Memories of the Steam-Powered Sawmill

Steam-powered sawmill looms large in boyhood experience

| August 2011

As a boy, Gary Chambers spent summers with his grandfather, Doc Brassfield Chambers, in Cleveland, S.C. During those summers more than half a century ago, Gary worked at the steam-powered sawmill his grandfather managed. His recollections capture the end of an era when steam fueled agriculture and industry in America.  

Grandpa was the first person I saw when I got off the bus in Cleveland. His full name was Doc Brassfield Chambers. He was tall and slender and always wore a Stetson hat and a white shirt with black suspenders to hold up his black dress pants. He wore shiny black lace-up high-top shoes. He hardly ever smiled, but had a slight smile on his face when I looked at him. He was the type of man that you listened to but never spoke to unless asked. He never drove; one of his employees drove his 1955 Pontiac Super Chief.

The steam-powered sawmill towered over a two-lane highway. White smoke came out of the mill’s smokestack in small swirls that ribboned across the skyline. The mill was about a sixth of a mile from Grandpa’s house. It was like a sleeping dragon. As we got closer we heard steam hissing from boilers and pistons. The plant was about a city block long and was around 70 feet to the top of the sawyer’s house set above the main roof.

In the morning, when we got to the main wooden steps leading up to the saw deck, Grandpa pulled out his pocket watch and flipped the metal lid to check the time. The men passed by, saying their good morning hellos.

Grandpa ran that mill by his pocket watch. There was no excuse for being late and everyone had to be at his station when those big wheels started turning. Two short blasts on the steam whistle (which could be heard throughout the valley) served as a five-minute warning for start-up. After five minutes the dragon was awake. As the powerful engine slowly started turning, steam began exploding from stacks and pipes throughout the plant. The main steel cam on the oil-soaked, sawdust-covered ground floor started turning and hundreds of belts and pulleys gained speed. The noise was loud like nothing you ever heard in your life.

Testing the carriage

A steady intermittent blast of high pressure came from the carriage operator testing the carriage before the block setter got on. The carriage was the same size as a railroad flat car but with smaller wheels. It sat on railroad tracks about 50 yards long. The carriage operator sat next to the tracks, right behind the band saw that hung on a wheel in the high ceiling above and extended below the plant floor, under the plant, to the wheel coming off the main camshaft.