Sunday, December 21, 2008 3:16 AM EST
BY QUANNAH LEONARD REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
OXFORD Larry Dembek can remember as a boy pedaling his bike to Waterbury-Oxford Airport to watch someone running a sawmill.
Now he operates one himself.
Dembek, 45, is trying to preserve history through a hobby. He collects tools from the past, and has made a restored rotary sawmill a part of his array of historical items at Crosswinds Farm and Sawmill on Moose Hill Road.
"As far as I can remember, I've always been fascinated by sawmills," Dembek said. "It's something in your blood, I guess."
Dembek considers working the sawmill more of a hobby than a business. He bought the machine, which has cast-iron parts dating to 1874, last summer from Carleton Treat, 89, who restored the machine years ago. Dembek has been working it one piece at a time, updating older components to modern steel, which is more durable and can make a more precise cut.
He plans to keep the cast-iron parts.
In 1973, Treat, a World War II veteran, found the sawmill abandoned in a farmer's pasture lot near the airport. It had sat there for about 40 years, he said. Its wooden mainframe had deteriorated, with the metal parts bolted to it dropping to the ground.
Treat took about six months to restore the machine. The original sawmill was powered manually, said Treat, a machine designer who retired from Farrell Corporation in Ansonia.
When he restored the machine, he added power to it, with hydraulic, electrical and air pressure controls, he said. It's powered by a 671 Detroit Diesel engine.
"I had no problem with putting the machine together," Treat said.
For 30 years, he ran it, cutting lumber for people who would bring in logs for him to saw.
There are other sawmills in town. Don Rich has a circular sawmill at Ajello's Dairy Farm on Oxford Road, which he uses as a hobby and for friends. He bought his used in 1978, and it also dates back to the 1800s, he said.
Rich said he uses it to cut wood for trailer planking, sideboards for trucks and mantels for fireplaces. He also cuts wood for hay wagons and other structures on the farm.
"It has certainly paid for itself," Rich said.
After putting in a full day as an employee at the Public Works Department, Dembek drives to his home, where he operates the sawmill under a post-and-beam structure that he built earlier this year. He uses Treat's diesel engine to power the machine, and he explained that a rotary saw moves around an axle.
On Tuesday, Dembek wore scuffed work gloves and a black hat, while he cut wood. His dogs, an English springer spaniel named Boomer, and Tucker, a beagle, kept him company. Wood chips covered the ground near the machine.
His wife, Luci, uses the chips for bedding for her two horses.
Dembek and his wife have two daughters, Lacie, 15, and Abby, 10. He said he hopes someday to have a son-in-law who is interested in the sawmill so it can be kept for another 40 years and 50 years.
"I just want to try to keep the history alive as long as I'm alive," Dembek said.
On one end of the building, there was lumber that a customer will use for a restored barn. On the other side, 42 blocks of wood rose from the ground for someone to use to stabilize mobile office trailers. Dembek also has cut wood for a man from the shore who fashions crates to cart antique engines.
Antique hand saws and other cutting tools hang from one wall of the wooden structure. Dembek's collection spans from a skinny, flat saw that two men would use to cut large trees and a handle-like tool that was used to make a log square.
"I believe I was born 100 years too late," said Dembek.