THE MILLS OF E. A. LABELLE
in 1991 by John Dudley
Portable sawmills were common in Maine from before 1920 until the 1950s. These mills could be dismantled, moved, and set up again in a few days and by a small crew. This allowed the operator to move the mill near the source of the logs instead of trucking the logs which was expensive. These mills usually were powered by gasoline or diesel engines, although after WWII some were powered by electricity. In most of these operations, the logging was done in the winter and the milling was done the following spring and summer.
A. LaBelle arrived here from the Jackman area in 1945 with his
family. His wife was Ruth (January 29, 1890-May 8, 1983). According
to her obituary, there were eight children; five sons, Russell,
Arthur, Richard, Herman, and Lee, and three daughters, Archeve,
Franses, and Jean. They lived part or maybe all of the time at the
John Dumont place which was located about three-quarters of a mile
north of Route Nine. This set of logging camps had been used
previously by others including Mell Hunnewell. The camps were on what
some refer to as the Creamer Road that went to Lower Mud Lake.
The mill sawed between 7000 and 10000 board feet per day. It was powered by a D-8 Caterpillar diesel engine.
left: Ernest A. LaBelle on the doorstep of his home on the road to Mud Lake. right: Mill Brook sawdust pile. It is said that some poached deer in the area and hid the hides and offal in the sawdust.
Ernest was the sawyer and many other members of the family worked in the mill. Herman LaBelle ran the edger saw, although he and Arthur Perkins would saw if Ernest was not available. Lee LaBelle was still in school, but worked at the mill part time. Russell LaBelle was a teamster (driving horses and trucks), and his girlfriend Marie trimmed board ends and sawed slabs. Richard ''Dick'' LaBelle worked at the mill for a short time after he was discharged from the Navy.
George Miner came here with LaBelle and worked as a teamster. His step-daughter Beatrice worked with Marie on the trimmer. Melvin Ross drove a truck during the first year LaBelle was in the area. Ross, his wife and three children resided at the Carlow place on the Pokey Road. Wallace McKeown took away boards at the end of the mill.
LaBelle first set up his mill on Mill Brook that flows into Lower Mud Lake. The mill was in Crawford near the Crawford-Alexander line and about one-quarter mile from the lake. Here he sawed hemlock, spruce, some oak, and some white pine. Roland Perkins and Herman LaBelle had camps near the mill.
The next year LaBelle had his mill on the shore of Pocomoonshine Lake, just northeast of the Stowell-MacGregor sawdust pile. Here he sawed mostly white pine and mostly logs cut on Stowell-MacGregor and many logs cut on 16th Stream and delivered by Coolidge White. Arthur Perkins rolled-on (logs onto the carriage). Gene Moraisey pulled logs onto the slip chain (which carried the logs up out of the lake) until he was hurt and then Donald Frost took that job. Herman LaBelle had his portable camp set up on the knoll just east of Mill Brook on the Mill Road.
A-CHS member Don McLellan of South Princeton wrote an interesting article for issue #30 of this newsletter. In it he describes the logging activity in the Dog Brook area and how he brought the logs to LaBelle's mill on sleds towed by a truck across the ice. Another who brought logs from the South Princeton area was Lewis Kneeland.
Some of the logs never made it to the mill. I remember of finding piles of logs on lots 4, 16, 17, and 27 in Alexander and along Deep Cove in Princeton years after LaBelle had left the area. Mell Hunnewell and his crew had cut some of these. LaBelle apparently paid stumpage and the logging crews for logs landed at the mill. Ralph Howard of Dixfield who worked in the Stowell-MacGregor home office stated that ‘The company didn't get very rich on the LaBelle operation. Guess he was a hard man to keep trace of.’ The March 1948 Alexander Town Report states that E. A. LaBelle owed $380.00 in back taxes, presumably on the Pocomoonshine operation.
Gordon Lord described some of LaBelle's next operation at Rocky Brook. ‘After the Township 19 fire in 1947, LaBelle moved his mill to the area of the fire. My father Joseph, Lawrence (his brother) and I were hired to cut all the remaining logs from the fire site. We built a hovel for the horse across the heath and had to feed the horse daily whether we worked or not, commuting from Crawford. We had to walk or snowshoe about 2 mites in from the highway. The next summer I hauled slabs from LaBelle's mill, which I used to build the main road into the mill. This road hits the ''19'' Road at the Del Bouvier place. For a shorter period of time I rolled on (rolled logs on carriage) and also operated the edger.’
LaBelle used a D-2 bulldozer to skid the logs from the landings to the mill. About 20,000 board feet were left at the landings. Joe and his crew had been paid only for those logs skidded to the mill. Several years later, Joe got some of these logs out, had them sawed into lumber, and built onto the garage at his Alexander home. (Until recently the home of Fred Wallace on the Airline.)
Boards at end of the Pokey mill. right: Irving McKeown handling boards at the mill.
Again we quote Gordon Lord. ‘It was perhaps 1949 when LaBelle moved his mill to Township 26. Again Lawrence, Dad and I built a hovel, and this time also a woods camp where we stayed the winter cutting logs to support the mi11.’ This cut was on what Leo ''Mutt'' Kneeland calls the Libby Burn. The sawdust pile can still be seen. Gordon continues, ‘The following spring or summer, the three of us stuck the lumber in the sticking fields.’
All the lumber that LaBelle sawed to this point went to the CITY LUMBER COMPANY. A man named Day from that outfit came to the mill occasionally to see Ernest LaBelle. Joe Hatt, Ed Harriman, and Russell LaBelle trucked the lumber to Woodland where it was loaded into box cars for shipment.
At about this time George Edgerly had a large crew cutting white pine for Lester Crane of Machias near Beaverdam Stream in Wesley. Local men who worked on this operation were Arthur Perkins, who drove a skid horse, Carroll McArthur, Harold and Wayne Dwelley, Pliney Frost, Bill Hatfield and Lawrence Frost.
These men stayed in a woods camp all week and went home on the weekends. Food was cooked for these men by George's wife, Doris (Dwelley) Edgerly. her mother, Fannie (Fenlason) Dwelley, and her sister-in-law, Viola (White) Dwelley.
After LaBelle had finished sawing the logs at Libby Burn, he moved the mill to Beaverdam and sawed for Crane. Several who worked there were Coolidge White, Douglas ''Dukie'' Hunnewell, Austin Frost, and Lawrence and Gordon Lord.
LaBelle moved from here around 1950 to Kakadjo, which is in Piscataquis County, east of Moosehead, which is in and on what is now called the Roach River.
An excellent book to help readers understand, and perhaps refresh memories, about woods operations which supplied logs to mills such as E. A. LaBelle's is ‘Suthin (it's the opposite of nothing).’ This was produced by Northeast Folklore in 1977, and is an oral history of an operation at Little Musquash Lake from 1945 to 1947. Little Musquash is on the CCC Road in Township 37 MD of Washington County.
Arthur Perkins, Pliney Frost, and Gordon and Lawrence Lord provided much of the information for this article. Arthur Perkins gave the photographs to A-CHS. The help of these four has made this article possible. Thank you! Reference is also made to History of the Maine Woods by Philip T. Coolidge.