The first sawmill in the Sherbrooke area was erected around 1809 by James Fisher, who came from Truro in 1805. In 1814, another sawmill and a grist mill were set up by David Archibald III, also from Truro, at the site of present-day Sherbrooke.
The year 1826 marked a unique development in Sherbrooke’s sawmill industry. William Thompson Archibald, son of David Archibald III, and Henry Cumminger entered into an agreement to erect a double mill at the southern end of the village, now part of the Sherbrooke Village restoration area. With this agreement, the Archibald mill was relocated to its new home and a second set of machinery was installed by Henry Cumminger. To supply power for the water wheels, they also dug a canal, which ran from Sherbrooke lake to St. Mary’s river and was approximately 260 metres long, 3 metres wide, and nearly 5 metres deep.
By 1856 ownership of the double mill was acquired by the McDonald Brothers. By 1900, however, the mill was abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin. For many years, nothing remained of this once active industry except the hand-dug race, which assumed the character of a natural outlet from Sherbrooke Lake.
In 1970, when restoration work commenced on a part of the village of Sherbrooke, transforming it into a typical 19th century Nova Scotia community, the decision was made to reconstruct a working replica of a water-powered, up-and-down sawmill on the site of the former McDonald Brothers’ mill.
The sawmill building is a two storey structure with hand-hewn post and beam construction and board and batten exterior cladding. The roof is covered with long board shingles with 40-centimetre exposure to the weather. The lower storey contains the belt and pulley gear for the mill, and provision is made for a shingle mill and other woodworking equipment. Upstairs is the log carriage and up-and-down saw with their simple but ingenious mechanisms.
The up-and-down sawmill is a mechanical application of its hand-powered predecessor, the pit saw. A crank driven by the waterwheel moves the saw frame and single saw blade in an up and down motion, cutting into the log on each downward stroke. The up-and-down motion of the saw is also used to move the log carriage forward by means of a system of levers and a ratchet. Several minutes are required for each cut through the length of an average log.
With a bountiful supply of water from a chain of five lakes, the reconstructed McDonald Brothers’ Sawmill is believed to be the only one of its kind in Nova Scotia capable of full waterpower production.