Most everyone familiar with farm machinery has heard the term “pitman,” usually in reference to the wooden bar that connects the sickle, or knife, of a mower or binder to the crank wheel. The pitman converts the circular motion of the crank wheel into the back and forth lateral motion necessary for the knife to cut hay or grain. Webster’s dictionary tells us a pitman is “a type of connecting rod that changes axial motion into linear motion.” Did you ever wonder where the term originated? Well, OK, so it never crossed your mind, but I’m going to tell you anyway.
In the old days, before the circular sawmill was invented, sawing boards out of logs was a slow and laborious process. The log was first hewed square with an axe and adze, which brings up another term. When people are obedient and do as they’re told, they are said to “hew the line.” This comes from the ability of the old axmen and adze wielders who could chalk a line on the bark of a log and then chop away the rounded part of the log above the line so that side of the log was flat and true.
The squared log was then dragged on to skids that were placed outward from the top of a bank, or across a hole dug into the ground eight or ten feet deep and called a “saw pit.” A long saw blade, with a cross handle at each end was used to saw the log into planks or boards. One man, the sawyer, stood on the top of the squared log to pull the saw up, and to guide it along a pre-marked straight line, while another man stood in the pit to pull the saw down. The guy in the pit, who did the actual cutting on the downward stroke of the saw, while also getting a generous amount of sawdust down his neck, was called the pit man.
Eventually, the saw was connected to a crank powered by a water wheel. A wooden rod or stick connected the saw blade to the crank and was called a “pitman” after the guy who previously did most of the work. From then on, any wooden or metal rod that connected a crank to a reciprocating member was known by the same name.
Another term that has caused some confusion to at least one modern day editor is “Cruzer Axe.” A few years ago I received this message from one of my editors:
“Hi Sam: I interviewed a guy at Canandaigua last summer that collects hatchets and axes. He had one he referred to as a “cruzer’s” axe … I’ve been all over the internet and through every dictionary I own and can find no such word, nor anything even remotely related … Is this a word you’re familiar with? Is this something out of the logging vernacular? Thanks for any light you can shed…”
Here’s my reply:
The problem is with the spelling.
A “Timber Cruiser” is the guy that a logging company sends out into the woods to locate and mark the boundaries of a prospective logging site and to estimate how much lumber per acre the tract will yield.
In the old days, an experienced timber cruiser “… sallies forth into the trackless wilderness, blasphemously fighting black flies, frost-bite, or rotten ice, as the season may require. He must gain the other side of rivers that have no bridges over them, and he must cross lakes where there are no boats. He must find shelter when he has no tent, and make moccasins when his shoes are worn out. And all the time he must use his compass, keep his direction, and measure his distance, for otherwise he will not know where he is.”
A good timber cruiser had picked up a lot of knowledge of surveying, and needed to be able to locate the old township boundary markers that were established many years before.
The timber cruiser not only had to find and accurately mark the boundaries of a stand of timber, but he had to estimate how much spruce, or oak, or maple it would cut per acre, as well as the size, quality and soundness of the standing timber. In addition, he often was responsible for locating the easiest way to get the logs out after they were cut.
Often the timber cruiser worked alone, meaning he had to carry a tent and other camping gear, rations, surveying and measuring equipment, and a weapon, as well as an axe. The axe wasn’t to be used for felling large trees, but for making blaze marks, and for cutting firewood and underbrush. For that reason, the timber cruiser carried a lighter axe than his compatriots who actually chopped down the trees he located and identified.
These light woodsmen’s axes were often called “cruiser’s axes.”
Timber cruisers are still an important part of the logging industry, although today their tools are more likely to be helicopters, GPS, and computers, rather than axes, backpacks and tents.
(The quotes are from Tall Trees, Tough Men, written by Robert E. Pike and published in 1967 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., of New York, NY.)