The aroma of fresh-baked cinnamon bread wafting clear out to the washroom as I entered made me forget my frozen fingers and nose for a moment. My wet gloves, partly iced around the edges, landed on the flat, metal heat register near the hallway, clear evidence that I'd been helping Dad cut wood out in the snow. It was our unwelcome chore every Saturday on our Michigan farm, and grew less welcome as winter wore on.
Yet, the reward was always that first bite of hot cinnamon bread with icing dripping off the edge. Mom baked the best cinnamon bread in the world! A little butter hastily spread and I had a treat fit for a king. With hot cocoa to wash it down, we were ready for the second part of the Saturday wood fest: Unloading the big stake truck full of cut wood into the basement. We kids were all home from school to help on week-ends, which was good because our big, two-story farmhouse consumed that huge truckload of wood every week in the dead of winter. Between morning milking and chores and evening milking and chores came wood cutting.
Our wood-burning furnace in the basement seemed like a monster to me. Huge pipes snaked out in all directions, and we could throw 18-inch-diameter chunks of wood through the big stove door with room to spare. On the plus side, that door saved us many hours splitting the wood into smaller chunks.
The sound that came through my upstairs register at five in the morning was my wake up call for many years. First, I'd hear Dad move the big lever on the stove grate back and forth several times to give the fire enough air. Then, I'd hear the big chunks of wood tumble into the fire and the clank of the hinged fire stopper just inside the furnace door. The basement stairs were right below the stairs leading to the second story, where I lingered in my long underwear beneath warm, flannel sheets. Finally, I followed the sound of Dad's footsteps as he climbed the basement stairs, walked down the short hall and paused at the door leading upstairs.
'Harry, time for chores,' Dad called in his unforgettable voice.
Reluctantly, I'd crawl out of the covers and reach for my flannel shirt and bib overalls lying beside the warm register. Wood-cutting time had come again, and no matter how cold it was, there was no escaping the chore.
We used a homemade buzz saw powered by our McCormick-Deering Model 10-20 tractor to cut wood. The buzz saw was bigger than any of our neighbors' saws, with a blade at least 30 inches in diameter. It had a big, table-like surface that glided back as Dad shoved the wood into the blade. When it finished the cut, a spring would snap it back to the starting position.
The buzz saw's top surface was about 5 feet by 6 feet across, and a portion of the top was stationary. A wood shield completely covered the blade for safety when the table was all the way forward. The entire saw sat on two runners, and Dad added an axle and two iron wheels for moving it when there was no snow.
We boys struggled to keep feeding buzz sticks to Dad as he worked the table back and forth. He insisted we group the small limbs in twos or threes at a time for quicker cutting. The small sticks were for the wood-burning cook stove that Mom preferred over an electric model. Later, she compromised when Dad found a stove that still burned wood on one side, but sported modern electric burners on the other.
In the woods, my young brothers and I also worked hard to hold the heavy pieces of wood steady on the buzz saw table. Dad helped when he could, but once he started sawing it was up to us to hold the logs in place. Not only did we have to hold a heavy log as level as possible, but we also had to move forward in unison as the blade bit into the wood. If we let our ends sag, or moved forward too fast or too slow, the log pinched the blade. A severe pinch would throw the belt that connected the buzz saw to the 10-20 off the iron pulley that helped turn the blade. Then, the 6-inch-wide belt would flop off wildly into the snow, which meant a 10-minute delay while we reset the 10-20 and retightened the belt.
Like most farmers of that era, Dad put up the next winter's wood a year ahead. In early spring and late fall, when fieldwork was at a minimum, he'd create what we called 'buzz piles' on the farm wherever trees fell from old age or wind or ice. Our woods were comprised mostly of red, white and black oak, with some hickory and maple in the mix. When winter came, we simply moved the buzz saw from one pile to the next until all the wood was cut and stored at home.
During the 1940s, before I'd reached my 10th birthday, Dad cut most of the fallen trees with a crosscut saw and axe. I tried to help, but I did little more than hang on to that wooden saw handle for dear life as Dad worked the blade back and forth. Even though I wasn't quite big enough to help with the handsaw, I became an expert brush piler. Dad always insisted on neat piles, with all limbs laying in the same direction, which is a lesson I've recently passed on to my youngest son Adam. In the mid-1950s, Dad purchased his first chain saw: A heavy, bulky McCollough-made saw. Yet, even with a new mechanical saw he used the buzz saw for cutting wood for many-years.
Each Saturday, as we prepared to head for the woods with the 10-20 tractor and Dodge stake truck, I tried to round up as many pairs of gloves as I could. Sometimes, I doubled them up in a futile attempt to keep my hands warm and dry. Once we arrived at the wood-cutting site, we swept the snow off the buzz piles and shoveled a path between the truck and the saw pile. Despite my preparations, my gloves were always wet within moments of holding the buzz sticks for the saw. The cold and damp didn't seem to bother Dad in the least, but I fought the cold by curling my fingers inside my gloves or mittens as I walked to get more wood.
That's when the side-manifold exhaust on that old 10-20 tractor came in handy. Whenever my fingers felt nearly frostbitten, I'd run up beside the roaring tractor and hold both hands a couple inches from that hot exhaust. Ah! That heat felt good on my nearly frozen, wet fingers. Best of all, the hot exhaust fumes deflected off my gloves and warmed me all over. Dad continued to saw short, manageable logs while I warmed myself, until I got the look that told me it was time to get back to work. I'd temporarily warmed myself on the tractor, but my time in front of the 'outdoor heater' was never long enough.
With steady work, we filled our 1 1/2-ton truck in three or four hours. Then, to my delight, Dad usually let me drive the truck back while he drove the 10-20. Our farm lane from woods to barn was more than three-quarters of a mile, and Dad's face was bright red from the cold wind after he'd driven the slow-moving tractor back to the shed. The truck's heater wasn't anything to brag about, but at least I was sheltered from the wind.
Fully-loaded with fresh-cut wood, the stake truck was unstoppable in snow. I turned the wheel back and forth slightly on the return trip so the tires would cut into the snow banks that lined the lane, and felt like I was driving a military tank that could go through anything.
After our cinnamon bread break, we unloaded the wood into the basement. We bounced the chunks down into the window well, and they rolled into the basement from there. Sometimes, if we were late getting back, we had to milk the cows first and unload the wood after all the other farm chores were finished. The never-ending work made the cold days seem even colder, but thoughts of Mom's cinnamon bread and hot cocoa always made even the worst work tolerable.
- Harry Macomber was raised on a Michigan farm until he was 24. He now resides in Watertown, Tenn., and works in the printing and publishing industry.