Mill makes wooden boxes the old-fashioned way—by hand

With a quick pull of a wooden handle hanging from the ceiling, Harley Savage pressed the bottom of a round wooden box firmly into place at Frye’s Measure Mill using machinery more than twice his age.

Sure, the power source spinning the line shaft and pulleys required to operate the machine, known as “the elephant’s foot,” was electric, but the introduction of electricity to the 150-year-old mill is one of the few technological changes since the business first opened in 1858.

The Savages are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the mill this weekend. Tours continue today from noon to 5 p.m. Savage and his father, Harland Savage, demonstrate how they make their Colonial- and Quaker-style wooden boxes and measures using the same tools and machinery used before the advent of electricity.

“Everything’s still being done by hand,” said Savage. That’s because box makers have to look at the wood carefully during the process because each piece is unique, he said.

“Fortunately, the market isn’t big enough to have some huge corporations try to take over box making. If they did, it takes the human mind-hand connection out of the production. That’s really, really critical. Some huge production facility could never be able to input that at all.”

The business began in 1858 when Daniel Cragin rented a room at the Putnam Bobbin factory in order to make wooden toys and knife trays. In 1860 he bought a small building on the property, and later began making dry grain measures and his signature “piggin,” a type of wooden measure with a handle. He purchased the site after gaining national recognition for his work.

Dr. Edmund Bailey Frye purchased the mill in 1909 to start a business with his son, Whitney, and renamed it E.B. Frye & Son. The Frye family later added hydroelectric power and machines such as the elephant’s foot to the mill, which had been running solely on natural waterpower.

Whitney Frye took over the business when his father died, and Harland Savage began working for him in 1946 after serving in World War II. He learned to millwright from Frye, and purchased the mill in 1961. Savage is now 86 years old, and still makes boxes and holds demonstrations during tours.

“I’m enjoying it, always did,” Savage said smiling. “This is my 62nd year here. I’m just waiting for them to kick me out.”

Harley Savage also enjoys working at the mill. He began there 40 years ago, while still in high school. He and his wife, Pam, who is in charge of the business’ retail operations, now own the mill, which they got listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

“If you’ve been here any length of time, like I have, everything’s comfortable, everything’s like an old friend,” said Harley Savage. “It’s kind of weird I suppose, but you can feel connections through people and processes that happened before you.”

The majority of business comes from collectors and decorators, as the invention of plastic provided a more cost-effective way to produce measures. Harley Savage said the mill used to make boxes using wood from nearby lots controlled by the Frye family. The increases in demand for wood over the past few decades have forced the Savages to have wood delivered from a variety of locations outside the state, including the Midwest and Canada.

Frye’s Measure Mill is the only continuously operating water-powered measure mill in the country, although it’s currently running on electricity because beavers have clogged the turbine responsible for harnessing the flowing water that runs beneath the business.

The Savages have to wait until the river is naturally low enough for them to get inside the turbine and clear out the blockage.

The business is currently up for sale because of recent health issues for both the elder Savage and his son. Harley Savage said he hopes someone with a strong drive will take up the business and help it evolve further while continuing the tradition.

“Not only do I think it brings something to Wilton, but I think it brings something to the state of New Hampshire, as well as the country,” said Savage. “Anytime you end up being the last of anything, it would be a real shame to lose it. So we’re hoping we can find someone to come in and learn and take over and continue this for another 50 years, 100 years.

“It’s so important in a modern world today to be able to look and make a connection to how we got here. This is one piece of that, and it would be a shame to lose it.”