A fate unknown for Leverett’s historic Slarrow Sawmill

  • Slarrow Mill on the Sawmill River just west of Cave Hill Road in North Leverett. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The interior of the Slarrow Mill on the Sawmill River, near the corner of North Leverett and Cave Hill roads in North Leverett. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Machinery inside Slarrow Mill on the Sawmill River in North Leverett. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sign inside the Slarrow Mill in North Leverett. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Slarrow Mill on the Sawmill River in North Leverett as seen from the Cave Hill Road bridge. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Monday, January 03, 2022

LEVERETT — At the foot of Cave Hill Road along the Sawmill River in North Leverett center stands a building where timber was first cut before the American Revolution and where the saw carriage handled 42-foot logs used to make ship keels during World War II.

Despite the extensive history of the Slarrow Sawmill, last operating in the late 1990s and restored following a collapsed roof in 2003, its immediate future has been cast into uncertainty after the Select Board indicated to private owners, the Kirley family, that it would not be accepting the building, the 2-acre property, and the dam, as a gift at this time. Board members said they would be leaving the matter up to Town Meeting to decide.

The decision against receiving the property came despite a positive recommendation of an ad hoc committee set up by the Select Board to study the topic, after a potential sale of the building to an historic preservationist last spring fell through.

“It is a beloved site,” says Richard Nathhorst, who chaired the ad hoc committee and is aware that photographers enjoy taking pictures of the sawmill from the nearby bridge. “Everybody finds it aesthetically pleasing, and it is of significant historic value to the town.”

Susan Marenek, chairwoman of the town’s Historical Commission, said the challenge of restoring the sawmill is one that many communities are facing.

“The reality is to adaptively reuse these old properties, and to try to keep them from falling into ruin, is a complex question for all towns,” Marenek said.

The past year has given her reason to be hopeful, however.

“One of the things I’ve appreciated about the process is we are talking to each other to find a solution,” Marenek said. “That’s really positive, even though we haven’t found a solution yet.”

Lance Kirley of Florence, who has been the point person for the Kirley family, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. In a 90-minute Zoom forum in October, though, he expressed hope that the Select Board would act.

“As a family, we had hoped the donation and acceptance would happen in a timely manner,” he said.

That forum was one of a series of programs organized by the Historical Commission, both in person and via Zoom, to educate the community about the historical landscapes. The North Leverett mill was the last of 15 functioning mills that once were along the three-mile stretch of the Sawmill River between Lake Wyola and the Connecticut River. Those in Leverett are either gone or have been turned into private homes.

Nathhorst said none of the equipment inside the Slarrow Sawmill is functioning and mechanically the water-powered turbine is not going to work again. But the building isn’t in jeopardy. “Structurally, it’s quite sound, and it’s in reasonable decent condition,” Nathhorst said.

The dam’s stone structure is about 200 years old, but isn’t in imminent danger of collapse, he said.

Community Preservation Act funds were directed toward the building after the roof fell in under the weight of snow. This has obligated the owners to maintain the mill’s historic character. “It has to continue to the future as an historic sawmill site,” Marenek said.

Amy Boyce of Husk Preservation Inc. in Scituate, after 18 months of study, determined that the costs would be too high for her, likely at least $230,000 for preliminary repairs.

“The sum for repairs + design + permitting and professional services for wading through the environmental hurdles far exceeds what I could manage financially,” Boyce wrote in an email.

Some people have bandied about ideas that the property could become a home or restaurant or other business, but with no potable water on site and no septic system, those options are not feasible. “Candidly, the only use I could personally see is as a living history museum,” Nathhorst said.

There is also concern about liability and how to establish an enterprise fund or other means of making the property produce income to offset costs, were it to become an industrial heritage site. Nathhorst said he could see setting up an enterprise zone to provide liability and fiscal separation for a nonprofit private foundation to undertake such work.

Another possibility is for a micro hydropower or solar project. Nathhorst said that officials have been consulting with New England Hydropower to assess the feasibility of an Archimedes screw hydroelectric generator at the mill dam, which could make some power, perhaps as a 40 kilowatt, 3 phase generator. Photovoltaics could go on the roof.

Marenek notes that the sawmill could be a centerpiece of an historic trail that would take people to the foundations of other mills along the Sawmill River.

“All of that is going to take time, and the town just doesn’t know what to do in the interim,” Marenek said.

Nathhorst said he remains optimistic.

“It could be made into something really nice, a keystone for programs along the Sawmill River,” Nathhorst said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.