Rough Cut | Life in the Kingdom

In rural New England, the sawmill and lumberyard connects the forest to the homesteader.

By Ben Hewitt

Feb 21 2019

Photo Credit :

In early March, I drive a dozen or so miles east to P&R Lumber, the small sawmill and lumberyard I’ve been frequenting for longer than I’ve held a driver’s license. This is no exaggeration: I remember being 15 and riding with my friend Trevor—a year older than me and thus allowed by law to operate a motor vehicle in the state of Vermont—to this same sawmill, where we pawed through the stacks of rough-cut hemlock, spruce, and cedar (but mostly hemlock, because it was cheapest option), the admonition of the mill owner to “put the stacks back the way you found ’em” ringing in our ears.

At the time, Trevor was building a cabin on his father’s land. This was in the aftermath of his parents’ separation, and I think he needed something to call his own, a way to feel grounded and in control of his destiny. We’d strap lumber to the roof rack of his Volkswagen van, put the stacks back the way we found ’em, and traverse the network of narrow dirt roads to the unfinished cabin, singing along to “Panama,” our favorite track off Van Halen’s superb 1984 album. I remember how we liked to mime the act of leaning our seats back when that particular verse came around, the one where David Lee Roth sort of sing-speaks the lyrics: 

Yeah, we’re runnin’ a little bit hot tonightI can barely see the road from the heat comin’ off of itAh, you reach down, between my legsEase the seat back

Of course, it was us reaching down between our legs to ease our seats back, and not the young women who existed mostly (or in my case, entirely) in our imaginations. But still. What mattered was the possibility of it, along with the general excellence of being man-boys set loose on the world, in a van loaded with lumber and outfitted with a booming stereo, and with the excitement of seeing Trevor’s place taking shape. For me, it was a bit of vicarious living, for I liked to imagine that someday soon, I’d be out of my parents’ house, building a place of my own, in possession of a driver’s license and maybe even a Volkswagen van, too. 

I still love going to P&R Lumber. They’ve expanded their offerings over the years, and now they stock dressed lumber along with specialty items such as tongue-and-groove pine paneling. A few other things have changed, too: They no longer close for three weeks every fall during rifle season, and the cash discount is gone. But the self-serve honor system is still in place, and sometimes, if I’m lucky, I get to lean a ladder up against one of the towering stacks to procure the specific species and dimensions needed. In a society that has gone crazy with risk and liability and simple laziness, there is something comforting about a business that encourages its customers to climb ladders in pursuit of their building materials. And then trusts them to accurately report their purchases when it comes time to pay.

P&R is one of two small mills within a 20-minute drive of our home, the other being Dave’s Sawmill, which is owned and operated by Dave Stratton and his son Ben. Dave doesn’t offer the diversity that P&R does—it’s all rough-cut at Dave’s, and you can have whatever species you’d like, so long as it’s hemlock or cedar. I like rough-cut lumber, because rough-cut lumber is what’s known as “dimensional.” A rough-cut two-by-four is actually a full two inches thick and four inches wide, while the two-by-fours found at typical building supply stores are “nominal,” measuring one and a half inches thick and three and a half inches across. To me, purchasing nominal lumber makes about as much sense as buying decaffeinated coffee, or meatless hotdogs, or those fancy jeans that come with holes already worn in the knees. It’s like paying for something that’s supposed to be there but isn’t.

I remember the first time I met Dave Stratton, back in 1999 or maybe 2000. I’d ordered from him a dozen or so hemlock carrying timbers, five-by-nine and 20 feet long. This was when we were building our first house in Cabot, and he arrived with them stacked on the back end of the long flatbed truck he drove at the time. Now, I don’t know how much you know about hemlock, but all you really need to know for the purposes of this story is that it’s heavy. It’s dense wood that holds a lot of moisture, and these beams were fresh off the stump, almost wet to the touch. I have no idea how much they actually weighed, but I know it was a lot. Did I mention that Dave’s flatbed did not dump? No, I don’t think I did.

So Dave backs his truck up near the house, and I get on one end of the beams, and he gets on the other, and the idea is that we’re going to sort of throw-slide them onto the ground (again, liability not being high on the list of Dave’s pressing concerns). And we count down from three, and heave, and Dave’s end slides magnificently, teetering off the edge of the truck, while my end does … nothing. I grunt and heave again, and I’d like to think I got an inch or two out of it, but I’m pretty sure that’s being generous. Dave takes a moment to assess the situation, then says, not unkindly, but also very clearly, “Whydon’t you just stand back?And proceeds to unload a dozen green hemlock beams by himself.

I try to split my business evenly between P&R and Dave’s, though it really depends on what my needs are. But I want both of these businesses to survive and even thrive, in part from basic self-interest and in part because they embody so much of what I love about rural New England, which by and large is a place where you can still find people scratching out a modest living producing essential goods and services for their neighbors. How many homes in this community rose from the same mill my friend Trevor and I frequented as boys? How many animals sheltered, how many playgrounds built? How many carpenters and loggers kept employed? These are rhetorical questions, of course: No one knows how many, not exactly. And in the absence of a precise number, the only accurate answer is “a lot.”

At P&R, I load my truck with a few dozen pieces of one-by-ten tongue-and-groove pine, which I intend to use as paneling for interior walls. I keep track of the boards on a scrap of paper, the exact numbers each of eight-, ten-, and twelve-foot lengths. I secure the load with a pair of ratchet straps and walk to the office, where Kathy tallies my order and presents me with an invoice. I hand her a check and head back to my truck, where I tighten each ratchet one click more as insurance against the curving, potholed roads of northern Vermont.

Then I head for home. Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” comes on the radio. It’s no “Panama,” but it’s pretty good. So I reach down, ease my seat back, and turn up the volume.