Vol. IX, No. 1, 1996


Traversing the Ozark Hills

by Nancy Averett



By the time they are teen-agers, almost every one in Reynolds County has first-hand knowledge of the timber industry. If they are middle-aged, they may have memories of carrying pine saplings across their shoulders to the family's pickup, to be sold later as fence posts. Or if they are younger, they may have spent long hours during the summer, sweltering in the back of their grandfather's single-blade sawmill.

Lela Blackwood, 40, a descendant of three generations of logging families, is no exception. At 8 on a brisk morning, she stands on tiptoe, her green eyes peering over the rump of a chestnut-colored mule. "Get up there, Red," she shouts, slapping the animal lightly with a pair of leather reins. The mule lurches up a steep hillside, and Blackwood follows, her sneakers slipping along the muddy slope. Halfway up, the pair passes a thick moss-covered oak log, and Blackwood pulls back hard on the reins. Deepening her normally soft, country twang, she calls out a prolonged Lone Ranger-like "Whoaaa."

Then, with coaxing commands and a series of tugs to the reins, Blackwood pivots the mule. When he is facing downhill, she drops the reins, unwinds a set of sharp tongs attached to the harness and fastens them to the butt of the log. "Get up there, Red," she bellows again. Shoulders straining, the mule scrambles onto a makeshift trail. He rushes down the hill, the log thumping along behind, while Blackwood picks her way down more carefully.

Both mule and driver belong to a three-person logging crew that is headed by Blackwood's brother, Eugene Amsden. Five days a week at 7 a.m., Blackwood follows a maze of lonely country roads from her home in Ellington to this clearing high in the Ozark hills. Here, for nearly 10 hours a day, her brother cuts trees and trims them into logs while she and a nephew work the mules.

Their methods are old-fashioned. Today better equipped crews use skidders," massive tractor-like vehicles that can drag four to five logs at a time. Amsden, 48, who has been logging since he was 12, used to work for a bigger company and drove one himself. But after a skidder accident left him blind in one eye and without a job, he was forced to start his own company. Unable to afford the $70,000 price tag on a new skidder or to hire an experienced crew, he invested in the mules and trained his sister and nephew.

Clad in blue jeans, an olive drab shirt and a "USS Missouri" cal---a souvenir from a friend who served in the Persian Gulf War--Amsden roams the hillsides. When he spots a tree that is roughly 14 inches in diameter, he yanks the cord on his chain saw and revs the engine. Standing uphill, he tilts the blade horizontally and digs it deep into the trunk. Sawdust billows out, coating his shaggy mustache and long sideburns. Squeezing his eyes into slits, he keeps the pressure on until the wood begins to groan, then steps back quickly. The tree slams into the ground with a tremendous crash, the sound of its popping limbs reverberating through the forest like firecrackers.

Photo courtesy of Else Hasch and Missouri Magazine

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Later, Amsden hikes down to his red 1973 Ford 2-ton log truck. With a cracked windshield and a missing headlight, the vehicle looks a bit decrepit. But Amsden says he has rebuilt the engine twice and expects it to keep running for years. In addition to the truck, he regularly fiddles with the chain saw's motor and repairs the mules' harnesses. "If you want to work in the logwoods, you have to be a jack-of-all trades," he says with a soft chuckle.

Setting down the saw, Amsden pulls a package of Swisher Sweet's cigarillos from his shirt pocket. With one dangling from his lower lip, he climbs up a metal gate on the left side of the truck bed. Throwing his weight backward, he pulls hard, and the gate swings down like a drawbridge, hitting the ground with a clang. Then, grabbing a wrench-like instrument, he hooks the nearest log and, with a grunt, rolls it onto the gate. When it is secure, he jerks a lever on the side of the cab, and the gate swings up like a jackknife, dumping the log into the truck bed.

For several hours, Amsden alternates between cutting and loading. By 2:30, with close to 40 logs in the truck, he climbs into the cab, ready to deliver a load to the sawmill. With the engine sputtering, the truck crawls down the valley along a rugged dirt road. Through the streaked windshield there is a view of the surrounding country-side--a patchwork of windswept fields filled with placid cows and tin-roofed barns.

Stretching back in his seat, Amsden rests one arm on the steering wheel and takes a long swallow from a can of Busch. His crew is slow, he says--they are lucky to bring in two loads a day compared to others' four or five. Still, he doesn't seem too concerned. "I don't get too excited about this work. It'll be here a long time after I'm gone," he says.

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