As a boy, Gary Chambers spent summers with his grandfather, Doc Brassfield Chambers, in Cleveland, S.C. During those summers more than half a century ago, Gary worked at the steam-powered sawmill his grandfather managed. His recollections capture the end of an era when steam fueled agriculture and industry in America.
It was summer vacation again and time to go to Grandpa’s house in South Carolina. I was 13 years old and packed up and ready to get on the Greyhound and take the big journey. It was a long ride and I must admit I slept most of the way. I took a large bag with sandwiches, fruit and a few candy bars that Mom had made for me. She knew I would get carsick if I didn’t keep a full stomach.
The trip took overnight to the late afternoon and Grandpa was the first person I saw when I got off the Bus. His full name was Doc Brassfield Chambers. He was tall and slender and always wore a Stetson hat and a white shirt with black suspenders to hold his black dress pants up. He wore shiny black lace up high top shoes. He hardly ever smiled but had a slight smile on his face when I looked at him. He was the type of man that you listened to and never talked to unless asked.
We arrived in Cleveland just before dark. Grandpa’s house set high on a hill. The house was painted white; in fact, it was the only painted house in Cleveland. The house had a big front porch that looked over the valley and the main focal point was the sawmill that towered over the two-lane highway.
I got the bedroom with the window looking out to the front porch. Grandpa said I had better get to sleep because we had to get to work in the morning. The next thing I heard was “up and at ’em.” It was six o’clock in the morning. I could smell bacon and coffee. Miss Denton was Grandpa’s housekeeper. She was a widow woman who lived next door and cleaned and cooked for Grandpa. She was a chubby, short woman, always smiling and laughing.
I got into my jeans and khaki shirt and laced up my work boots. I walked in the kitchen and “Miss DD,” as I called her, gave me a big hug and said I must have grown another foot since last summer. Grandpa was reading the morning paper and had waited for me to sit down before saying morning prayer. Miss DD would always stand in front of the stove and lower her head and say “amen.” The table was decked with a big platter of bacon, fresh homemade biscuits, a bowl of sawmill white gravy and a plate of farm-fresh fried eggs. I had a big glass of milk and a small bowl of applesauce for desert. Grandpa always ate a ripe tomato with his breakfast.
Little Doc and Big Doc
We started down the stairs carrying our black lunchboxes. The mill was about a sixth of a mile from the house. There were about 30 men talking, laughing and smoking cigarettes outside the mill and a lot of them were chewing tobacco. I heard a familiar voice “Hey, Little Doc, it’s good to see you came back this summer.” It was the blacksmith, Mr. Darcy. He calls me “Little Doc” and Grandpa “Big Doc.”
Grandpa made me work in the blacksmith shop with Mr. Darcy last summer. He taught me how to temper steel and how to make a hunting knife out of a 14-inch mill file. It took me two days to shape it on the grinding wheel and Mr. Darcy said for me not to get the metal too hot and take my time. He said the metal will lose its strength if it’s burnt from heat.
After I got a nice shape on the blade I started to sharpen it with a stone. Mr. Darcy stopped me and said we had to temper its blade first. He had me to crank the handle on the bellows that fed the hot pan. He used tongs to place the blade in the hot charcoal embers until the blade turned a cherry red. He pulled the blade out and placed it flat against the anvil. Then he proceeded to flatten the blade with short impacts with a small jackhammer.
The sound of the metal sounded a little flat. He’d stick the blade in an oil bucket next and into a water bucket next to it. There would be a big hiss and steam came off the blade when it was brought up from the oil and then a short sizzle when he stuck it in the water bucket. He struck it with a light blow of the hammer to hear the sound of the metal. He said he was changing the molecular structure of the metal.
I had seen the sawyer do the same thing to circular saw blades that had warped from overheating. Rather than heat, the sawyer used a little stone hammer like the doctor uses when he checks your reflexes by tapping your knee. He’d put the blade on a pivot axle and slowly tap the blade while turning and the blade would start making flat ringing sounds. As he tapped it more, the sound changed to a good ring, almost like the sound of a chime. The blade was true and the warp was gone. Then he sharpened the blade.
I forgot to mention that our sawyer was also the local Baptist preacher. I got a lot of Bible lessons when I worked with him. Let’s get back to my knife. Mr. Darcy kept repeating the same process and I kept turning the big handle on the bellows blower clockwise. About the fourth time he dipped it in the water and gave it a light tap with his hammer, it rang like a bell. He smiled and said, “She’s singing like an angel and has the strength of a god.”
Fine as frog’s hair
It was now time to put a razor sharp edge on the blade. A fine stone with a thick, clear oil and about six hours of rubbing and after that I held it on one of the leather wheel belts that was on the big cam that ran from the steam engine through the ground floor of the plant. The cam had hundreds of wide leather belts extending from wheels on the cam to wheels above that turned saw blades, chippers and all kinds of machinery on the main plant floor above.
I flipped the blade over and over on the spinning leather belt. I felt a slight bump when the laced portion of the belt passed under the blade. The blade shined like chrome. I ask Mr. Darcy if it was sharp enough and he asked “Did you try to shave the hair off your arm?” I laughed and said I didn’t have hair on my arms yet. He laughed and took the blade and ran it over the back of his very hairy wrist. The knife cut the hair away with one short pass. I was amazed that a blade that large could be so sharp.
We had left the long point of the mill file for a handle mount. I was going to put on a wood handle made from eastern hard rock maple, but Mr. Darcy said a blade that beautiful deserved a good looking handle. He pulled open a big wooden drawer under his work table and started digging around the many hand tools in the drawer. He reached way back in the drawer and said, “It’s still there after 10 years.” It was a large piece of elk bone.
It was a beautiful bone with a slight curve in it that felt good in my hand. He said elk had disappeared from Carolina more than 150 years ago and this antler had been shed in the fork of a small hemlock tree. As the tree grew, it engulfed the antler. When the massive tree was milled, the band saw hit the bone and the carriage operator shut down the saw. They axe-cut the bone out of the log.
Mr. Darcy did a beautiful mount with the bone handle, and the next day I made a leather sheath, lacing the pieces together with the top open to slide the knife in. It looked like a Viking warrior knife. I gave it to my son on his 21st birthday. FC
Read more about a boyhood summer in the sawmill in the August 2011 issue of Farm Collector or by clicking here.