Local mill does things the old-fashioned way

Posted Wednesday, March 14, 2012 in Features

Local mill does things the old-fashioned way

Architect Frank Roberts, works with Allen to  select lumber for new beams for West Bath's one room schoolhouse restoration.

by Avery Hunt

BRUNSWICK -- Nowadays, we often lament that the wonderful “old” ways of doing things in Maine are being lost to technology; that many once-precious skills have disappeared.  Not so with Allen Higgins at Higmo’s Saw Mill  in Brunswick.  Higgins, along with his partner, Paula Hersom, and his sister, Marcia Lavigne, operates a vintage logging and saw mill operation on Old Bath Road.  I say vintage, because much of their machinery – from trucks to saw blades – has been lovingly restored or rebuilt.

They run this special milling operation in the old way, hand-feeding giant logs into a planer and then sawing them into board foot lumber. They also do their own logging and clearing, much of it from the Higgins family woodlot. A good deal of work is done manually, with the help of some big trucks, hauling winches and giant saws, many of them old and carefully restored and maintained.   

As kids, Allen and Marcia grew up on a working farm in West Bath, which had both a dairy herd and a logging operation.  Their older brother, Dan, worked for a logging contractor, and Marcia, as Allen’s big sister, wielded a chain saw “when I was just a little teeny kid”, she says today.  And Allen, even as a youngster, would often tag along with them in the logging truck.  “That’s what stuck in my mind- the smell of the woods and the smell of the logging trucks”, he told us.  “I guess that’s where my whole lumber bug came from.”  And, believe it or not, both Allen and Marcia still have all their fingers and toes.

Their dad, Ralph Higgins, had a sawmill back before Allen was born.  He bought a used mill and ran it for five or six years, until a gas leak caused the mill to burn to the ground.  He never rebuilt it. The dairy farming business fizzled in the 60’s and Ralph Higgins drove a truck to support his family.  In the early 70’s, when Allan was just a baby, a serious accident left his father paralyzed for half a year, from which he never fully recovered, so all the kids pitched in to help with the haying and logging and other farm chores. 

Years later, Allen and Marcia, who had been nurturing a dream to build their own milling operation, found an old sawmill in Gray through an ad, listed under “miscellaneous”.  The quirky ad appeared, wont’cha know, in Uncle Henry’s!  “So Pops and I hopped in the truck and went over to look at it.” 

Allen remembers that the equipment hadn’t been run for years and there were thick raspberry bushes growing up eight feet tall around the machinery.  “It was eerie.  All the guys’ gloves were still there, and the tape measures still laying around,  and the whole thing looked like they’d just shut it off yesterday.  Except for the cobwebs all over everything.  And those raspberries.”

The old saw ran off an ancient gasoline engine and Allen, ever resourceful, had brought a can of gas with him.  He filed the points with a little sandpaper, sparked the old thing up and ran the carriage back and forth.  Then he pushed a couple of boards through the saw and found that it was cutting with amazing accuracy.   

Allen and Ralph bought the whole rig on the spot and brought it all home on a flatbed, setting it up just where their father’s mill had been.  Getting the mill up and running took a lot of time and hard work. The three of them (Allen, Marcia and Paula, with some help from dad early on) roughed out the structure to build around the machinery, and then sawed 2-inch planks “… to build the floor up around ourselves, and eventually sawed our own timber to build up from there.”   

The Higmo crew: Allen Higgins (R) with Paula Hersom (L) and Marcia Lavigne.

That was in 2001.  They started the mill more as a hobby and “we used “Pop’s knowledge to learn the tricks about sawing, of which there are many!”   The floor to Higmo’s mill was barely finished (no roof yet!) when people began stopping in to ask for lumber – to build a shed or an ice fishing shack or to match 7/8" boards in an old house.  At first Allen and his “crew” used logs that they got from clearing house lots, sawing on weekends and continuing to build the mill structure when they had a spare hour of free time.

It wasn’t long before they realized they could make a living in this business,  and since then, there’s been no shortage of work.  Today Allen says they are sawing about 200,000 board feet a year, not to mention cutting and hauling raw logs. He is also managing the 70-odd acre family woodlot, using sustainable harvest techniques, which basically means growing more than you cut down.  Active in State forestry groups, he was recently honored as Maine’s “Outstanding Tree Farmer” for 2011.    

Higmo’s milled wood has been used by area boat builders, restoration architects, contractors, and in the “Maine’s first ship” replica. They also do local donation work.  The new joists in the recently restored historic Littlefield School in West Bath came from Higmo’s.  As did the huge hand sawn bench in front of the West Bath fire house that looks like it could seat Paul Bunyon!

As if all that isn’t enough to keep busy, Allen often takes off his hard hat and pursues his other passion: song writing. 

Higgins and his tools of the trade.

Although he has no formal musical training, he creates lyrics and music and plays the guitar.  In 2007, he formed a group called “Becoming August.”  So far, they have cut two CD’s, which have received positive reviews.  His lead singer,  Anna Libby, with a piercingly beautiful voice, is from Sabattus (her dad is also a forest products guy); his band is a pick-up of mostly local independent musicians.  And of course, Allen himself is lead guitarist.  These days, Anna is co-writing songs with him, while Paula, once again in the spirit of keeping most everything in the family, is his business manager.  The group plays to packed audiences at venues around Maine, including the Monsweag Inn in Woolwich.  You can check out Allen, Paula and Marsha’s accomplishments at Higmo’s excellent website:  www.higmo’s.com .   “You can say that Allen is either cutting wood or cutting records,” says Paula proudly.

To understand their quirky talents, you have only to read one of their original business cards, which says, in part:  “new & used logs and wood products – rough sawn & specialty lumber – lots cleared or selective cutting – ill machines diagnosed – rippin’ chainsawin’ – psychiatric sessions – free advice”   and in capital letters; “ALL WORK DONE WITH PAST TENSE TRUCKS, EQUIPMENT AND VALUES BY FARM KIDS”    And for kickers, the tagline at the bottom says “the only thing we don’t cut is our hair!”   That tag is now on their website too.

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