Volume V, No. 3, Spring 1978
Story and drawings by Melinda Stewart
As we drove up Tom Price, a lively man of sixty-seven, took one look at us and then pretended to run off through a field. "Did you see me while ago?" he joked. "I said, 'Oh there's three women, time to go!" I hadn't thought that girls would be interested in learning how to make ties." We laughed about this as we got acquainted. Then we started talking about ties.
Tom started making ties before he was ten years old by helping his father cut down trees with a crosscut saw. He got his first broadax when he was seventeen and still has the handle he made for it, over forty years ago. Making ties provided a source of income for him and many others in the forest areas of the Ozarks during the depression. "I had to support a family, and the snow didn't get too deep to go cut those ties."
In the thirties and forties Tom sold ties of different kinds of wood. "Red oak, post oak and white oak was among the highest. Years ago they did buy walnut. I've made red elm ties but not very many of them. I've seen lots made out of pine but they'd have to ship them in." Pine is a soft wood which doesn't last as long as hard wood such as oak. Tom never made any out of pine since it didn't grow in his area.
The essential tool in making ties is the ax, both the regular chopping ax and the broadax. Since the broadax is designed for slicing and trimming, its head is designed differently from the chopping ax. Besides being twice as heavy and much broader, it is shaped differently. The side next to the tie as it is trimmed is flat, enabling the worker to cut thin shavings to get a straighter, smoother edge. Tom and others would use the sledgehammer to shape the blade still further to get feather-edge shavings. Because of the flat cutting side, special handles had to be made for left handed people.
The blades of both axes must be kept sharp and used with care. Tom hasn't cut himself with one yet, but "I've chopped my shoes," he said. "That was close enough."
Years ago when he was making ties regularly Tom could make one in about an hour if he had good timber without any knots. He usually averaged five or six a day. Tom remembered, "I didn't always own a farm and I had to buy timber. I had to pay fifteen cents a tie and that timber might not be very good. If the timber was too big and too rough you'd be lucky if you made twenty in a week. But I've seen some guys that could make twenty in a day. Years ago my father-in-law said he might get three or four out of one tree. Timber isn't as good now, but nobody makes ties by hand anymore. They probably wouldn't buy them if you hauled them up to them. They saw them out at a sawmill where they are cut straight. You can get six or seven dollars for them now." The prices certainly have changed since 1930 when, delivered, the most Tom got was forty-five cents each.
To make ties find the correct kind of tree. The log should be at least six inches in diameter, not counting the bark, and at least eight feet long. Tom used t cut the trees down with a two man crosscut saw. If the tree was tall enough to cut out more than one tie, it saved him time and labor. He dragged or hauled the logs to the work lot by mules or a truck. There they were set off the ground on wood blocks or split logs to be sawed in lengths and trimmed. The timber should still be green since seasoned wood, especially oak, is very hard to work with.
To trim, first make a guideline on the log to trim by. Measure off how wide you want the tie and with the broadax mark all the way down the log. Make sure it is straight.
Next, standing on the log, cut with the chopping ax about four notches eighteen inches apart down the side of the log you plan to trim. These notches should be cut to a depth of about one-half inch from the guideline. They help in splitting out the wood.
When the notches are cut, split out the rest of the bark and wood between these notches, leaving a rough surface. Smooth all of this side as much as possible with the chopping ax.
To finish, smooth the sides with the broadax. Stand at the side of the log and shave and trim the whole length of the tie. The chips ought to have a feather edge as you hew them off.
Follow the same instructions for the other three sides, turning the log over when necessary.
Railroads have all of their ties treated to make them last longer. The ties are put in a vat of creosote and heated so that the pressure forces the solution into the wood. Treated ties last about twenty years.
In the old days people used a team of horses to. haul the ties to the market, but later, if they could get hold of an old truck, they could haul fifteen or twenty ties at a time. "When I'd go to the tie yard at the railroad, sometimes I'd sit there for two or three hours waiting to get unloaded," Tom recalled.
A tie weighs about 300 pounds. Working alone Tom used to lift one upon his shoulder and walk with it, but at the railroad usually two men would raise one to the shoulder of a man who would walk with it to the railroad car. "Once there," Tom said, "two or three men would give it a shove and just throw it in."
Another means of transporting the ties to market was floating them down the river. Men who cut ties near a river in the '20's like Tom's father-in-law, Joe Barnes, sometimes floated them to the railroad. He cut the ties in the winter and floated them to market in the summer. Usually, though, different men were hired to make the trip. Joe Barnes floated ties down the Niangua River to the Osage River and then on down to old Bagnell where he loaded them on box cars and flat cars at the railroad.
"They'd haul them ties to the steep hills above the river, and then turn them loose so they'd slide on down to the river," Tom said. "You can yet see places on the bluffs on the Niangua that the trees are gone where they had a slide. Those ties going down would knock everything out of the ground.
"When the ties got to the river and they had enough to form a raft, the men would cut poles ten, twelve, fifteen foot long to nail across each end. They'd be in water up to their arms just floating the ties around. The rafts would be three tier wide--three ties wide. The men rode on the rafts and guided them with long poles around the bends and through the riffles. Sometimes there would be a swift place or there'd be a solid bluff and a lot of the rafts would run into them and tear up. Then the men would have to go along there and gather up the pieces and build it back up again.
"The men would bring clothes and camping stuff. And when night came they'd just float that raft of ties into an eddy. They had ropes and would tie up to the trees along the bank. The next morning they'd get up and take off again."
It took three or four men to make this trip. They would take a load down, receiving fifty cents to a dollar a day. The trip took about a week depending on how high the water Was and how fast the current was. When the ties were delivered, they often walked back. As Tom puts it, "Those were the good old days!"
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.