Steam power & the Circular Saw

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Courtesy of Glen Whaley, 220 Glendora Drive, Bloomington, Indiana 47401.

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#1, Princeton, Wisconsin 54968

Another significant development was the wire nail. George Chandler of Maryland had secured a patent on a nail cutting and heading machine on December 12, 1796. Nails had been cut cold nearly 20 years earlier in Cumberland, Rhode Island. The first successful wire nail machine was built under the supervision of Major Thomas Norton by Adolph and Felix Brown of New York City. It was put into operation by William Hassall of the same city in 1851. To have constructed the number of buildings erected during the next five decades without the wire nail would have been difficult if not impossible.21

A third development of considerable importance was improved means of transportation. The railroad and steam ship were themselves users of wood products. Most ships were made of wood and railroads consumed much wood for fuel and lumber for bridges, piles, depots, cars, turntables and crossties. Many sawmills along the routes of railroads supplied the lumber and ties needed. But besides being consumers of lumber the ships and railroads made possible the transporting of lumber to centers of population at great distances.

A fourth development of consequence was the rapid rise in population. The first cencus taken in 1790 revealed that Virginia had the largest population. The grand total for the United States was four million, or slightly more than half that of the Chicago metropolitan area in 1980.

By 1850 the population had reached 23,000,000. At the end of the century it had increased threefold to 75,994,575 and passed the 100,000,000 mark within another twenty years.22 This growth was accompanied by an increase in the urban population to the point where it exceeded the rural population. But farmers, as well as city dwellers, were voracious users of lumber. The price of lumber and the quantity used appears to have fluctuated with the prices farmers were receiving for their grain and livestock.

A fifth development was a set of consequences that flowed from the increase in population and the resultant demand for lumber and wood products, that is diversification and specialization within the lumber industry itself. The frame house could be erected more quickly if lumber were cut to specifications. There was at once a need for furniture, doors, sashes, windows, shades, wagons, caskets, carriages, and cabinets. To meet some of these diverse needs, the planning mill, veneer mill, and shingle saw, to mention only three, were devised. Joseph Bramah (1748-1814) of Yorkshire, England, apprenticed as a carpenter, employed as a cabinet maker and water closet mechanic, inventor of an improved lock, developed a planning mill.23

One of the earliest planning mills in Wisconsin was owned by August Graham Ruggles of Fond du Lac. His mill was built in 1852 but he apparently had difficulties with it as no one could sharpen a planer, or 'hang' the knives . . . There was business enough but no one who could be had who was expert enough.24

The veneer saw has been attributed to Brunei who also had a hand in the development of the circular saw. The introduction of the shingle saw was opposed at first because it was erroneously believed that sawed shingles would not turn water as well as shingles split by hand or by a horse powered shingle mill that operated much as a guillotine.25 Eventually two kinds of shingle mills developed. One used a saw blade set horizontally. The other used a blade set vertically. Both were powered by steam and both can be seen at steam and gas shows in the Great Lakes area.

Developments begat further developments. The growth of sawmills led to the need for sawmill equipment. Consequently concerns began to spring up to fill the need. For example, Frank McDonough of Eau Claire, Wisconsin incorporated in 1889 and proceeded to manufacture steam engines, sawmills, and transmission machinery.26 The manufacturers of steam engines for threshing saw a new use for their engines and began building sawmills.

Finally large lumber companies came into being. There were those who apparently were wiser than others, or perhaps more visionary. They saw opportunities others did not see. Or, if they saw them, they could not or did not take advantage of them. On the other hand there were a few men who believed it might be profitable to buy large tracts of timber land to assure a supply of logs for their ever-expanding sawmills. Among these was Frederick Weyerhaeuser.

Frederick Weyerhaeuser was born in Germany in 1834. Like many of his fellow countrymen he chose to come to the United States. He settled in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1852 where he worked as a brewer. Quickly he moved on to Rock Island, Illinois and sought employment at a sawmill. Fortunately his employer put him in charge of a lumber yard in Coal Valley, Illinois, and when the panic of 1857 came along, his employer became financially embarrassed and Weyerhaeuser took over control of the yard. Shortly thereafter he and his brother-in-law, F.C.A. Denkman, purchased a mill

where the Rock River meets the Mississippi. They paid $500 down and agreed to pay a balance of $2500. Their mill was small, cutting about 6 to 10,000 board feet per day. Within six years, however, they were free of debt and had begun to invest in timberland. Before long Weyerhaeuser acquired control of other mills, and being exceptionally far sighted, he began the purchase of forest lands as far away as Georgia (in 1882) and on the West Coast (in 1887). Weyerhaeuser also knew when to sell. As the supply of timber was depleted on his property in the Great Lakes area, he sold the land for agricultural purposes. Unfortunately the lands of northern Wisconsin, for example, were not particularly well suited to agriculture. Weyerhaeuser has been described as the outstanding lumber man of America.27 Many of his close friends and associates became millionaires.

The Weyerhaeuser Company continues to be a leader in the lumber industry. The White River Lumber Company of Enumclaw, Washington is a part of the company's vast holdings. The two companies, Weyerhaeuser and The White River Lumber Company merged in 1949. The White River Company began operations with a sawdust fueled steam engine and sawed about 50,000 board feet per day. A Corliss steam engine was installed in 1906. By 1946 nineteen retail yards were already owned and operated by the company.28 Today it is one of the prize possessions of the Weyerhaeuser Company.

If it were possible to become wealthy in the lumber business, it was likewise possible to be both successful and then to go broke. Charles Julius Ludwig Meyer, like Weyerhaeuser came to America from Germany in his youth. He worked briefly as a farmhand and then turned to the wagon making trade in Syracuse, New York. In 1854 he went to Chicago as a wagon maker but soon moved on to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where his first business seems to have been manufacturing washboards. Then he began making such articles as sashes, blinds, and doors. He expanded his plant and purchased facilities in Michigan as well. He seemed on his way to great financial success. By 1886, however, his Fond du Lac business had failed.

As in other instances, the growth of large lumber interests had its consequences. The consequences were, in this case, dual in nature. First the problem of waste and monopoly, and second, the problem of conservation. The latter had been a concern of the Teddy Roosevelt administration. The former was vividly pointed up in a report from the Department of Agriculture early in the second decade of this century. The report warned that 'a concentration of a dominating control of our standing timber resources in a comparatively few enormous holdings' had occurred. It asserted that a 'vast speculative purchase and holding of timber-land' was common. This had resulted in an enormous increase in the value of this 'diminishing natural resource with great profit to its owners.'29

This concentration of power, plants and wealth in the hands of a relatively few large concerns was an important side, in some respects the most important side of the lumber industry. But there was another side, much smaller but more romantic. It was represented by the small operators who continued to saw chiefly for local consumption.

The number of sawmills in the United States increased dramatically in the last half of the 19th century. Generally speaking as the United States became the world's largest producer and user of lumber and wood products, two kinds of mills developed to meet the demands. Some companies built huge stationary mills that mass produced vast quantities of lumber. These were built in areas where the source of timber was nearby or could be readily shipped in, for example on the West Coast in Oregon and Washington. The second kind, the small stationary and portable mills, grew by leaps and bounds. They were established mainly in the East and Midwest where the supply of lumber was relatively limited, and tended to increase in the places where the supply of timber was decreasing such as in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

It is difficult to tell exactly how many custom sawmills were in operation at any given time. A big leap in lumber production occurred between 1839 and 1904. By 1900 there were more than 20,000 sawmills in the United States. By 1908 the number had doubled, but declined by 1918 to only 15,000. The Great Depression was followed by another upswing in the number of mills suggesting that custom mills tend to increase in hard times. In 1945 the Department of Agriculture reported 41,000 mills in operation. Exactly how many were portable mills is a matter of conjecture for the non-reporting mills, '... in general included the smaller mills, the larger mills were more apt to be known and included on cencus mailing lists.'30

The steam engines used to power both large and small mills had been introduced into the United States at the beginning of the 19th century. The stationary steam engine had been used in the United States before steam locomotives appeared on railroads. Farm engines were installed on southern plantations about 1807 and Wik claims that 585 engines were in use in the South in 1838.31 By 1850 engines were mounted on wheels and pulled about by oxen or horses. Well before the end of the century engines became self-propelled. J. I. Case, for example, put his self-propelled engine on the market shortly before 1880.32

With the portable sawmill and the portable and self-propelled steam engines it was only a matter of time before the small operator began moving his mill about in the territory now abandoned by the larger operator, or set it up in some farmer's woodlot, there to saw timber for a price. Sometimes these small operators were owners of threshing rigs who recognized the possibilities for making a little money and belted their engines to a sawmill. Already threshing machinery firms were aware of this development and had begun to make sawmills. Among the companies producing sawmills were The Robinson Company and the Gaar-Scott Company, both of Richmond, Indiana; The Geiser Manufacturing Company of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania; A. B. Farquhar of York, Pennsylvania; Keck-Gonnerman Company of Mount Vernon, Indiana; J. I. Case of Racine, and The Russell Company of Massillon, Ohio.

Some of the threshermen who operated sawmills must have made little profit and some evidently did a poor job of sawing. One would suppose this might have been true in those instances where inexperienced men ran a mill for only a few weeks each year. Nevertheless there were sawyers who ran for short periods of time and who succeeded in producing an acceptable product.

Frank E. Jefferson of Minnesota was one. In 1916 he had about 12,000 feet of logs to saw when he discovered that the mill where he planned to have them cut into lumber had raised its price from $5.50 to $6.50 per thousand. This prompted him to purchase a No. 1 American Mill with a 48' saw at the cost of $212. Heretofore he had not operated a mill, but had worked some about one in his youth.

Jefferson carefully read the instructions that came with the mill he had purchased in Minneapolis and set about his work. He recalled that 'I sawed only two logs the first day and spoiled half of the first one. The next day went better and I sawed 2,000 feet of lumber and sawed it well.' He employed two men to help him at a $1.00 a day and board. Besides sawing for 8 hours per day these men helped him with chores. In six 8-hour days they sawed the 12,000 feet of lumber at an estimated cost of $76.32. He figured his outlay would have been $134.00 had he taken his logs to the nearby mill. Not only did he believe that he saved money, but that he made money. Neighbors brought logs for him to saw at a fee he did not disclose.33

D. S. Briant of Richland, Wisconsin was another. He operated a Russell sawmill which was manufactured about 1880. He sawed 58 days during the 1919 season but usually averaged about 30 days per year, 'sawing anywhere from 6 to 14,000 feet each day under capacity handling... 'The timber consisted of maple, basswood, and elm.' He operated his mill that he affectionately called 'Old Russ' with the help of two men and a Case steam engine. He used a 50' saw and a drive belt of 70 feet. His mill was said to have been the oldest portable mill in Wisconsin.34

Over in Michigan, near Coving-ton, a group of farmers formed the Plowman Association. They purchased a 50 horsepower Case steam engine and a large separator. Then they purchased a sawmill from R. R. Howell of Minneapolis for $1300 and set to work. They sawed from 7,000 to 8,000 feet of lumber per day using four men. They operated from early May through late June most years, but one year they sawed for nearly five months. Their timber included maple, hemlock, birch, elm, and oak. They charged $8.00 per thousand at first, but eventually increased their rates to $10.00.

In 1924 the Plowman Association decided that the steam engine was 'unhandy,' so .they traded it in to the Case firm for a new 25-45 Case tractor valued at $2500. Such a trade was not uncommon at the time because tractors were beginning to gradually replace steam power on the farms.35

Sawing with steam did present problems. A supply of water was needed. Steam had to be at the proper pressure before sawing could commence. This necessitated the engineer arriving at work an hour or two early. Even though fuel had to be purchased for tractors, there was a saving realized by not burning slabs in the steam engine. These could now be cut up and sold for firewood at $2.00 to $3.00 a cord. But possibly the largest saving of all was the wages of the engineer who was no longer needed. Just crank up the tractor and let it run all day.

Still another reason why some discontinued using steam was the danger of explosions, especially with engines that were old and rusty, or were in uncertain or careless hands. For example, what was described as a 'peculiar accident' killed a sawyer at Carrollton, Ohio in 1926. While sawing some 'odds and ends' of a job near completion, the engine was blown nearly 200 feet away into an enbankment. The boiler 'soared over a pile of slabs' and landed in a valley nearly 100 feet away. One man, standing about 15 feet from the engine was picked up and pushed head first into the frame of the sawmill and died soon thereafter.

About 18 months later, two men were killed at Viola, Illinois. The bottom of the firebox bulged up 'pulling the heads off the stay bolts.' Water and steam blew out the firebox door and upset a 15-barrel water tank standing behind the engine. A man on the platform was hurled against a nearby object with such force that his skull was crushed. A second man, standing between the engine and the sawmill, was thrown into the saw and mangled.

If the operation of steam engines required skill, so the sawyer needed to be wise in the setting and use of his mill. To meet the demands for information, colleges of agriculture began studying the proper care and operation of mills. Manufacturers supplied manuals and sawyers exchanged information.

Those who planned to purchase a mill were urged to buy one that had a three-block carriage, set on a 'V' track, and activated by a cable feed rather than a cog driven feed. A 50' saw seems to have been preferred, and it was desirable to get one with insert teeth. In fact the purchase of 2' saw blades was considered prudent. If one had to be repaired, then the second could be used. Steam engines were thought to supply steadier power than tractors. One of 18 to 22 horsepower was about the right size.

When starting up a mill it was wise not to see how fast one could get it into operation. Owners were told to take several days during which they might walk over the grounds and think things over. A visit to a successful sawyer might suggest labor and time-saving ideas. Another injunction was to make sure the engine and the sawmill were lined up perfectly, and then check from time to time as steam engines would shake themselves out of line. Improper alignment caused belts to run on edge which resulted in damage. Some attached a wire or rope to the governor of the engine. The rope or wire was strung to the sawmill where it was in reach of the sawyer. By the use of this arrangement the sawyer could control the speed of his saw. When sawing the engine could be run at a proper speed. When the saw was outside the log, the speed of the engine could be reduced. This was recommended as saws run out of the log at high speed tended to wobble. In case one were to set up a rig for a considerable period of time it was thought advisable to put a shed over it to protect it from the elements.

The degree of expertise needed was summed up by one man in the following fashion. The sawyer ought to know, '... how to file, swage, and gum a saw. If he doesn't know these, how can he tell whether they are done right or wrong? He really ought to know how to hammer a saw; he ought to know when the saw runs hot the trouble is in the track being out of line or the frame and mandrel being out of level, or whether the saw needs more lead or needs hammering.36

Obviously there was much more to be known about the proper operation of a sawmill than can be mentioned here. Suffice it to say that if a high grade of lumber were to be produced, the sawyer had to be quite knowledgeable.

Custom sawing by steam power is less prevalent than was the case, but there are those who still operate steam powered mills and one can see steam driven sawmills at many steam and gas shows.

The Hudson brothers, Stanley and Lloyd, of Solsberry, Indiana, have a small mill they run with the help of Glen Whaley (the engineer) and two hired men. The mill is powered with a Frick center crank portable engine with an 8' bore and a 10' stroke. The engine was purchased a few years ago by the Hudsons who found it at Marysville, Tennessee. They use an Adkins 54' inserted tooth saw on a Corley mill. They saw' crossties, house patterns, and do custom sawing.' The logs sawed are 'poplar, oak, ash, walnut, cherry, hickory, sugar, sycamore, sassafras, and cedar.' Whaley and the Hudsons have been friends for years. Their fathers were machine-men '... and you might say we grew up on a steam engine.' All members of the crew are retired. 'We work together because we like to and think that it is good therapy. When we get tired, we shut down and talk a while. What we don't get done today, we'll do some other time.'

Besides the sawmill, the men operate a small museum consisting mainly of machinery. Included is a mill for grinding meal, several small gas engines, a Fordson tractor, and a Keck-Gonnerman 28 x 50 separator.37

Recently James O. Johnson of Dane, Wisconsin, belted his Advance Rumely 20 horse engine (number 14629) to his R.R. Howard and Company sawmill, manufactured at Minneapolis. He set up his rig on his farm, put his brother in charge of the engine and sawed some power poles for Bob Esser of Madison, Wisconsin. Bob is an accountant who plans to retire in a few years. The lumber from treated poles will be used as siding on a cabin he is expanding. Lumber from untreated poles will be used to panel the interior. Bob, who helped with the sawing by carrying planks from the mill to a trailer, remarked 'this sure beats working.' Otto Lanzendorf, a well known and much respected former thresherman and sawmill owner, said that he was 'not looking for work.' Pausing, he added, referring not so much to the whirr of the saw as to the bark of the Advance Rumely, 'that's good music to listen to.' Those who have been around custom sawmills powered by steam threshing engines certainly would agree. Their disappearance would put an end to the more romantic aspects of the lumber industry.