Fast Cutting, Steady Running

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Saw rig at antique equipment

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Charlie Coughenour's 83-year-old Witte drag saw cranks on the third stroke every time, and it's all original right down to the battery box -except for the spark plug.

For years, the rig belonged to a Laurinburg, N.C., farmer, who had a tenant farmer helping him work his land. The saw was used to cut firewood -mostly oak to heat the farmhouse and pine to fuel the cook stove in the kitchen.

Charlie, who also lives in Laurinburg, tells a classic story: When the farmer died, his children didn't want to farm, so his equipment stayed as he left it, while his elderly wife remained on the farm. After she died, the children sold the place.

'This saw was under the shed, behind the barn, and out of the weather,' Charlie recalls. 'When they sold the farm, they gave the saw to the tenant farmer's son.' His name is Ralph Norton, and he happens to be one of Charlie's old school chums.

In time, Charlie heard that Ralph had the saw, so he contacted him about buying it and was invited to come and take a closer look. At Ralph's place, they quickly agreed on a price and Charlie expected to just haul the saw home, 'but he'd helped his daddy operate it as a boy and he wanted to hear it run one more time.

So Charlie went to town, got a battery, gas and some tools, and the two of them started tinkering with the machine. 'In about two hours, we had it running,' Charlie recalls with a chuckle.

Edward H. Witte of Witte Engine Works, founded in 1870 in Kansas City, Mo., wouldn't have been surprised. He guaranteed his engines, like the one on Charlie's saw rig, claiming in his catalogs that 'all Witte engines are high grade. We do not build two kinds. There is only one kind of Witte engine, and that is the best we know how to make.'

Charlie says once Ralph heard the engine again, he thought of some other people he wanted to have listen to it too, so Charlie left the rig with Ralph that day. 'In a couple of months, he called and said to come and get it. It was mine.'

The original brass tag on the engine says: 'Witte, Witte Engine Works, Kansas City, Mo., Serial No. 47228,' but the space on the plate where the amount of the engine's horsepower usually is engraved remains blank, apparently having been missed by the engraver during production at the factory; Charlie thinks it's probably a 2-hp machine. The piston and stroke are both 4 inches.

He says he knows the rig is one of the company's earlier ones for two reasons: It has older-style wick oil bearings rather than the later-style cap, and the water hopper is level across the top. Later hoppers were made higher towards the back to help keep the water from spilling out if the rig had to be raised to accommodate an extra large log.

The Witte Engine Works focused on smaller, water-cooled engines, marketed as having 'fewer parts, more power and greater simplicity.' The Log Saw, which is what the Witte firm called the style that Charlie owns, came in only one size. According to the company's 1923 catalog, the engine on that rig was a fourcycle, throttling-governor type with a maximum capacity of 3 horsepower. An optional circular attachment permitted the operator to saw stove wood into short lengths while the log saw remained in operation at the other end.

The rig fastened to a log by means of sharp spurs under the skids and by a chain log hook. The engine had two flywheels, each 18-inches in diameter, to provide 'steadier power,' and the rig was lever controlled, so the operator could instantly start or stop the saw by means of a friction clutch, without stopping the engine.

The log saw rigs were used primarily by farmers, sawyers, stave and shingle makers, loggers and settlers, and a 32-page manual was supplied with each machine, providing instructions on the saw's operation and upkeep as well as the engine's. Charlie received no written literature with his saw.

The elaborate 1923 Witte Engines catalog, above, devotes a full page to describing the Log and Tree Saws. With such literature in the marketplace, Ed Witte soon became well known for his expertise as a mail-order merchant. At left, the Witte Tree Saw, shown in the 1923 catalog.

The Witte company had factories in Pittsburgh, Pa., and San Francisco, as well as Kansas City, and smaller offices in many other locations. By 1923, according to engine expert C.H. Wendel, export warehouses also were located in New York City, New Orleans and Laredo, Texas, and authorized Witte distributors had been established in 44 foreign countries.

In the saw line, Witte also made and marketed portable 5-, 7- and 10-hp portable saw rigs; 2-, 3- and 5-hp stationary power buzz saws and a Tree Saw that could be attached to the Log Saw.

Charlie, who is retired but for 23 years owned the Ford dealership in Laurinburg with the late Lindo Harvell, says after taking the saw home, he started to restore it but stopped, realizing the well-preserved saw should remain in its original state.

Today, it's only used to demonstrate old-time log sawing at antique equipment shows. 'You'd be surprised how many people have never seen one operate,' Charlie says, adding his dad made sure he and his six brothers and two sisters got plenty of that sort of experience on a 33-acre country place where they sawed wood and tended a variety of livestock to meet their own family's household needs. FC

- For more information about Charlie Coughenour's Witte drag saw, contact him at 608 Midland Way, Laurinburg, NC 28352; (910) 276-0746.

'How You Can Make Money With a WITTE

'Hand labor costs 30 to 50 cents an hour. At an average of 15 cents a gallon, kerosene costs about 2 cents per horsepower for each hour, or about a dollar a day for a 5-horse engine. Good men get $4 a day, and three meals, worth $2. The engine gets a squirt or two of lubricating oil - costs you nothing while idle - does the work of six men. The difference between what six $4 men can do and what a 5 H-P. engine will do is your profit. Even a little 2-horse engine will do more work than three men.'

-1923 Witte Engines catalog