David Bowden of Goodlettsville, Tenn., likes to build things out of wood and he loves local history – and that’s what led him to become the owner of a 1920 model ’01’ Frick circular sawmill.
The mill formerly belonged to 88-year-old Robert Garrett, a fifth-generation farmer whose land is just down the road from David’s farm. ‘Mr. Robert’s’ father, J.M.Garrett, first bought and operated the sawmill.
‘Years ago, almost every rural community had at least one farm family that owned a mill,’ David notes. ‘With the advent of modern steel manufacturing techniques, farm implement companies began the production of these affordable mills. Aultman & Taylor, Allis Chalmers, J.I. Case, Chandler and Taylor, and, of course, Frick were among the better-known companies that produced these mills. There were a lot more.’
Goodlettsville is near the Shackle Island area, a small, Southern, semi-rural community 25 miles north of Nashville. ‘Many of the houses and farms were started by settlers who received Revolutionary War land grants,’ David says. He grew up during a time when everyone there farmed, but today, suburban sprawl has taken much of the original agricultural land.
‘My wife, Sharon, and I and our three children (now grown) have managed to hang onto 40 acres of rough, hilly land,’ he says. ‘Our house, the barns and sheds are made of old logs and timbers, either salvaged from other buildings or cut from our own woods, recreating the historic style of the area.’
The Garretts’ sawmill helped many local farmers turn logs into lumber over the years. The first mill that the senior Garrett bought was a Frick friction mill, and the power to run it was supplied by a Frick steam engine, which also ran a gristmill on the Garrett farm. ‘Mr. Robert can remember going to Nashville with his dad and pulling that steam engine home with a team of mules,’ David says.
In the early 1930s, the Garretts upgraded to a more-efficient belt-fed mill, the model ’01,’ which is the one David grew up watching, and the one he has restored.
Over the years, the original friction mill was allowed to rot into the ground and the steam engine was permanently parked; eventually, the 1920 belt-fed mill was halted too, and people who needed lumber bought it in a store.
‘I knew it had been many years since the sawmill had run,’ David says, ‘so I approached Mr. (Robert) Garrett on the chance that he would sell it to me. He agreed, and in addition, I got the old friction mill for spare parts. Both mills were of the ’01’ size. The old mill was about half buried by then, and we had to dig it out of the ground.’ The steam engine, now derelict, remains at the Garrett farm.
Frick mills were sized as ’00’ (double aught), the smallest; ‘0,’ the medium, and ’01,’ the largest. The larger the mill, the more heavy-duty its working components, which increased the sawing capacity. Frick also produced commercial grade mills, however it was the ‘0’-rated ones with which most rural people were familiar.
Today, the Frick trademark and all the drawings and rights to build Frick sawmills are owned by Frickco, Inc., of South Bloomingville, Ohio.
David moved the 1920 mill from the Garrett farm to his place with the help of his son and some of the son’s football buddies, and then began construction of a shed over the machine, which took about a year to build.
‘As the building progressed, the saw-pit was dug, the tracks were laid out and the husk and feed works were set in place,’ David recalls. ‘All this was fairly easy, because all that was required was labor. The real problem for me was making the sawmill not only operational but accurate; I was out of my element, and people I had known who could have helped had either gotten along too far in age or had passed on.’
David remembered seeing a sawmill years earlier at Ridgetop, Tenn., which isn’t far from his home, so he revisited the place ‘and as luck would have it, the mill was still there and the owner, Monroe Dorris, was home.’
Dorris had been milling lumber for 50 years at Ridgetop, in addition to working a full-time job, from which he recently had retired. He was willing to help David get his mill going, so together, they began the second year of the two-year restoration project – the fine-tuning stage. Due to the fact that the mill had not run for many years and because metal has a tendency to warp, this proved to be a very time-consuming process.
Not only did Dorris turn out to be a skilled sawyer, though, he proved an expert carpenter and could make or fabricate just about anything related to sawmills, David says, noting he feels really fortunate to have met him.
Dorris also was a good advanced troubleshooter with respect to mechanical problems, and an excellent teacher. ‘He spent endless hours schooling me,’ David says. ‘He said he did it for the fun, but he really was a Good Samaritan.’
David, for his part, remained motivated by his long-time fascination with the old machine: ‘The slapping belts, the clanking dust chain, the back and forth motion of the carriage and log, and the whirring of the blade’ all sparked a special excitement in him.
Aligning the mill proved a real challenge. The two men used string and little wooden shims to get the job done. ‘I never knew you could stretch string that tight,’ David says, noting he and Dorris were trying to align the mill to achieve 1/16th accuracy when sawing.
Neither the pulley nor the shafting were true after so many years, so both had to be replaced, and the pulley size was increased from 24 inches to 30 to better accommodate the power source that David ended up using – a 471 Detroit engine, about 135 hp, that ‘runs like a sewing machine’ and that was bought used from an Amish family.
The sawmill’s 52-inch blade came with the mill from the Garrett farm and is made of 9-gauge steel, now obsolete in saw blades; David had it hammered and he notes, ‘it stands up very nicely and cuts really well.’
With the 52-inch blade, he says, he can cut about a 25- or 26-inch board. Every 700-to-800 board feet, he must stop and sharpen the blade again. He says commercial mills have machines that clean logs before they’re sawed, so blades don’t have to be sharpened so often, but he uses an old-fashioned axe, a brush and a broom. Sharpening the blade takes about 30 minutes, and David uses a mechanical Atlas file, which does a more consistent job than a hand-held flat file.
He saws hardwood – oak, cherry and walnut, mostly – with the restored mill to make lumber for his personal use. He’s building a wood shop now and says he hopes eventually to build a barn in the cantilevered style, which is traditional in the Smoky Mountains.
The main thing to remember with the restored sawmill, David says, is to be safe. ‘It’s more dangerous than motorcycle riding or truck driving,’ he notes. ‘You can cut something off – like an arm – so quick. Debris gets into your eyes, and the noise can affect your hearing. It’s inherently dangerous.’
He adds he’s increasingly sensitive to the fact that spending a lot of time fine-tuning tolerances on a dangerous machine makes a person more aware of the thin line all people walk each day without even knowing it.
Still, he loves the mill. ‘I wanted something that would fit in with our farm -something of more permanence than an off-the-shelf ‘quick-fix’ – and I wanted to help preserve some of my community’s history. I know you can’t go back, but that doesn’t mean you have to let go.’
– For more information about David’s sawmill, contact him at 344 Happy Hollow Rd., Goodlettsvilk, TN 37072.