarter being ash. The remainder were basswood, and small quantities of elm, cedar, and oak. The scarcity of local timber became acute during the 1890s, and after 1900 the Tetts manufactured only a few hundred thousand board feet. By 1910, logging operations were suspended completely, and in about 1920, the sawmill closed and was later demolished.

During its time of operation, the sawmill provided valued employment for many in the Devil Lake region, including in the forest cutting the timber, in the transport of the logs down Devil Lake to the mill, in the sawmill itself, and in the transport of lumber to markets. Some were full time loggers and mill workers, other were local settlers who found an additional source of income as they developed their farms. It would be difficult to find many long-time Devil Lake and area residents whose ancestors were not touched in some way by the mill.

-John Gray