A sawmill is a facility where logs are cut into lumber. The first recorded sawmill dates back to the Roman empire around the third century, AD. It was a mill in Hierapolis, Asia Minor, which is now modern-day Turkey. It ran by water-power and was used to cut stone. As years progressed, sawmills have been powered by wood, windmills, steam, gasoline and electricity at larger commercial mills.
Dennis Roberts, a Nelson County native, has been a sawmill man, or “sawyer,” for most of his life. Growing up in close proximity to Crabtree Falls, Dennis and his brother, Steve, started out operating a Frick sawmill at their grandparents’ home where they grew up. The family later moved to Three Springs, a home built by Patrick Cabell Massie in 1854, located on Route 56 on the outskirts of Tyro. When they moved to Three Springs, the brothers relocated the mill and upgraded to a different brand of saw. The mill still has the Meadows 48” circular saw that the brothers started out with in the early 1970s. The framework on the mill, which was purchased from Fulton Fitzgerald, had deteriorated, so it was replaced with a metal frame set on a concrete slab in the new location. Dennis keeps the old machine well-oiled and maintained so it saws just as well as it did when they first bought it. Years later, Steve left the sawmill trade and became instrumental in the restoration and operation of historic Woodson’s Mill in Lowesville, the only water-powered grist mill still operating in Virginia.
Dennis married his wife Beverly in 1984 and the couple have two sons; Houston and Hampton, who grew up around the sawmill and are employed in its operation. Asked when they started out working with their father, both laughed and said, “We’ve been here since we were kids, catching boards off the sawmill.”
Today, the Roberts and Sons Sawmill is the “go-to” place for anyone wishing to have custom lumber milled. In addition to custom sawing, the men cut cords of firewood and small bundles of camping firewood. When asked the mill’s actual location, Houston volunteered it was in the “Tri-State Area” of Tyro, Roseland and Massies Mill! Houston initially worked six years for the U. S. Forest Service as a forest warden in three counties, but in 2014 he gave up the badge and uniform and came to work full time with his dad. He and his wife live in a log cabin behind the sawmill that Dennis and Steve built in the early 1970s. Hampton builds houses for a living, but continues to be the “mill engineer” and does the maintenance on the machinery and helps out with anything when they need him. He lives in a cabin close to his parents, home on the North Fork. The boys dubbed their father “Head of Operations” at the sawmill and it’s clear the three get along famously. The Roberts also rely on Andy Johnson, who works alongside them and helps keep things running smoothly at Roberts and Sons.
In addition to the large circular saw, the mill also has three molder/planer machines that are capable of making eight-inch tongue and groove siding as well as intricate molding for both interior and exterior work. The first planer, which is kept outdoors under a covered roof, was manufactured before 1925 and is still used regularly. Another smaller mill about the same vintage is kept in a large inside room and can cut up to 24” tongue and groove siding on one side before having to be flipped to cut the opposite side. The Roberts bought a new German-made planer mill in 1990 that does the same job but can cut both sides at once, which is a real time saver. Dennis said that even though there is a difference of one hundred years between the machines, the basic parts still do the same job. “The set, the hand-crank, the guards, and the concept is the same.” Houston was quick to add, “But a lot safer!” The week we visited the mill they had turned out 3,500 feet of cedar tongue and groove paneling so the sawmill is still a viable part of the business. Hampton explained that people want cedar paneling in clothes closets to repel insects, in bathrooms because it is moisture and rot resistant, and just because it’s a beautiful wood.
Although the men still do a fair amount of custom sawing, their main business is cutting and delivering firewood around the area. Dennis designed and built a kiln out of a long refrigerator trailer from a tractor-trailer and installed a heat system to dry firewood on a big scale. Five metal bins that hold one cord of wood each are loaded into the kiln and in four days, the wood is totally dry. The internal temperature inside the kiln can reach upwards to 142 degrees when fully involved. Green wood with an 85% moisture content is reduced to 25% when fully dried. This past winter, most of the dry firewood was delivered, unloaded and stacked at the condos at Wintergreen Ski Resort. To give an idea of how much firewood is involved, Dennis said they sold around 500 cords to Wintergreen alone. In addition, they bundle one cubic foot of firewood with a bit of small kindling and shrink-wrap the bundles, complete with a carrying handle, and sell them to campgrounds and country stores. In each bundle, Houston inserts a paper that says, Houston Roberts Firewood, “The perfect fire in every bundle” with the motto: “I understand that some of life’s greatest moments often begin gathered around a campfire.” It’s a nostalgic way of selling a product to those who enjoy the comforting warmth of an open fire. Houston said if his calculations were correct, they went through an impressive 20,000 bundles last year!
The newest machine the Roberts purchased is called a wood processor. Watching a demonstration, it’s plain to see how much time can be shaved off by using it to cut and split firewood. Large logs are picked up by a knuckle boom and loaded onto a metal landing where they are pushed forward and 15-16” pieces are cut off by a large saw. The cut round is then rammed into a wedge that splits the round into four pieces and from there the pieces travel up a conveyor and drop into a waiting bin. Dennis said with the processor, one bin can be filled in an hour. Other equipment at the mill includes a large John Deere tractor with a bucket, a knuckle boom, and a forklift. By-products like sawdust and cedar shavings are also sold locally.
As our visit to the Roberts and Sons Sawmill came to a close, my husband and I were both struck by how well the men work together and how respectful their conversation is toward each other. Dennis clearly loves what he does and has imparted his knowledge to his sons, who continue to value the traditions of their mountain heritage. Dennis will celebrate his 72nd birthday this August and he remains a talented, active man who says, “Life is busy and I have no intention of backing off.