Sawyer and Antique Sawmill Reunited

A century-old Aultman and Taylor sawmill once owned by the Ross family is still going strong at an Illinois show.

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Left: John Ross (in the foreground) and a helper turn a log so the flat side is down, allowing sawmill workers to make future cuts square. Massive logs are a chore to maneuver. “I refer to those as ‘test logs,’” John says with a smile. “They don’t test the mill; they test us.” Center: The sawmill blade works its way through the log in a matter of seconds, leaving a large slab of lumber that can be cut into smaller boards. Right: John takes time to oil the sawmill’s moving parts and remove sawdust while tractors or steamers are being changed.

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Visitors to the annual August show put on by the Northern Illinois Steam Power Club in Sycamore, Ill., enjoy watching the Aultman & Taylor sawmill hard at work. But the person who gets the most enjoyment out of the mill is John Ross, rural Hebron, Ind.

For 27 years, John's made an annual trip to this small northern Illinois town, arriving on Wednesday before the show begins and leaving the Monday after. While there, he works as a sawyer on the vintage machine.

His experience with this particular mill, however, goes back much further than 27 years. John's father, Harry Ross, and two uncles owned the mill for more than 40 years. "They bought it used in 1917," he says. "I have no idea when it was built or who had it before."

John's father and uncles, who farmed 164 acres near Hebron, put the sawmill to good use. "We sawed lumber with it through the early 1950s," John recalls. "It was in use nearly 200 days a year." In addition to personal use, the mill was used to cut wood for neighbors. "The farmers needed fence boards and wood to keep their barns up and that's what we sawed."

Until the mid-1940s, the Rosses used a Rumely OilPull tractor to power the mill. "Then we sawed with a Baker tractor from about 1948 until 1958," John adds

In the early 1960s, John went into the military. On his return home, he discovered that the sawmill and the Baker were gone. "They sold them to a man in Momence, Ill.," he says. "About six months after I got home, I found out where the Baker was and went over and bought it."

Years later, John learned that the sawmill had been resold. The Northern Illinois Steam Power Club was the new owner and was using the mill at the club's annual show in Sycamore. He decided a reunion was in order, but got more than he bargained for.

"I came here as a spectator to see the mill. While I was watching it, they had some trouble, so I showed them what was wrong and fixed it," he explains. "After that, they tried to get me to stay for the last two days of the show to operate the mill, but I couldn't do it. I was working for the railroad and only had two days off. I was 130 miles from home, and besides, I had my 10-year-old daughter with me, and we had no place to stay and no change of clothes."

But he was ready the next year. "I took a week's vacation, came up here with my family in a camper and I've been sawing every August since."

Citing unique technology, club officials believe this antique sawmill was built before 1900. It differs from most sawmills in that the carriage that holds the log is moved back and forth on the track by a rack-and-pinion gear. Most sawmill carriages are moved by a cable wrapped around a winding drum.

On a warm day at the August 2006 show, the sawmill crew worked with red oak, white oak and hard knotty pine. Later they would try their hand at walnut. "The green walnut dulls my cutter," John notes, "and these white oaks that have been standing dead a while are really hard." The oak was targeted for trailer floors, the pine for paneling. The logs came from private property, so all of the lumber, which was being cut into 1- and 2-inch boards, would be returned to the property owners.

"I couldn't guess how many board feet we cut a day at the show," John says, "but Dad figured he and two helpers cut about 3,500 board feet a day." At the Sycamore show, the crew is bigger.

"It takes four or five people to saw, so with the big logs we cheat a little bit," John says, referring to the crew's practice of using an end loader to lift logs onto the saw and turn them to square off the sides. "But that's okay because people come here to see it saw, not to see us lift or turn logs."

A retired railroad yardmaster, John enjoys the chance to work with equipment he remembers from his youth. Although he never lived on the family farm, he spent plenty of time there. The old mill offers an interesting contrast to the sawmill he now uses on a regular basis. "The one I have at home is about 50 years newer than this one," he notes.

His children share John's interest in antique tractors and steamers. Someday the Baker will go to his son, another tractor to his daughter and - carrying on the tradition - the two will share a steam engine that was their dad's. "Both of them can run our steam engine," he says, "which means there's hope for the future of this show."

During show week, John is a full-time sawyer, taking breaks only when tractors and steamers are rotated in and out of service. He helps with belt changes, brushes away woodchips and keeps the mill's moving parts well oiled.

"This is supposed to be play, but I think it's work in disguise," he says with a laugh, while wiping excess oil from one of the gears. "Handling those logs and lumber is work. But, if I didn't like it, I guess I wouldn't be here."

He's grateful the mill has found a permanent home, one where demonstrations teach a new generation about early days on the farm. "This is where this mill belongs," he says, stopping to wipe his brow. "And it's a showpiece as far as I'm concerned." FC 

For more information: 

- Contact John Ross at PO Box 751, Hebron, IN 46341; (219) 996-4854.

- The Northern Illinois Steam Power Club annual steam show will be held Aug. 9-12, 2007, at Sycamore, Ill. Contact: Michele Dominy, 15738 Miller Road, Plano, IL 60545; (630) 552-3604; email: mdom91@aol.com www.threshingbee.org 

Lyle Rolfe has been a newspaper reporter/photographer for more than 40 years. As a freelance writer and photographer, his work has been published in Classic Cars, Cars & Parts and Rural Heritage magazines, among others. Contact him at 2580 Wyckwood Court, Aurora, IL 60506; (630) 896-2992; email: Lrerartr@comcast.net