Willard McGrath Sawmill

Courtesy of W. J. Eshleman, Territory Mgr., Frick Company, 722 East End Ave., Lancaster, Pennsylvania 17602. Willard McGrath Sawmill (see story)

W. J. Eshleman

Content Tools

Territory Manager, 722 East End Ave. Lancaster, Pa. 17602

We who like to refer to the Golden Era of America, when man's labors were crowned with success or failure according to his abilities; believe this yardstick if applied today would go a long way to solve many current national ills.

In our machinery endeavors of that past era, it is most always of interest to learn of the oldest serial number of a machines as well as the hi Tory as far back as possible. I believe I have discovered the site of a sawmill with a rather interesting history which began sawing timber in 1667 in Havertown, now a part of greater Philadelphia.

We must realize that prior to the arrival of William Penn in 1682, claims of ownership had been previously staked out on this part of the eastern seaboard. In new Amsterdam the one legged governor, Peter Stuyvesant, with his Dutch settlers had filtered down along the Atlantic coast and established colonies at Lewis and New Castle, Delaware. Lord Baltimore also claimed it as a part of Maryland.

In the year of 1638 the Swedes, although very busy in Europe with the 'Thirty Years War' were not going to pass up an opportunity to establish a colony in America, and sent an expedition in the 'Kalmar Nyckle' which landed at what is now Wilmington, Delaware, taking possession in the name of Queen Christina, and established the colony of New Sweden.

In 1643 Lieut. Col. Johan Printz, a veteran of the 'Thirty Years War' arrived as governor of New Sweden. He weighed 400 pounds, and the Indians referred to him as the 'big tub'.

The Swedes brought with them some institutions most attributed to others as follows. They are credited with performing the first trial by jury in America, and THE SWEDES BROUGHT THE FIRST SAWMILL TO AMERICA.

Governor Printz moved up the Delaware river to Tinicum Island where he built Fort Goteborg and a governor's mansion which he named 'Printzhof', and in 1646 near there he built the first Lutheran church in America, which was dedicated by the Rev. Johan Companus.

New Sweden grew and prospered on both sides of the Delaware, river consisting of parts of the present states of Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Its area can be roughly traced by the geographical location of the six Lutheran churches built by the second generation of Swedish settlers. They are: Holy Trinity Wilmington, Del. Gloria Dei Philadelphia, Pa. St. Georges Pennsville, N. J. Trinity Swedesboro, N. J. Christ Church Bridgeport, Pa. St. James Kingessing, Pa. These churches remained Lutheran as long as Swedish pastors arrived to serve them, but with the arrival of English authority, the churches became anglicized and one by one they joined the Episcopal diocese and so remain today.

Governor Printz set about the establishment of New Sweden in earnest. In 1644 he ordered and received a shipload of supplies with the necessary machinery of the time, to set up a shop or factory. We are fortunate to have this interesting inventory come down to us today as listed below:

3 large saws for a sawmill
8 grindstones
1 pair of large stones for a grist mill
5 anchors
5 pumps with necessary repair parts and a Hyde pump leather.
12 small augers
4 compasses
36 blocks
250 copper kettles Several barrels of lime and pitch A few thousand bricks
200 barrels of flour
20 barrels of Spanish salt
10 hogsheads of French wine
1 hogshead of brandy Several hundred yards of cloth
10 guilded flag pole knobs
300 pairs of shoes
200 pairs of stockings

As the terrible Thirty Years War dragged on in Europe the fortunes of New Sweden were dragged down, since supplies were unable to reach the Swedish colony. At length Governor Printz, in desperation, returned to Sweden to obtain provisions, leaving the colony in charge of his son-in-law. Fate decreed, however, that he was never to return.

Some time later, in 1655, the Dutch under Governor Stuyvesant captured New Sweden, but their control was short lived since the Duke of York captured New Amsterdam in 1664, giving his name, and all Dutch possessions fell to the English.

Pennsylvania was an unexplored woods of unknown quantity, with boundaries of claims and counter claims. King Charles II of England, owing Wm. Penn a sum of money which was difficult to pay, granted Wm. Penn this woods which was termed Penn's Woods or Pennsylvania. In 1683 William Penn arrived, and sailing up the Delaware took possession of his province at New Castle, Delaware, which was populated by both Dutch and Swedes. They welcomed him with open arms, since his free religious philosophy was known in advance, which was the most important ingredient of liberty at that period.

Penn, upon his arrival, found an established colony along the Delaware. But 20 miles to the interior it is of interest to note, was a sawmill in operation, which had been set up by a Swede named David Lawrence in the year of 1667, beside a stream in the forest. This sawmill, of the up and down type, was powered by a water wheel. As to how many of this type mills were worn out at this site we have no way of knowing, but the last one we are told was given to a Philadelphia museum about twenty years ago.

At this time and this same site, still sawing more than three hundred years later, is an Old-Frick bearing serial No. 18851; owned and operated by Mr. Willard McGrath who has no thought of quitting, although the real estate men are beating a path to his door. The present mill, which was once level with the ground is down in a hole with a roof over it, since the accumulation of chips and sawdust have raised the terrain around it.

The stream is covered over now and the sawdust pulls the sawdust into the covered stream. A year ago the sawdust drag stopped, and upon investigation Mr. McGrath found a snapping turtle came into the stream and bit on the chain of the drag and stopped it. Mr. McGrath had turtle soup the next day.

And so as this sawmill continues at this ancient site, we can't help but reminisce a bit; where once a fragrant woods path provided a way for the friendly Indian from the west to come to see the White Father in Philadelphia, we now have endless rows of modern traffic which pollutes the air that we breathe grinding endlessly the modern highway beneath them. The musical pit a-pat of the water wheel has given way to the angry snarl of a diesel, which operates a more modern sawmill.

And so time moves on; it is said that the Swedes established their first sawmill on Cobbs Creek, in western Philadelphia, so we assume the present McGrath mill was the second sawmill in the United States about ten miles west of the Cobbs Creek site.

If anyone knows of an older site in continuous operation, let us have it.