In Montpelier, we simply called it “The Lane Shops.” From its heyday as a major Vermont manufacturer, the Lane Manufacturing Company’s production capabilities dwindled to almost nothing after World War II. Generations of schoolchildren, along with the occasional automobile crossing the bridge over the North Branch, walked through its complex of buildings from “The Meadow” to Main Street School and occasionally found a factory door left open on rusty hinges. A hurried glance inside revealed the diminished glory of an idle factory with cast-iron machinery, wide leather belts and cogs and gears begrimed with decades of dust and grease. It had, at one time, been the largest commercial enterprise in Montpelier, a city that boasted insurance titans and a nationally known print shop. Dennis Lane, a sawmill operator from Barre, had located his business in Plainfield. By the 1850s, he began improvements to his machinery that would eventually revolutionize the world’s sawmills. As tinkering with his equipment required ever more space, in 1863 he brought his enterprise to Montpelier to a location on Elm Street known as Waterman Falls — an early location for some of the town’s first mills. One day he happened to show his inventions to Gen. Perley Pitkin, at that time chief quartermaster for the Army of the Potomac. Pitkin said nothing, but when he returned to the Army he told a friend that “he thought he had discovered the business that he should engage in ‘when this cruel war is over.’” At the cease of hostilities, Pitkin joined forces with Lane. Dorman Kent, longtime chronicler of Montpelier, remarked of this partnership, “Lane provided the genius and Pitkin supplied the capital.” James Brock, offering legal expertise, would soon join them in a firm that became known as Lane, Pitkin, and Brock. This consortium soon bought the land on which Lane’s workshop stood, thereby securing the important water rights that it controlled. By 1872, the company incorporated as the Lane Manufacturing Company with headquarters on Mechanic Street in Montpelier, an address they would claim for nearly 100 years. Lane had already patented his improved Lever Set Circular Saw Mill, which soon became the national standard for sawmills. His improvement facilitated cuts of a consistent thickness and a mechanical means for propelling a log through the innovative circular blade. A new “balloon framing” technique for building houses necessitated lumber of consistent and accurate dimensions and Lane’s mill fulfilled the necessary requirements. At that time, wrote the St. Albans Messenger, “they are making a large double mill, that is, a mill having two circular saws for Natchez, Mississippi; it will carry one 72 and one 40 inch saw and cut cypress logs 5 to 6 feet in diameter. One of the single mills can boast cutting over 4,000 feet of spruce boards in an hour.” The improved mill was essential for feeding the great appetite of America’s new industrial age. The great innovator of the firm was Dennis Lane. Born in Barre in 1818, he found himself in Plainfield some 40 years later operating a sawmill. He and his brother owned over 2,000 acres of forest land, and both operated saw- mills in an area along the Wells River Railroad line in Marshfield that became known as Lanesboro, named for the ambitious sawyers. It was said that he was a natural-born mechanic and, as a boy, whiled away hours fashioning waterwheels with a jackknife. A biographical sketch in the Gazetteer of Washington County (1889) paints an attractive portrait: “But he was not simply an inventor. He also had an acknowledged capacity for general business affairs, and had a mind of his own, which guided him in forming conclusions that were evidences of his good judgment. Mr. Lane was a silent, unassuming man, but a close thinker. He was independent in action, but very liberal in his treatment of those who differed with him in sentiment, either political or religious. He disliked ostentation, show, cant, and hypocrisy. His interest in the poor and pity for the unfortunate was proverbial. He not only said ‘be ye warmed, clothed, and fed,’ but in a substantial manner proved his sincerity, and was the author of many deeds of charity positively known only to himself.” Lane married Orleska Freeman in 1844 and soon became also known as a “kind, considerate, generous, and indulgent” husband and father. He had started manufacturing his patented design sawmills on his own in a small way, but when he joined forces with Pitkin, they found a hungry demand for their portable mills as the nation’s soldiers put down their arms in favor of industry. Brock, also a returning Civil War veteran, supplied additional capital and legal expertise. Soon, a profitable and innovative corporation was launched which would eventually inhabit over seven acres with 11 buildings. By the time of Dennis Lane’s death in 1888, Lane Manufacturing’s payroll numbered over 150 employees. The extensive complex of the Lane Manufacturing Company included a foundry, a forge and a machine shop. Later a pattern house, office and dwellings were added, including domiciles for workers. Today, most of the original structures remaining at the Mechanic Street location have been converted to condominiums and apartments. As might be expected from a boy who fashioned waterwheels with a jackknife, Lane’s mechanical expertise expanded to include water turbines, specifically “The Monitor” model, as well as planers, and clapboard and shingle mills. As the granite industry developed in both Barre and Montpelier, the Lane Manufacturing Company supplied traveling cranes, polishers and saws to the stone sheds of the burgeoning granite industry. In 1888, Lane died just as the company achieved its apex of corporate growth. His loss was mourned by all of Montpelier’s citizenry. The funeral was held at his family home on the corner of Elm and Vine streets near his factory. The Argus and Patriot noted that the parlor was elegantly appointed for the occasion: “The casket was a fine as money could buy, made of red cedar covered with black broad-cloth, heavily corded, and mounted with gold and silver ornaments, in which Masonic emblems were conspicuous. The interior of the casket was lined with the richest of cream-colored satin, and the body was dressed in a black suit. After the ceremonies at the house, Aurora Lodge of which some 50 members were present, took charge of the body, and the services of the tomb were according to the Masonic ritual.” Interment was at Green Mount Cemetery. Upon Lane’s demise, Pitkin and his three sons took over the daily operation of the company. Despite diversification into water turbines, woodworking and granite working machinery, the circular saw mill was its bread and butter. The mills were shipped to destinations as remote as a site in Peru, 4,000 miles up the Amazon River. The Bennington Banner wrote in 1891, “There is not in all New England a concern that approaches, in magnitude, the Lane Manufacturing Company. All of the principal buildings are brick, lighted throughout by electricity, and heated by steam, requiring about four miles of steam pipe. Power is furnished by water wheels, water motors and a 60 horse-power engine and boiler. The different departments of the works have been so admirably arranged with a view to convenience that there is no ‘false-motion’ and no unnecessary delays or time lost in construction, setting-up, or shipping. The manufacture of the iron work, commencing at one end, and the wood work at the other, gradually progress toward the center, where the saw mills and other machinery are completed ready for shipment. “The town generously agreed to close that part of Franklin Street which ran by the shops, the land then reverting to the company, and the company laid a street back of Franklin Street for the accommodation of the public. This enabled them to put up their additional buildings with a view to appearance and convenience, instead of stringing them along the banks of the river. “The Lane Circular Saw Mills are shipped to all parts of the civilized world. In the past year mills have been shipped to South America, Cuba, British America, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, England, Sweden, Alaska, the great North-west, and the Pacific coast.” Betsy Bouton’s “History of the Lane Manufacturing Company” (1978) noted that the largest models “helped clear the Michigan woods and the small portable ones were moved around the Vermont forests.” Many are still in use to this day. Bouton wrote that mismanagement by Pitkin’s three sons after his death in 1907 left the company vulnerable to the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Contracts for turning machine parts during World War II brought a fleeting renaissance but orders diminished after the war, forcing the company to close in 1961. For a time in the early 1970s the second floor of the pattern house was opened as a nightclub called “Blacky Stone’s Industrial Revolution.” A broadside advertising the bar purports that the name was derived from the tragedy of Blacky Stone, a night watchman at the Lane Shops, who hanged himself there in the early 1900s. In 1971 Denny Lane, great-grandson of the founder, bought part of the original property to manufacture replacement parts for Lane machinery. He continued in this enterprise until early 1977 when a fire destroyed his holdings at the Lane Shops. The Vermont Watchman Souvenir Edition (1893) enthused, “To Montpelier this splendid industry has been a source of activity and wealth. Its workmen are representative of the most skillful, intelligent and thrifty order of American artisans, and have not only enriched the town by their labors but benefited it in many other ways through a patriotic and serviceable citizenship.” That which is left of the once bustling industrial hub of Montpelier recalls the clamor of hammer and iron which once rang through a great Vermont factory. Thousands of Lane sawmills are still in use and the mechanized roar of their circular blades echo the tumult of manufacturing once heard on upper Elm Street in Vermont’s capital city. Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.

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