Volume IX, No. 3, Spring 1982



by Dwayne Sherrer

Photos by Allen Gage, Dwayne Sherrer, Chris Cotrel, and James Heck

[Title Photo]

The day of the sawmill man begins with the whine of a crosscut saw and the sound of an ax chopping, followed by a tree crashing to the ground. The smell of fresh chopped oak is still in the air as he and his helper each grab an ax and quickly trim excess limbs from the tree and form it into sawable logs. After they accumulate enough logs on their homemade wooden sled to keep them sawing for a time, they cluck to the horses and head them for the mill.

Back at the mill one man rolls the first log on the saw carriage and dogs it down while the other fills the steam engine with enough wood and water to keep it going.

As the engine gathers steam and its smell fills the air, the belt from the engine powers the mechanism that moves the carriage, pulling the log slowly through the rotating saw, screaming and whining as it throws out chunks of wood and sawdust. The smell of green oak being sawed blends with the smell of steam and wood smoke.

This scene was an everyday occurence for some hard working men in the Ozarks fifty or so years ago when man power and steam did the work, but the task of sawing logs into building lumber did not begin with steam. The job was done from the arrival of the first settlers in the early 1800s, though methods and power used has changed over the years.

The first crude sawmills appeared in America around the mid 1600s. The logs were sawed by hand over a pit or a deep hole dug in the ground so that a man could stand in it. A log was placed across the top of the pit. One man stood above holding one end of the saw as they rip-sawed the log. Instead of digging a pit, some put the log on a raised frame on which the high man worked. These were the earliest sawmills in the Ozark area.

The greatest advancement in sawing logs into boards was the invention of the circular saw in Holland in the seventeenth century. To use the circular saw, a log fastened on a movable carriage was pulled through the rotating blade to saw out the boards. This saw blade, with modifications and improvements, is still used today. What has changed over the years has been the source of power which turned the saw.

The first source of power was water power. In the Ozarks it was not difficult to throw a log dam across the streams or divert some of the water into a flume to power the saws. Because of the plentiful streams in the wooded area and the simple economics of water power, water-powered mills were still being used profitably at some places such as Orla Mill and Alley Spring Mill less than one hundred years ago.

Around 1830 when the steam engine was brought into use, the sawmill business began to expand immensely. Mills could be located anyplace, not being dependent on Water source and rainfall. Later traction steam engines made it possible to move the mills from farm to farm to the source of the timber. In the Ozarks both water-powered mills and steam mills operated, until the advent of the smaller, more mobile, gasoline combustion engines outmoded them. Eventually the many, small, gasoline-powered mills in turn were replaced with a few big mills run by diesel and electric power. Then the era of water and steam power disappeared except for a few sawyers who continued the old way as a hobby or novelty, like Oral Renner whose family tradition for several generations has been sawmilling.

Oral Renner, a retired sawmill man from Lebanon, has built and still uses his own steam-powered mill. The logs he saws on this mill do not build houses or barns like the thousands of logs he has sawed in the past, but they supply the cedar and various types of lumber he uses for his hobby of making picture frames.

Oral has always loved the sawmill business and working in lumber, but a few years ago his doctor told him he had to quit sawing because of a heart condition. If he couldn't saw large logs for houses and other use, he decided he would saw smaller logs on his smaller mill.


"The first people in here just used broad axes," he said. "There wasn't very many sawmills in this country and my grandpa got one. That was probably one of the only ones there was in this country. That was before my time way back when my dad was a kid. He bought the mill down here at Orla. It was run with that water mill down there--powered it from water. My family has been in the sawmill business about I'd say a hundred years or over. My grandpa had a sawmill, my dad had one and I owned a sawmill.

"When I first set up and started sawing it was over by Morgan and down around Pease Mill. That was after I come home from the service about 1947. I had a portable sawmill and I would just go from place to place and saw and then I finally wound up here a-sawing.

"Me and my brother bought that first mill and I think we paid a thousand dollars for it. A new mill now would cost at least five or six thousand, just the mill alone, no power units or nothing. I'd say this outfit I got over here now would cost you fifteen thousand. The power unit alone would cost you eight or nine thousand."

Denver Sullens of Richland recalls some of his early experiences in the sawmill business. "When I was about twelve years old I started working in a sawmill. I went to the western country and worked in the timber out there for about sixteen or seventeen years. Then I came back home in 1957 and started this mill. I had a little one ton, dual wheel truck and two hundred, eighty-one dollars in my pocket. I'll tell you there was only one way to go, up, and that was just a whole lot of hard work and an awful lot of honesty to put it where it's at. I bought the first mill from Walter Atkins from Springfield, and I give eight hundred dollars for it, paid him the two hundred, eighty-one. We had quite a time Walter and I did over that 'cause it was kind of slow getting those payments which I think was thirty dollars a month. Well, Walter he come to get it a time or two, and I wouldn't let him have it. Oh, I don't know, it took a lot of grit but I'm still here.

"I've had the mill twenty-three years and I had it maybe a year and a half over at Stoutland on Sugar Hill and then I moved it over here.

"From the first time I set the sawmill up through the next fifteen years it didn't change like it has the last ten. In the last well, four or five years lumber has way more than doubled. But I would say from the time I set it up in fifty-seven, the first fifteen years timber prices were about the same, lumber prices were about the same. Gas was fourteen and a half cents a gallon. I believe when I first started out Cecil Peppers was the closest mill around and I guess it still is.

"I pulled my first mill with an F-20 Farmall tractor, an antique for sure. That old tractor did the logging. I'd take this tractor to the woods, and I'd have a sled behind me. I'd cut my logs and roll them on my sled, and then I would drag them to the mill that-a-way. Then I would get me a pile of logs like five or six hundred feet, which didn't take very many logs. Oh, I'd make maybe twenty logs, about four trips a day. I would take the tractor loose from the sled and pull it around and hook it up to the belt and saw lumber. I'd haul for two days and then I'd saw three days on the mill. For twenty years I kept it open six days a week, sixteen hours a day, and no vacation and no time off.

"My family has been in the sawmill business about a hundred years," said Oral Renner.


"There's been a lot of changes. When I first started one half an acre would have covered the whole mill site, now it's about thirty acres in all. My first mill cost eight hundred dollars, then twelve hundred dollars, and this one bought last year cost one hundred thousand dollars. I've had the office built about nine years, but before that when I sold a board I would set down on a log or a lumber pile and figure the lumber. I like it this way better. Quite an improvement.

"Well, it's nice to talk about the good old days but I don't want to go back. I've spent so many days down inside that building right there turning logs by hand, I don't think I want to do it again. I don't even think I could do it again. I would rather step on a button and let it turn itself."

Cecil Peppers of Lebanon has been around sawmills his whole life and, like Oral Renner, comes from a sawmilling family. He remembered the steam-powered sawmill from when he was a boy. "I've got two steam tractors that they used to saw with. I've got one in the shed that they had on my dad's place when I was a kid. I thought it was a monsterous big thing and I finally went down there and bought the old engine.

"It gets in your blood that sawmilling does," said Denver Sullens. "I started when I was twelve years old."

Pit saws were among the first form of sawmills in the country. Below is a two-man saw.

Cecil Peppers said, "When I started we had one truck. We logged on it, hauled on it and drove it to church on Sunday."


"Dad started back in thirty-seven. He ran his mill then off of a car motor. That's all they used then was an old car motor or farm tractor. I started myself :in the sawmill business in 1947 at Eldridge. My first mill cost me three hundred dollars. My mill now is worth about one hundred and fifty thousand. That edger there cost more than everything I bought to start with, truck, sawmill and all. It cost twelve hundred dollars and probably everything I bought to start with cost about eight hundred.

"When I started we had one truck--we logged on it, hauled off the lumber on it, and drove it to church on Sunday and all. We used to have a portable mill, and we'd move it into the timber and saw out a patch and then move somewhere else. There wasn't much road. The truck wasn't no good. It was hard to move the stuff, but the farmers would just pile up a bunch of logs and when they got ready to build a barn or something, somebody would move a mill down there and saw it for them. Sometimes we would pay for a patch of logs, but a lot of the time we would saw it for half of the lumber. But times have changed, now. It's about all different. It's all automatic now where they used to do it all by hand."

These three men have watched many changes come about in the sawmill business. They have seen changes in the way the lumber is cut, hauled, sawed and used. But one thing that has remained relatively the same in the Ozarks is the main type of timber that is cut. Oak has always been the main type of wood used. However other kinds are sawed when there is a demand. Denver said, "Just like we've built the mill, we've built the market to meet the demands for different types of wood like walnut, maple, sycamore and hickory. The hickory is used for water skies and stuff like that. The hickory was also used for bull rake teeth."

Though now a lot of millers buy their logs from individual loggers, sawmillers used to cut their own logs. Denver said, "We cut our logs on the local farms around in the area. If I needed a patch of timber, I would go out and look for it and buy it, but I would say probably seventy-five per cent of the timber I've bought from that time to this, is from people coming to me wanting to sell it. Back then I'd just take my old sled out on the farm, get four or five little logs on there and take out a quarter of a mile to the sawmill. Doing it that-a-way you couldn't log very far from home, and we couldn't handle very big logs, either. We would cut fifteen or sixteen inch logs, but when you'd get up into logs like thirty-two, thirty-three inches, it was just impossible. You can imagine rolling that with a cant hook. There just ain't no way. Now we got a loader on the truck. You can just swing that loader around, pick up the log and set it right down on the truck."

Before the days of the winch truck, Cecil used a flat bed truck. "We rolled the logs up on there with skids and hooks," he said. "Some guys even used horses. They'd wrap a rope around the log and put a horse on the other side and roll it up with a horse."

Denver buys most of his logs now from loggers. "Just last year from November to November, I bought in the neighborhood of two million dollars worth of walnut, paid out here on the yard. Them logs will run from ten dollars to three hundred dollars a piece. Now a log with the "P," which means prime, on it will more than likely go to Japan and be peeled as veneer."

There is some danger in buying bad logs, but Cecil explained, "You can tell a lot by looking. If the ends of them look pretty good, they're likely to be good. You're going to have a certain amount of waste. They nearly all got some bad in them. There is a rule that tells you how many feet is in a log. You just scale the logs up and pay for them. You take a chance on sawing them, for you can saw into a nail, wire, horseshoe, gate hinges--sometimes it will ruin your saw."

Oral preferred it when the sawyer and logger were in together. He said, "When I quit sawing logs myself and started buying them, they was five cents a foot. The loggers were making pretty good money when they was getting eight and ten cents a foot for the logs they hauled in and dropped on the yard. Some of them loggers can bring in two thousand feet of logs on one load. But I can remember when we didn't buy logs. I've sawed down a lot of logs with one of them old crosscut saws. You know the kind. One guy here and one over there trying to take it away from each other. I think most logs my dad cut he cut with a crosscut and skidded them in with horses.


"Just last year from November to November, I bought two million dollars worth of walnut logs. Them logs will run from ten dollars to one hundred dollars apiece," said Denver. Above--A shipment of logs is ready to be sawed at Sullens Lumber Company.

When the steam engine was still in use, preparing for the day's work was a job in itself. Right--Power belt being hooked up to steam engine.

"But now that we buy our logs, this log scale is about all a sawmill man needs to get logs. Lay that across the diameter and get your length and the log scale will tell you the board feet. Say you have a twelve inch log eight feet long and forty-two inches around it. That will make thirty-two feet of lumber when I can take it down to the mill and saw it up.

"I tell you when I was buying logs I tried to keep people happy. I gave them guys a good scale. I didn't have no trouble with them, made them all happy. I knowed my logs, I knowed if they would saw out."

After the logs are hauled to the mill they are stacked until it is time for them to be sawed.

Although many sources of power have been used through the years to operate a sawmill, steam power was still widely used in the area in the 1930s. The later steam engines had traction engines which could move the mill around relatively easily. But Cecil recalled his father's engine wasn't traction. "You would put in your fire and your water, and all it done was it turned the wheel with a belt on it. They moved the engine around, though. They could pull it with two horses if there wasn't too bad a hill. When they went down a hill to keep the engine from running over the horses, they would tie a log chain around one wheel and drag it. That would lock that one wheel up. We had two big old gray horses--I can just remember it--and they had to out-run it going down a hill. That engine broke down forty years ago.

"Now where we saw fifteen hundred feet a day, they were sawing a thousand feet in those days and they put in about fifteen hours. They never quit work until it got dark. They ran the mill with two people. One person sawed and one guy would catch the lumber off of the back of the mill and throw wood in the engine to keep it burning. They usually set it up at a pond, or creek where they had water. The engine's got a little pump on it, and they put a hose out in the pond and it sucked water out of it. But when they didn't have water they hauled water in barrels. They used quite a bit of water.


"Hey, y'all want to hear the whistle? By cracky, she's loud. Whoooo! You think that will lift your ears a little. You can hear that a long ways, a couple of miles, maybe two or three."

"The horsepower is seven and one half. Your car engine is two hundred horsepower but the steam engine will pull as much as a car engine. They're rated different. They have a pulley run off of the cylinder and on a car you run a shaft out of the transmission and put a pulley on it."

The switch from steam to the gasoline engine came about for a lot of Ozark sawmillers in the latter 1930s. Oral recalled, "My dad switched about thirty-eight or thirty-nine. He wouldn't have ever switched but with better roads and more cars, the old steam engine would get in the way on paved roads or black top. They weren't mounted on rubber. Most of them was on steel."

Operating the steam engines was very economical, using only a little steam cylinder oil, an oil that will mix with water. Oral said, "As high as diesel and gas prices are getting they could go back to steam. The engines would have their fuel from the slabs and their water wouldn't be no problem. They're making their fuel right off of their saw. There wouldn't be much cost to it just to hire a man to take care of the engine.

Denver began his mill with a thirty-eight horsepower tractor motor. He said, "It brought in all the logs. Then we hooked the belt up to it and sawed lumber. It did the whole job." His mill now is run off of a 165 horsepower diesel engine.

Cecil's first mill was powered with an old car motor. His mill now is run on a hundred horsepower electric motor.

But whatever the power, the engine's purpose is to turn the saw blade. "It takes about the best steel available to make a saw blade," Cecil said. "The first blade I bought cost one hundred, fifty dollars. That one down there cost me eleven hundred dollars, the blade itself. We used to sharpen maybe six times. Then we sharpened it with an eight inch file. Today all we do is fasten the electric saw grinder on it, just turn it on, and it does it all more or less automatic."

Logs and equipment no matter whether simple or complicated do not by themselves saw out boards. It takes a sawyer. What does it take to be a good sawyer? "Well, a lot of practice for one thing," said Cecil. "Really you need a younger guy to saw--that's fast work. There's a lot of things going on there. You got to figure out as that saw goes through what you're going to do when it comes back and do it. Don't set there for five minutes and study about it. A good fast sawyer now will never stop that saw carriage. Really you don't hardly have to stop to put a log on anymore if you know what you're doing, but you could turn a log wrong a lot of times and lose half of what's in it just by having it on the carriage wrong."


Oral added, "A man that can keep :a-sawing and keep that carriage a-moving is worth some money. If you can get a-hold of a man that can operate a mill like that you've got to pay him pretty good money to keep him."

There are obviously dangers in operating a sawmill. Denver said, "In the older days it was all dangerous, but I still can't see that it's as bad as driving down the highway. The operator is there and what happens depends on what he does. You drive down the highway and that other guy over there coming off the hill, that's the one you have to worry about."

"You work around a mill awhile, you get careless," Cecil said. "You get to where you don't pay no attention to what you're doing. It's like driving your car. You get to where you don't pay no attention. My sawyer once was planing lumber and a wasp came by. He swatted at it and put his hand in that planer and it cut off two fingers. I've never had anything more serious than that happen."

In the earlier mills and still some today a very important tool in the sawmill business has been the cant hook. The cant hook was used to roll logs onto the saw carriage and turn them to saw different sides of the log. But modern mills have just about done away with the cant hook. Mills today load the log on the carriage and automatically turn the log by the push of a button.

Before automation Denver used to run his mill with two people. "Now counting log crew, yard crew and all, I have about forty people," he said. "We used to have to roll the logs up a little ramp and then on over. That's one of the reasons we only cut five or six hundred feet a day. We didn't have a roof over our head like we do now. We stood right out in the snow and the sun and the rain or whatever. The mill had a carriage but was just a little two head block, eight-foot-long sawmill carriage. You rolled the log up on it, turned it by hand, sawed a slab off and then you turned the log half over, by hand, and saw another slab, then turn it down flat and take another slab, then you could start getting lumber."

The sawyer determined the width of the boards by a measurement on the head block that had inch measurements on it like a ruler. Denver explained, "There was a little bolt that stuck out and bent down on that rule, and when you pulled the stick, you could tell how far you pulled it. That told you how many inches you were cutting the board. I've cut many a board and never looked at the dial and cut them just exact--just reach over and get the stick and look the other way. Just know how far to pull it and let it go. Kind of like a fish, you know. When he bites you know when to jerk."

Today this is all done automatically, Cecil explained, "We have a chain deck that brings the logs into the mill where we used to roll them in by hand, and the lumber is cut up automatic where we used to cut it by hand. We used to use cant hooks, well we still do some, but logs are turned now with an automatic turner and the whole saw carriage is all automatic. Now all you have to pull is a lever and it just brings the carriage back. Buttons control the saw carriage where all the lumber is cut up. One brings the logs out and another backs it up to get a new log. You can move it to the size of your log. If you're setting on twenty-five inches and you want to cut an inch board, you watch the dial and bring it in an inch."

"The sawmills they have now-a-day you just climb up there in a glass cage and don't even get any sawdust on you and start pushing buttons," Oral said. "You cut a lot of lumber but after about an hour you want to come out for a ten minute break. It works them hands and feet and your mind knowing which button to push."

Besides the sawyer another important person to have in the sawmill is the off-bear. He is the man who catches and stacks the slab and lumber from the carriage as it is sawed. The slab is the bark and waste from the log. "We would have a slab pile eventually as big as a building," said Denver. "It was quite a chore because the off-bear would take a slab off and climb up over the pile and throw it over the edge."

Even after the lumber was sawed out it was handled again. The edge of the board would have bark on it. It would be stacked back on the saw carriage sawed again to get the bark off. In mills today the off-bear runs the lumber through an edger to take off the bark.



1--Charles Sharp loading log onto carriage powered by steam.

2--Log on carriage dogged down.

3--The ratchet shown here pulls the log over to correct cutting measurement.

4--Tim Hough has a log ready to be slabbed.

5--Tim pulls the lever which brings the carriage and log through sawblade.

6--Charles Sharp has slabbed and turned the log to slab the second time.

7--Here the sawyer is getting lumber.

8--Leroy "Fat" Harrell takes rough edges off boards by planing them. Photo courtesy Robert Sherrer.


Above--Sawdust, which used to be a complete waste, is now being used. The school system in Houston, Missouri, heats the schools by burning sawdust to produce a gas.
Below--Rotating chain drags sawdust from under the saw, eliminating build-up.

There is some unavoidable waste in the sawmill business. The slabs and sawdust aren't worth much. However, people do use the slabs for firewood and charcoal and the sawdust for mulching gardens and for livestock bedding. Denver told of a new use that is being developed for sawdust. "They're now using sawdust to make energy pellets. We haven't sold any yet, but we have been contacted about them. I'm sure that before long we will sell the sawdust for that. I think Rolla School of Mines produces energy pellets. They put the sawdust through a process and it comes out in a pellet that looks like rabbit feed. It's a very high energy source. You put it in the furnace and you get five times more energy out of it than you would just wood. It burns cleaner and lasts longer."

The off-bear removes the slabs, but the sawdust accumulates under the blade and must eventually be removed. Modern mills have a blowing machine under the saw to blow the sawdust out away from the sawyer. Before that sawyers had various ways of removing it. "What we would do, we would dig a pit under the saw so it would be a place for the sawdust to land," said Oral. "We had a great big scoop shovel, and we would climb down there and get right after it. We would saw like one log with fifty board feet in it then we would have to go around and shovel sawdust out of our way."

Some rigged up a rotating chain with cups or blades attached to it which would drag out the dust as it accumulated. After a period of time the sawdust pile would get too big or too close to the mill, so the men would move the sawmill.

With the small mills of the past sawyers would saw on order, keeping only a small amount of lumber on hand, such as a few extra two by fours or boxing lumber. Cecil said, "We never used to keep very much lumber in stock. We didn't have the money to operate on, we didn't have the market for it, so we didn't need as much. Orders were small." Today he tries to keep much more on hand. "We've probably got two hundred to two hundred fifty thousand feet in stock now and never have enough. There is no way to keep enough to fill every order. They always order something you ain't got."


Oral explained another problem with keeping a lot of lumber on hand with small turnovers. "Back when I was first starting out I didn't keep too much stock --too hard to keep and take care of really. It would get all out of shape on you if you didn't keep it striped [stacking boards with blocks between them]. You can lose a lot of lumber if you don't handle it just right."

Another problem with storing lumber is that it may dry out and develop splits in the ends. This is known as checking. White oak does it the most, but any lumber will check. Some wash or paint the ends to keep them from drying out. Some keep sprinklers running. Denver said, "There's some things I learned the hard way. When you're cutting white oak lumber it will check real bad. Leave it there thirty days and it will check real bad, but leave it there ninety days and the checks will close. It's okay to use then."

In the West some millers store their logs in water to keep them from checking so that they do not lose much. Cecil said, "I can't do that around here. I got to watch real careful 'cause if you lay a new log down in front of an old one and use it and keep doing that, pretty soon the bark's going to start falling off and it'll get sap rot, and you start losing on them."

Much lumber today is treated. That is the process of putting lumber in a vacuum tank and impregnating it with a solution which makes the boards last a lot longer and keeps out termites. Also treated lumber won't burn as easily. "A fence post will get sap rot and kind of fuzzy and dry out, and they'll catch fire easy," Cecil said. "But they'll hardly ever rot after they have been treated with that stuff, so if a fire goes through, it'll hardly ever burn off a treated post."

After the sawyers have the logs cut, sawed, edged, treated and stacked, it is finally time to sell them. Denver's market now is mostly to farmers and industry. "Back when I started it was just the farmer all together because in order to be able to produce for contractors, I had to be able to turn quite a bit of quantity. But if a farmer wanted five boards he could come up here and get it.

Above--A two-man chain saw, such as you might have seen used in the 1940s, owned and held by Verne Myers and son.
Below--A cross-cut saw run from a 1932 Farmall tractor. This saw was used in place of a two-man hand saw.


But if a contractor wanted a trailer load, well, that was out of the question. We couldn't supply a trailer load twenty-three years ago. We cut five hundred feet a day and a trailer would haul fifteen thousand feet. Before we could get it sawed, they would be out of the notion of buying it by that time."

Cecil sawed mainly for individuals and some for bridge floors. "But I guess the private person is still our biggest market, but years ago it was the only market. Used to, we sawed lots of bridge floors for wooden bridges. They used two by twelve inch boards and about fifteen to eighteen feet long. But nowadays they have replaced so many of the wooden bridges with concrete bridges, so there's not too much of it. We sell some of it up in the north country where they still got some wooden bridges. In 1930 if someone wanted to build a house they would more than likely go to the sawmill to get the lumber. Now when they build a house they go to the lumber yard where they can get pre-cut lumber and plywood. They build a house different than what they did when I started. We sell most of our lumber retail, but we sell some to the lumber yards, mostly treated oak. When we first started sawing, I would say at least three-fourths of the houses in town were built out of oak. I could show you houses all over town that me and Dad hauled for back in the forties. Now probably there's not one house out of twenty-five framed up with oak. They use soft wood, pre-cut stuff, plywood. Labor is the main thing. It cost so much to keep the carpenters, now it's cheaper just to buy pre-cut lumber and nail it up and then hang the door."


1--Logs are picked up on the yard by a fork lift now and carried effortlessly to an electric ramp.

2--Chains on the ramp carry logs up into the saw area.

3--Sawyer Evert "Baldy" Dougan of Peppers Lumber Company pushes buttons on the control panel to bring logs onto the carriage and then dog them down.

4--Log dogged down ready to be sawed.

5--Newer under- and overhead saws make sawing larger logs easier. The sawyer also has a control to run logs through the saws and back again.

6--The log is ready to saw into lumber.

7--Danny Henson of Peppers Lumber Company unloads the logs out in the yard with a fork lift.


Denver also used to sell a lot of oak lumber for houses. He remembered one particular customer. "It took the guy something like three months to build his house. He came about twice a week and picked up the lumber. As I sawed it he would pick it up and haul it home. I sawed just for him all that time. An average house has about six thousand board feet in it, and it was about thirty days sawing back then.Now I can saw for two houses in a day."

Oral sold a lot of his choice lumber to veneer companies. He worked at a veneer factory for about a year and he explained the process of making veneer.

"They used to roll that veneer off the whole log but they don't do that anymore. Them people up there where I was working had one of them machines but they said it was obsolete. Now they square up big logs and just slice it off with a big machine. They had to cook it first in water to soften it up. They couldn't just cut it for it would splinter up. When you cook wood in hot water at a certain temperature and then take that log out of there for so long, it just cuts almost like paper.

"I also sawed a few railroad ties seven by nines--six by eights. But they have to be pretty perfect, the length and everything. They can be an inch too short and they'll reject. You might get by with a half inch but you won't get by with an inch. One time we had a pile of about six or seven hundred ties and a man come down here and measured just about every one of them. He throwed out about a couple hundred rejects. I finally sold them to people but you couldn't sell them for ties unless you cut them back to a shorter tie and take the loss."

As in most other industries and ways of doing things, the sawmill business has changed greatly since the Ozarks were first settled. The beginning product, trees, and the end product, lumber, have remained the same. The key person, the sawyer, is still the same, but the tools and equipment he uses, the cost and time factors have all changed greatly.

A modern sawmill plant today, housed in a huge open-air shed surrounded by piles of logs, equipment and stacks of freshly sawed lumber, has several people doing different jobs at the same time--operating fork lifts, driving trucks loaded with lumber trimming boards with an edger, stripping small logs for fence-posts, and an office staff working in an enclosed office. The prevailing odor of fresh sawdust is still prevalent, but it is mixed with the petroleum smell of treated wood and diesel fumes. The sound of the machinery and heavy vehicles and the almost continual scream of the saw cutting through logs is so intense the men must shout to communicate. Instead of working right beside the saw blade, the sawyer is sitting on a stool to one side, controlling the whole operation by pushing buttons on a computer-like box.

After he pushes the first button, without human contact, a log is almost magically pulled up a ramp and loaded on to the carriage. He pushes another button and the log is dogged down. Another button sets the correct measurement. He pushes a final button causing the log to rip through a dual set of blades, one over the other, enabling him to saw larger logs. In what seems like only a second, the log is back in its original position, ready for its next trip through the saw. Rapidly the sawyer turns the log, makes adjustments, and saws out board after board. In a matter of minutes he is ready to load the next log.

The slabs cut from the logs roll down rollers to a man who feeds them in another saw which automatically cuts them into firewood size and throws them onto a truck bed. The sawed lumber rolls down rollers to the planer operated by the off-bear which takes off the bark and is then piled onto a fork lift. The operator drives it to the lumber yard and using his power lift, stacks the lumber into piles. All the while the sawdust from the log is continuously blown outside by an electric blowing machine Onto a mountainous sawdust pile.

A sawmill man has much to be proud of because he is still carrying on a tradition--a tradition of a long hard day's work and alert minds. For even today in spite of the increased use of automation, as Denver Sullens said, "It's a long ways from the stump to the building for a board to travel before it gets used.!"


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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