2018-02-08 / Editorial Page

The hardlife that was sawmilling

Across The Savannah
By TOM POLAND tompol@earthlink.net

Oaks felled long ago to make this antique dresser. (Photos by Tom Po­land). Oaks felled long ago to make this antique dresser. (Photos by Tom Po­land). I have an antique oak dresser and a heartpine table. The wood is beautiful as you can see. Thanks to Katherine Bray of Milledgeville, I appreciate these pieces even more. Katherine read one of my columns and it prompted her to send me her memories of her dad’s sawmilling years. Now I know better how hard it was to get the wood for my dress­er and table. Her story takes place in Hancock County from the 1920s into the early 1940s but it could be Lincoln or McCormick County just as easily. The recollection of her father’s work proves quite reveal­ing. The next time you go to Home Depot, Lowes, or a local hardware store for decking boards or two by fours remember Katherine’s dad and all he and his co-workers had to endure. Here are excerpts from “Sawmilling—A Hard Life.”

“The cutting of timber was a big industry in Hancock County during the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s. That is why my father came here from Taliaferro County when he was only 17 to live with his sister and brother-in-law and to have a job.”

Her dad learned a lot about saw­milling and with a bank loan and help from a planing mill owner he was able to get his own sawmill. At the peak of the industry there were as many as forty portable sawmills in the county. “In the early years of his sawmilling he was not able to come home every night due to the distance and long working hours. He and his hands stayed in whatever building they could find nearby and this was called ‘shacking.’ Often it was an abandoned farm building of some type. Most of the hands slept on pallets or straw, but Daddy had a cot, which folded under at each end. On this he had a feather mattress he slept on and quilts for cover.”

Marks in longleaf pine made by the saw blade 208 years ago. Marks in longleaf pine made by the saw blade 208 years ago. The men had a kitchen they pulled from one site to another, a wooden shack on wheels. It had a wood stove, a wooden table, and a chair. “Robert, the only cook I re­member, had gotten too old to work at the mill. Breakfast consisted of fried fat back, sawmill gravy, bis­cuits, and branch water. The eating utensils consisted of tin forks and spoons, enamel cups and plates.”

She wrote too of how the men supplemented their meals with game. “Rabbit boxes were set out or someone would kill squirrels and of course this wild game was fried. In the summer watermelons would be brought from home, placed in a creek to cool and cut after supper. After supper everyone was so tired they immediately went to sleep and I never heard Daddy say a word about not being able to go to sleep.” Dog tired, no doubt. The men’s day began at daybreak and ended at sundown.

Nothing concerning sawmilling was easy. “On Monday morning, Daddy would arise at 4 o’clock and start a fire in the wood stove. Mother would cook him breakfast and fix him a lunch in his tin lunch box. Everyone had to carry a lunch on Monday because they would not arrive at the sawmill site in time for Robert to cook.”

In the winter, the men had to drain water from the radiator of the Model-T so a kettle of warm water could be poured into the radiator so her dad could hand crank the “strip down,” a truck without a top that had planks on the floor and sides. “This was cold riding on these win­try mornings. He would leave about daybreak to travel 12 or 15 mile picking up hands along the way. Sometimes there would be so many men standing by the road wanting a job that some had to be refused. Since times were so hard people were willing to work just for some­thing to eat and a place to sleep.”

And then there were the mules. When a sawmill moved to another location the men had to build a lot near a branch so the mules would have plenty of water. They built feed troughs for the mules. Planks and a strand of barbed wire made for a lot. Katherine wrote, “Feed­ing my Daddy’s sawmill mules was the first paying job some boys had.” Sawmill mules were different from farm mules. “Sawmill mules had larger flanks for pulling much heavier loads than the farm mules. A ‘snaking’ mule pulled the logs to a clearing in the woods where the logs were stacked.”

As for time off there wasn’t much. “Only two holidays were observed during these hard-time years,” she wrote. Fourth of July when there would be a fish fry on a nearby creek. The other holiday, of course, was Christmas. “Daddy would buy loose candy, a sack of oranges and apples, and dried raisins with stems. He always knew how many children were in each family and they were given a sack of ‘goodies’ and a little extra ‘piece of money.’”

“Today,” writes Katherine, “we see trucks hauling ‘spindly’ logs and I think about all the virgin tim­ber that was cut in Hancock County in years past. Some logs were as large as four feet at the base. This was a hard livelihood for Daddy but he enjoyed looking at pine trees all his life. During his sawmilling years only certain size trees were harvested so the smaller ones could grow. In this manner you would have another stand of timber in a few years.”

So ends Katherine’s recollection of sawmilling, a narrative that ap­plies to any county in Georgia and South Carolina. Of course, saw­milling has changed. The days of hard-earned lumber, when felling a tree took muscle, sweat, and cour­age are largely gone. Just one fel­low can clear a large forest sitting in a comfortable seat on high in a modern machine. Just the other day I drove by a clearcut. You could see the tracks of bulldozers and the big hydraulic harvesters that devour trees. It looked like a battlefield. I drove on ... nary a mule witnessed the cutting of those woods.

Visit my website at www.tompo­land.net

Email me at tompol@earthlink.net

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