A Steam Engine and a Sawmill: Memories of Yesterday

Advance Rumely

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1382 Kentucky 798 Calhoun, Kentucky 42327

Weeds, briars, honeysuckles, and second growth stuff choked the rusted skeleton of the old sawmill. There in front of me lay the sawdust hole, now filled with dirt and rotten timbers that had collected the sawdust as the large circular saw cut a quarter inch swath through a seemingly unending procession of oaks, poplars, sycamores and countless other varieties of Kentucky timber. The aged carriage still rested on its tracks, part of which bent and twisted in directions no self respecting carriage would travel.

The heart and soul of the old sawmill, the big, black, grimy, noisy steam engine, no longer graced the field wherein the mill rested. Only the ghost of the powerful Advance Rumely remained to complete the picture.

The history of this sawmill, owned by my dad, Elza Lee 'Dodge' Taylor, of Calhoun, Kentucky began many, many years ago. Dad started sawing during the dark days of the Depression, about 1932 or '33, when he bought the Keck Gonnerman Pony mill from Mr. Thornton Coke for $50.00.

He first used a 12 HP Case, then a 15 HP Case to power the mill. Then, in 1939, he bought a 20 HP Advance Rumely, serial number 15308, from the old Keck Gonnerman factory in Mount Vernon, Indiana, to power the mill and to use, as he had the others, in steaming plant beds.

World War II brought a temporary halt to Dad's sawmill and plant bed steaming business, while he served a hitch in the army. After returning from the service in 1943, he set up the Advance Rumely engine and Keck Gonnerman mill on a neighboring farm owned by Mr. Tommy Ayer. He operated the mill there until 1946 when he moved it to its permanent site, a section of land in the Buel community which the Taylor family has owned for over 200 years. Buel is located near Calhoun, the county seat of McLean County, in western Kentucky.

The 20 HP Advance Rumely and Keck Gonnerman Pony Mill in operation, 1947. Left to right: Wayland Layton in sawdust hole; Charlie Coin and Rollie Tichenor off bearing; Charles Ed Clark on carriage setting blocks; Clarence White at the lever.

Dad sold the engine in the early 1960's, but the old Keck Gonnerman mill remains there to this day. This became the steam engine and sawmill of my childhood memories.

I guess I've reached that point in life where memories often times overawe the present and cause dreams of the future to be relegated to the closet, while a trip to yesterday occupies the mind and soul.

So saying, my earliest memories of the sawmill begin in the early 1950s. My age then, probably four or five. I remember sitting at the foot of the hill upon which our home stood, watching Dad and his crew sawing lumber, rolling the big logs, shoveling sawdust into a wheelbarrow, and carting it to the top of an ever growing sawdust pile that to me looked as big as a mountain.

Whenever the sawmill shut down, that soft sawdust mountain became my playground. I would run to the top, take a flying jump and roll down the steep banks, pull my shoes off and wade through the soft powdery sawdust, dig holes in the sides and pretend they were caves to explore.

Unloading logs on the skids, 1947. Left to right: Charles Ed Clark, Clarence White, Rollie Tichenor, Gippie Taylor, Lon Taylor, and Arthur Jarvis, mill foreman

I remember, too, that huge, black steam engine with the smoke pouring out the smokestack, the belts running around the big wheel and on down to the saw housing, the noise, and the smell of fresh cut timber mixed with the odors of steam, oil, and the coal and wood fires in the boiler.

One day Mom told me that Dad operated the sawmill to make money. At that time, I only knew about pennies, nickels and dimes. I remember sitting there at the foot of the hill, imagining pennies nickels, and dimes appearing in Dad's pants pockets as if by magic. At the end of the workday, I would sometimes test this theory by checking Dad's pockets to see how much money had grown in there since the day before. I can imagine Dad grew rather curious about my searching his pockets like that, but I don't recall his ever saying anything.

Like other young boys who grew up around steam engines, 1 spent plenty of time climbing around the old Advance Rumely, playing with the steering wheel, the clutch, throttle and other levers, and imagining that I was a great engineer. Dad would sometimes let me blow the whistle when he had steam up, but that's as far as he would trust me at that age. Unfortunately, Dad sold the engine before I grew up enough to really handle it at the mill, steaming plant beds, or out on the road.

Sawmill work often proved very dangerous, but Dad held an enviable safety record considering all the hours worked over all those years. I can remember only two serious accidents happening during this time. In one accident, Dad lost the thumb and forefinger of his right hand on the big circular saw. Today the doctors would operate and reattach any severed fingers. But back then they could only sew up and bandage the injury, and that's all they did do for Dad.

In the second accident, one of the workers, Mr. Jarvis, started to walk across the rear part of the tracks just as Dad reversed the carriage. The carriage caught Mr. Jarvis's leg between the carriage frame and the rear pulley, knocking him down. Dad said he could hear the bone snap and yelled at Mr. Jarvis to lay still. Unfortunately, he didn't realize his leg was broken and started to get up. The bone splintered and pierced the flesh and skin, actually driving downward and sticking in the ground. Dad called an ambulance, but due to bad roads it couldn't get to the mill. Somehow, Dad and the other workers managed to get Mr. Jarvis in a car and drove him out to Buck Creek on Highway 431 where they met the ambulance for the trip to the hospital. Mr. Jarvis eventually recovered fully and returned to work.

I began working at the mill, my first steady job, as a teenager, and from that point on my memories nearly suffocate in heat and sweat. But I remember how I enjoyed working with my muscles, how I felt like I was doing something important, and I remember how the smell of the fresh cut lumber would make me hungry, especially for Mom's beans and com-bread.

Now, as I stand here looking at all that remains of that part of my life, the realist in me says those days are gone forever. Still, I can't help but get the awfulest kind of urge to hear that old Advance Rumely thundering through a big tough oak again, to see the black smoke come pouring out the smokestack, to feel the heat radiating from the boiler making the sweat run down my face, and to smell the good smells of a sawmill in sweet, clean Kentucky country air.