The Tramp Fireman

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R. R. #1, Dillsburg, Pennsylvania 17019

My father being a farmer all his life would supplement the farm income by custom work for anyone requiring one to four pairs of mules which were kept primarily for this purpose. Most times this work was connected with several local portable sawmillers who hired teams to drag the logs to the mill and deliver the lumber to the purchaser or the rail siding. There were men who would haul regularly for these lumbermen who preferred the road work rather than the log dragging because they had fancy harness and nicely painted wagons while the work in the woods was very destructive to both animals and equipment.

This was an asset to father's plans as the log work and farming could be planned to his advantage as long as the mill was supplied with sufficient logs to keep it operating full time. The mill would operate possibly half the working days per year as many timber lots were small and each lot required dismantling the entire setup to move to another lot and reassemble.

Each move meant that all the saleable lumber be cut out as well as firewood that could be readily sold. It was customary for the mill-man to buy everything on the lot which meant all the tree tops as well as all the small trees which had to be cut into firewood.

The slab wood was sawed to lengths suitable for the engine boiler used to power the mill and any surplus to 12' lengths suitable for stove wood. The slab saw was set up near the fire door of the engine boiler and was operated by the fireman as part of his duties.

Now when yours truly was a small boy, hardly a day would pass without seeing a traveling man go by the farm. These men apparently carried all their possessions in a large handkerchief at the end of a cane over their shoulder. They had many names such as tramp, hobo, bum, traveler, knight of the road, etc. However, they would seldom reveal their names but many would work at one particular job they liked. Many were known by names connected with their jobs such as fireman Joe, whistling Pete, cordwood Mike and happy Jack.

These men slept in barns over night then would appear at the kitchen door for a hand-out at breakfast time, after which they would travel to one of their camps which could be found over the country, usually located along a small stream under a large tree where a crude fireplace was built. At these locations they would cook potatoes, eggs and ham which they had collected from the farmers by begging and sometimes by appropriation. All these men had one thing in common in that they were all experts with a fire, and as a boy of six, one of them showed me how to build a campfire that would put a modern Boy Scout leader to shame. Also, many of these men carried a Bible and would quote from it. If by chance someone cared to debate on passages from the Scriptures, he often found the tramp a worthy opponent.

I remember one time after my mother had prepared a nice plate of food for one, my dad threw him a curve by quoting the Bible which says: 'Earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.' The tramp replied, 'It also says 'you are your brother's keeper.'

Being the only boy in my family, I was constantly with my father and at the age of six when the teams went to the sawmill, yours truly was riding along with my old trusty dog in the lead. At the mill it was customary to watch what went on until tired. Then be with the dog who would chase anything that ran or crawled, which included rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs and snakes.

At noontime the mill crew would gather under a tree to eat their lunch from a bucket, but in our case a large basket. The mules had to be watered and fed before we could eat, so I had plenty of time to see just how the fireman could produce a nice hot dinner while the other men had cold food.

This was the way I met fireman Joe, when 5 or 6 years old, and thought him the greatest man alive. First let me explain that Joe was a one job man because as soon as the mill closed down to move or clear up the set, Joe was missing but would return when all was ready to saw at the new set. First Joe would contact the farmer living closest to the new set where he made his headquarters, slept in the barn and would buy his breakfast each morning as well as beans, eggs, ham or potatoes for his noon meal. At the back of the boiler he would construct a crude lean-to by placing four poles dug in the ground for corner posts, then nail a few long slabs to the tops as cross timbers. This was covered over with suitable slabs affording some shelter from rain, snow, sun and sparks which could be very annoying at times. It also served to keep some wood dry for emergencies as well as a place to hang his cooking utensils which consisted of two pieces - a broken handled dirt shovel and a one gallon molasses bucket and a basin with wash rag.

A piece of sow belly or flitch was hung high (for protection from dogs) against one of the posts. This served as cooking oil and saw grease. Now for you younger folks, the sow belly was the part of the female hog which produced milk for the young. After having served its purpose in increasing the hog family, it was usually thrown away by the farmers at butchering time.

Flitch, side-meat and bacon all meant the same item and was considered a little better than the sow belly.

The shovel and bucket were kept shiny by using ashes from the boiler as scouring material, then turning steam on them for sterilization. When the noon stop was made, the fireman had arranged to have no fresh wood on the fire and would immediately rake the hot embers close to the fire door, leaving the fore part of the grates bare. This served several purposes such as controlling the blowing off of steam while he prepared his meal and gave him hot coals on which to lay his shovel on which he had broken several eggs after a liberal application of sow belly.

The bucket held some potatoes mixed with beans or cabbage and had been hung on the engine injector with steam turned on so as to be ready when the eggs were fried. Several large slices of homemade bread with real butter and apple butter were ready.

A fresh sawn slab served as a table with the eggs eaten directly from the shovel and the bucket contents from the lid. Sometimes sliced potatoes or a piece of smoked ham was used for variety. Now all this was performed quickly and with the utensils scaled with steam, dinner was over in a few minutes. In the eyes of a kid 5 or 6 years old, this was LIVING with all capital letters.

There were more men of the road appearing at the mill from time to time. One would cut firewood from the tree tops and small trees, using no tools except a good axe and always put up a very nice rank of wood cut into 4' lengths then ranked into 1/2 to 2 cord lots wherever it happened to be over the entire wood lot. This meant that this man worked alone generally far from the loggers and many times on an entirely different location.

Another man would rank the stove length slab wood into I cord lots near the mill, using a wheelbarrow for transportation from the fireman's pile to the ranking location. On a large set this often required moving the wood 100 yards as space around the mill was limited. This man preferred to work only while the mill was not in operation because the fireman could make this man's work miserable by inducing sparks from the boiler when the wind was in the man's direction and also by hitting him (accidentally, of course) while he was loading his wheelbarrow.

I never learned the names of these two men who were simply referred to by the name of 'cord wood cutter' and the 'slab ranker.'

Another tramp would visit the mill several days each week to gather small pieces of slabs, thin boards and brush which he would carry to his camp. From these crude supplies he would build porch and lawn furniture, also bird houses, then sell them to housewives during his travels. Recently I saw one of his creations sold at a family auction where it brought a fabulous price. Apparently this man's weakness was his drinking habit because many times he would appear with a drinking man's breath and insist on singing a song for everyone, hence his name of Happy Jack.

Two big events occurred on nearly every set of the sawmill although they were sometimes combined and held as a one-day event. When the set was completed, it was customary for the mill owner to throw a party for the help as well as the local farmers and anyone remotely connected with the job. The usual fare consisted of a large kettle of bean soup boiled in a borrowed iron butcher kettle with pork or sometimes several large chickens, one-half barrel soup crackers and one-half barrel of beer.

The tramp fireman usually served the soup, after he had it prepared to his taste, on a temporary table of rough sawn planks from the mill. The owner would give a little speech, praising all his help, then most men would relate some funny incident which happened on the set with everyone joining in the laughter. As the barrel became lower the stories became higher and if the contents lasted too long the jokes became arguments or worse.

The second event was the Public Auction which was held after all the salable lumber and wood was delivered, which sometimes was several months after the mill was moved out to another set. After several weeks of advertising of a given date (usually a Saturday afternoon) everything of any value was auctioned off. This included many piles of off-grade lumber, all the firewood which had been cut and ranked, slabs, uncut tops which were marked off in lots of a few square yards to one-half acres. The sawdust pile and ash pile was sold as well as any temporary sheds. If the millman was forced to buy the land to get the timber, this too was sold. The buyers consisted of farmers, wood dealers, etc., and if the beer party was held before the sale on the same day it most times paid off well during the bidding.

I remember distinctly of my dad persuading my mother to accompany us to such a party - one time only. My mother was a public school teacher, a Sunday school teacher and church organist. The words she used to describe the party to her Sunday school scholars were far above the intelligence of her six year old son, and from that time it required considerably more persuasion to obtain permission to visit any sawmill. My mother, by the way, was from a family of ten, eight of whom were school teachers.

The next crisis came in 1919 when her fifteen year old son decided to quit school to drive a mule team which dad had on a local sawmill. However, my schooling did not end here as it only required several days to learn how little I knew about the hard knocks of life, and the three months on this job were quite a schooling of preparation. In the early 1920's when yours truly began threshing and related custom work among the local farmers a sawmill was acquired more or less as an accommodation for my customers, and driven by a gasoline tractor. Now here was more schooling both in math and economics as well as business and public relations.

In 1929 a local sawmill operator went out of business because of his advancing age and by acquiring some of his machinery, including a Farquhar portable steam engine, a Caterpillar 20 and a new motor truck, I was in the lumber business, first, part time, then later full time.

By this time the tramps were not so plentiful and a good fireman was hard to find. However, good old sawyers were glad for short periods of work.

A large four cylinder gasoline Coulter marine power unit was bought and used when no fireman was available or when water had to be hauled any great distance. This was wonderful power but the 7' x 9' cylinders were terrible on the profits by using over 6 gallons and 1 quart of oil each hour of operation.

One day a young man with an artificial leg appeared asking for work. He assured me he was qualified for most any job about a sawmill except sawing, but had to have somewhere to live and preferred a job requiring very little walking. Yours truly was fireman at this time, not by choice but by necessity, so when he said he knew all about a steam engine he was hired. At this time we had two small buildings built on wheels, one used as a tool house and storage for the Cat. - the second as an office and lunch room. Both were heated by a ten plate stove. The young tramp moved into the office and everyone else moved to the tool house.

After a few days everyone seemed to be satisfied and the new fireman was noticed to be caring for the engine properly by oiling each morning and noon. However, one day we had to shut down due to a hot bearing on the crankshaft. After some inquiry the fireman said he thought it unnecessary to oil these bearings because they did not move like the connecting rod bearing. This man had his faults, like everyone, but he was with me many years.

One evening, with some boys, he attended an old fashioned spelling bee held at the local one-room school. His clothing were not the best, but when the match was over he was the only one standing, having out-spelled all the school teachers and pupils as well. He is now, and has been for many years, a linotype operator for the Gettysburg Times and today he has a wife and a nice home.

One day a tall husky young man appeared at the mill carrying a guitar and asked for work. This man said he was just passing through and needed some cash, so I told him to be out next morning after a good night's sleep, which he said he would have in some local barn. At this particular time we were cutting railroad ties and this man was placed as off bearer. All the regulars were curious to see just what the guitar player could do. To everyone's surprise he would pick-up two ties at once and carry them away. At noon, after eating several large sandwiches, he entertained everyone with his guitar until time to begin work. I would have been glad to keep this young tramp, but Saturday noon was pay time and after giving all the men goodby he was gone.

About this time we moved to a new set quite some distance from home and while setting up the mill, a rather tough looking man appeared asking for work. This man had the appearance of a tramp with the shuffling walk to match as most tramps had. After some inquiry he said he was in his late 50's and lived with his aged mother about two miles away. Also that he needed work to support himself and his mother. He said (without boasting) that he had experience firing a boiler for his father when a young man, and that he now was an ex-convict. The result was he had a job if he could fire and care for the boiler and engine properly, which meant he had to walk two miles and have steam ready to start work at 7:00 each morning. To everyone's surprise this man was the most efficient operator any of us had ever seen. He appeared the day before he was supposed to come to work, saying he had a few chores before starting to fire. He proceeded to plant four poles for his lean-to back of the boiler. The cover was placed as it came from the mill the following day. He then made a cover for the tube ends in the smoke box from scrap boards and dug a large hole under the smoke box, piling the ground carefully on a pile nearby, Everyone was puzzled but acted as though this was standard practice, but the new fireman was watched very closely the following day.

Things went along very well for the first day of operation, however, several stops were made for adjustments early in the morning when everyone noticed the boiler would immediately blow off steam when the throttle was closed, which indicated a good fireman. When the engine was shut down in the evening the fireman turned the injector on, which was normal, but then he proceeded to fill the fire box completely with green slabs, even small pieces were cut to fill every available space he could find. The lire door was then closed and he came around to the smoke box end of the boiler, cleaned all ashes and sparks out, then placed the board over the tubes and propped it in place. He then proceeded to shovel the ground into the smoke box, packing it carefully against the boards thus closing off any possible draft. Then all the draft doors under the fire box were carefully closed.

The following morning all the men were curious as to just how he would proceed in cleaning the smoke box and tubes. This was the only morning the fireman arrived before the mill crew and therefore no one saw just how everything worked.

The third morning the fireman did not show until about 20 minutes before starting time when most of the crew thought he had enough of his job but there was a few pounds of steam showing, so everyone left the boiler alone. When he showed up he walked to the smoke box and removed all the earth, then the board and closed the door. Next he opened the draft door, then at last opened the fire box where he had a half box of red hot charcoal. Then with a half glass of water showing, he turned on the blower and placed some good firewood on the coals. All this required only a few minutes, then he oiled the engine and at 7:00 sharp opened the throttle and all hands went to work. This set lasted five weeks and each morning the procedure was the same, even on Sunday he would walk to the job and care for his fire.

The third day I happened to walk past the boiler at noon and noticed the steam gauge showed more than the usual setting. When I drew the fireman's attention to this he simply told me he had set the pop valve ten pounds higher to conserve steam when a sudden stop was called. Another strange item was that no one ever saw him clean the tubes during the entire job.

In the late 1930's one evening a man appeared at my home who apparently was in his late 40's, driving a nice model T coupe, wearing farily good clothes and clean shaven. After a little small talk he asked if I could use a man at this time. Upon inquiry it developed he lived nearly seventy-five miles north but had a girlfriend living several miles from my home and would like to locate nearby. In my mind he was just a refined tramp but I told him to come to work next Monday morning and we would see how he would fit into the saw mill crew.

After several days of peeling ties, loading trucks and other odd jobs, he became friendly with the fireman. A few days later he asked permission to exchange jobs a few hours with the fireman who was then living in the mill shanty or cabin. He did fairly well and after that would often exchange jobs with the fireman at noon. Then one day he asked if I would object to his living with the fireman, which was OK by me but it turned out that both men ran around every night, using the Model T, and sometimes the boiler was not ready at 7:00. It also came to light that the girlfriend had a business and it was rumored that the Model T was used as a delivery wagon for homemade spirits.

The living arrangements seemed to be agreeable but when the next set was finished the young crippled fireman moved out, looking for a new job, and leaving the Model T man as the new regular fireman and sole occupant of the sawmill cabin. This man lived in this building on many sets until World War II, with only a dog as companion. One day he discovered he was not the only man in his girlfriend's life and he moved back to his original home.

This man was an expert with a hay press as well as a fair fireman, and was a handly man in my business for many years. He also served at a local dance hall as 'figure caller' for square dancing each Saturday night and had many friends.

This was the end of the tramp firemen and any labor was becoming difficult to find for sawmill work during the war years. However, a deal was made with a retired sawyer whereby he furnished the mill crew, consisting of older men and for several years these men lived on the set in the portable cabin from Monday morning until Saturday morning when they would drive over fifty miles to their homes.

After the war a medium size bulldozer was bought with a power take-off pulley which was used for belt power for the mill as well as dragging the logs with two experienced men. This was the most profitable operation of all; we operated in this manner for about six years, then the outfit was moved to my home and used as an old boys' toy until I had an accident and then the entire outfit was sold.

Many say the tramps are gone forever, but just drive on any main highway and count the bums standing with thumbs extended. Now in my estimation there are more tramps than ever. Their mode of acquiring a living has changed drastically, however, and the working public is still paying their keep as before.

All the men mentioned in this story would work, at least part time, thereby earning their living and when not working lived by begging from the folks who did work, until late fall when they simply walked to the county home where they were fed and housed until spring when the cycle was repeated.

Today the tramp's life is quite different. First if they work at all, it is only long enough to qualify for unemployment payments; however, why work at all when it is very simple to live by robbery, beating up an older person, or high jacking a truck or an airplane; and if caught so what, just go to jail a few months and then be released and retrained, all at the working man's expense.

Maybe the tramps of the older days were not so bad after all. Even at a glance it was then possible to tell their sex by their appearance.