Memories of the Steam-Powered Sawmill

Steam-powered sawmill looms large in boyhood experience

The Cleveland, S.C., mill managed by Doc Brassfield Chambers, Gary Chambers’ grandfather

The Cleveland, S.C., mill managed by Doc Brassfield Chambers, Gary Chambers’ grandfather.

Image courtesy Gary Chambers

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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.  

Grandpa was the first person I saw when I got off the bus in Cleveland. 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 up his black dress pants. 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 but never spoke to unless asked. He never drove; one of his employees drove his 1955 Pontiac Super Chief.

The steam-powered sawmill towered over a two-lane highway. White smoke came out of the mill’s smokestack in small swirls that ribboned across the skyline. The mill was about a sixth of a mile from Grandpa’s house. It was like a sleeping dragon. As we got closer we heard steam hissing from boilers and pistons. The plant was about a city block long and was around 70 feet to the top of the sawyer’s house set above the main roof.

In the morning, when we got to the main wooden steps leading up to the saw deck, Grandpa pulled out his pocket watch and flipped the metal lid to check the time. The men passed by, saying their good morning hellos.

Grandpa ran that mill by his pocket watch. There was no excuse for being late and everyone had to be at his station when those big wheels started turning. Two short blasts on the steam whistle (which could be heard throughout the valley) served as a five-minute warning for start-up. After five minutes the dragon was awake. As the powerful engine slowly started turning, steam began exploding from stacks and pipes throughout the plant. The main steel cam on the oil-soaked, sawdust-covered ground floor started turning and hundreds of belts and pulleys gained speed. The noise was loud like nothing you ever heard in your life.

Testing the carriage

A steady intermittent blast of high pressure came from the carriage operator testing the carriage before the block setter got on. The carriage was the same size as a railroad flat car but with smaller wheels. It sat on railroad tracks about 50 yards long. The carriage operator sat next to the tracks, right behind the band saw that hung on a wheel in the high ceiling above and extended below the plant floor, under the plant, to the wheel coming off the main camshaft.

The carriage operator sat in an enclosed box with a long joystick that rose up out of the floor in front of him. The joystick controlled the movement of the carriage. The operator pulled the stick to move the carriage in his direction and in a direct path with the band saw, and pushed to move the carriage in the reverse direction. One steel foot pedal on the floor controlled speed; another served as a brake. An emergency whistle cord hung above the operator’s head.

A long steam cylinder was attached to the floor with a long solid steel rod attached to the side of the carriage. The cylinder propelled the carriage away from the saw. Two large wheels 50 yards apart turned constantly with a large steel cable with a friction clutch. The cable was also attached to the carriage and it controlled movement toward the saw blade. This same invention was later used on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers to launch aircraft at sea.

The power of the steam cylinder was awesome; the brute horsepower had unlimited range with the amount of steam used. The carriage operator ran the test by propelling the carriage back and forth at a high rate of speed. I loved to watch the test. Grandpa said the carriage moved more than 100 miles an hour in those 50 yards.

Ever present danger

The carriage deck had one seat facing the band saw and the carriage operator. That seat was for the block setter. A round wheel control panel placed like a small flat steel steering wheel was directly in front of him. Using a steel arrow with a knob, he set the thickness of the cut.

Before World War II, three men rode the carriage. A dog setter sat on each side of the block setter. They controlled the steam-operated sharp steel dogs that bit into the log, locking it to the deck. My dad was a dog setter before he went off to war. Once he was thrown off the carriage and almost killed. It was not unusual for dog setters to die in the mill. If a log became unsecure on the front or back of the carriage, there was no protection for the dog setter. After Dad’s near-miss, Grandpa and the millwright, Mr. Darcy, constructed automatic dog setters that were controlled by the block setter. The company adopted the design and used it in all their plants and, to Grandpa’s and Mr. Darcy’s credit, saved a lot of lives.

After the morning test, the block setter took his seat on the carriage and the operator pulled the whistle cord. A loud, long 10-second whistle meant it was time to work. That’s when the mill really came alive.

Grading logs

The maximum length cut of a log was never more than 30 feet unless it was a custom order. Logs were dragged by cable, mule or tractor off the mountains of South Carolina. They were loaded onto flatbed trucks or flat railcars and off-loaded at the mill. A steam-operated crane was used to lift the log onto the second floor with a slanted exterior deck. Jets of pressurized steaming hot water washed logs before they rolled into a trough with a traveling chain on the bottom. Intermittent dogs every 10 feet grabbed the logs.

Logs entered the plant where Grandpa gave me my first job as a grader. I controlled the movement of each log with a big wooden lever that stuck up from the floor. I stopped each log on the white floor mark and gauged its length by marks on the floor going up to 30 feet. I recorded the length of each log and used a wooden four-sided measuring stick with an L-hook on the end to measure circumference. Those measurements were used to determine the board feet that could be cut from each log and total daily output.

After each log was graded, a wooden lever with a steel foot pedal was used to control two large steel arms about 10 feet apart that came up from the floor. Steel dogs opened when the arms were going up and folded when the arms went down. The wood lever controlled side-to-side and front-to-back movement; the foot pedal controlled the up-and-down movement.

The arms rose out of the floor next to the log. The dogs bit into the bark and kicked the log up on the slanted deck; from there it rolled down to the carriage. The steel arms were powerful; I’ve seen them kick a 30-foot long log with an 86-inch base up on the deck like it was a roll of paper towels. Oversized logs were dangerous; sometimes the arms would kick under them, and they were known to kick back toward the grader. Two steel I-beams spaced two feet apart came up from the floor next to the wall, allowing the grader to step back to safety.

The most important cut

When the log was ready for the carriage, the carriage stopped and the carriage operator swiveled his chair to the left. A pedal-controlled lever was used to kick the log onto the carriage and snug it against the dogs on the carriage. The block setter hit the hydraulic lever setting the dogs on the left and right of him. Facing the log, he could see if the dogs had bitten tightly. The block setter’s platform and the dogs slid back on the carriage, pulling the log back for its first run through the saw. The process happens very quickly and the carriage moves fast.

The first cut, putting a flat side on the log, was the most important cut. Most of the outer skin was removed in four passes. The giant band blade cut only on the front side. Grandpa said some of the new electric mills in Canada had band saws with teeth on both sides, cutting when the carriage goes forward and again when it goes back, effectively doubling daily output.

Once the log was squared on the carriage it no longer needed to be flipped and the cutting speed increased. The block setter (the man who set the thickness of the boards) was one of the highest paid men in the mill. Riding the carriage was dangerous work, and the setter was an expert at getting the most boards out of a log.

The boards worked their way down the line on steel rollers. Hardwoods were routed one way; softwoods another. The length was edge-cut and automatically sized for length where swinging circular saws square-cut the ends.

Nothing was wasted in the mill. Bark was fed to the “hog,” a large hopper with grinding teeth that broke the bark into mulch. Sawdust was packaged for shipment to flooring companies and particle board plants. The rest of the wood waste fed the furnace that fired steam engine boilers.

Finishing steps

The mill had many processes with hundreds of saws for special cuts. Softwood was sized and stacked in the lumberyard. Some went through treatment tanks, submerged in chemicals to make the wood insect- and rot-resistant. Train tracks ran through the lumberyard and lumber was loaded for rail delivery throughout the U.S.

The planer plant was on the far end of the lumberyard next to the dryer building. The dryer building had a large steel door that rolled back, allowing a large flat car on rails to enter. Lumber was stacked on the flat car in a special way for kiln drying. Once the car entered the building, the giant door was shut, making the building airtight. Steam pumped through piping on the walls and ceiling burned moisture from the wood. Lumber was dried for 24 hours.

When the planer was running, it produced a high-pitched sound. The planer blades turned at a high speed. One year a young man was killed by an accident at the planer. Mr. Darcy said the operator had not set the blades correctly. A blade shattered and a piece of shrapnel hit the operator in the head, entering at such a high speed that it left only a scratch. Everyone said the man looked all right. A small bandage was applied to the wound and he went home after work. He told his wife he had a headache and went to bed early. He was dead the next morning; the shrapnel had penetrated his skull.

The more expensive wood is processed in the planer plant. Eastern hard rock maple, walnut, ash, red and white oak are the high-grade timber. Hemlock was used as framing for upholstered furniture. It was just as hard as hard rock maple and very strong. Grandpa said most of the hemlock had been cut out of South Carolina.

Secrets of the past

Grandpa told me about the time the big band saw hit a Civil War musket that a rebel must have leaned against a small tree. The musket was abandoned there and over time the tree grew around it. When the tree was cut for lumber and the log was run through the mill, the musket damaged the saw’s 20-foot blade. Grandpa said the soldier had probably been killed or he might have been a coward and ran, leaving his musket behind; we would never know.

Through the years cannon balls also turned up in logs, but the best was when Grandpa and the men got two barrels of honey from a giant ash log. He said they had to shut down the plant because of the swarming honeybees. One of the men was a beekeeper. He went in that evening and smoked the bees. They had to steam down the log carriage after they got all the honey.

End of memorable era

Grandpa was a Spanish-American War veteran; he’d enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 16. He served as a medic under Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing in the Philippines. After the war, he was employed by Georgia Pacific Lumber Co. He had milled first growth timber out of four southern states and had so much stock in the company that they could not force him to retire. When timber was cleared out in a large area, the big steam plants were dismantled and relocated to a new area that had a lot of timber.

When I was a teenager, Grandpa said the days of the steam sawmill were coming to an end. After his plant closed, he said, he would retire. He was 73 and still healthy. He told me about various types of trees that were already extinct and said all of the first growth timber in America would soon be gone except the trees in the national parks. I was overseas when Grandpa died at age 80, four years after the plant closed. I remember him saying that work rewards a man with a long life.

I gave my son the small table with four chairs that Grandpa made when he was 19. It was the same table that was in the kitchen in his home in South Carolina. The table and chairs were made from tiger maple and were built without nails or screws. There will never be another tiger maple tree, and never another Grandpa. FC 

Read more of Gary Chambers’ recollections of his summers at the sawmill at www.farmcollector.com/gary-chambers.