Woman – Powered Sawmill

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Taking advantage of the time the mill is shut down (for belt repairs) to climb the conveyor that takes sawdust from the mill in order to remove a a piece of bark that was clogging it.
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The woman power that operates Ezra Rust's sawmill comes, for the most part, from these two his daughter-in-law, Nona Spivey, foreground, and his granddaughter, Elizabeth Rust, 15.

Courier-Journal Staff Writer


If EZRA RUST doesn’t rate as an authority on the various
kinds of power, then he should do very well as a pinch-hitter until
some real authority turns up.

For Mr. Rust is a gray-headed party who, one way and another,
deals daily with at least three brands of power at the little
sawmill he operates down in the south western corner of Simpson

The assorted powers, not especially in order, are: horse, man
and woman. To explain: the horsepower comes from a couple of
ancient steam engines which drive the sawmill; the man power comes
from Rust and his son-in-law, James Spivey; the woman power comes
from Rust’s daughter and granddaughter, and sometimes even his

The men and women of the Rust family provide the entire work
force for the mill, which is near Price’s Grain Mill on the Red
River. The various are passed around without regard to sex. All the
women really know the time of day when it comes to the various
phases of sawmilling.

Nona Spivey, the 28-year-old daughter, hauls the logs from the
forest to mill, operates the big 54-inch circular saw, keeps the
books, helps load logs on the carriage which takes them past the
saw blade, sometimes off bears that is, handles the boards as they
are sawed from the log and at times actually cuts down the

Elizabeth Rust, the 15-year-old granddaughter, fires the boiler
of the steam engine and handles the controls, serves as off –
bearer, measurers the cut lumber and does first one thing and then
another around the premises, such as repairing the belt that
connects the steamer with the mill and patching up the

She also is much better than a raw hand when it comes to sawing
and figuring up in her head the board feet in a log, itself a
complicated mathematical maneuver that requires one of have his, or
her, first-string brain available at all times.

Although not a regular contributor, Mrs. Rust, Ezra’s wife,
helps out occasionally by taking the boards from the saw and
stacking the sawed lumber.

‘This really is a family proposition,’ says Rust.
‘We all do what we can and just take our time.

‘We cut from 3,000 to 4,000 board feet a day, owing to how
we feel, but we have cut as high as 7,000 feet in a day.’

It’s really a quite but not quiet large sight to see the
sawmilling women in action. There’s absolutely nothing they
can’t and won’t and don’t do.

The noise from the hissing old steamer and from the saw which
makes more racket than a dormitory full of All-America-caliber
snorers is so much you can hardly hear yourself think. But the gals
know exactly what the jobs are and they move from one thing to
another without any directions being given.

Elizabeth Rust, who weighs no more than 100 pounds even when
wearing her brightest bandana head covering, already has fired up
the 19-horsepower steamer by the time the others are ready for
work. She starts the fire with coal, and throws on Wood slabs until
the boiler pressure reaches 160 pounds. Then she gives a couple of
toot-toots on the whistle and the rest of the crew take their

Nona Spivey presides at the saw, while her husband, Jim, and
Ezra Rush pull a big white-oak log up on the carriage. Elizabeth
Rust starts up the steamer engine with a feather-light touch. If
she starts it too quickly, the big belt will come flopping off the

Mrs. Spivey eases forward the lever which starts the carriage,
and the oak log clamped on it, past the saw blade. There is a
shower of bark and sawdust as the blade bites into the log.

Rust catches the bark-covered slab as it falls off the log and
tosses it to one side. The carriage reverses itself, and Mrs.
Spivey pulls on another lever which adjusts the log to the blade
for the next cut. Then the sawing process is repeated.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth is watching all the dials on the steamer.
When the water level begins to fall, she pumps in more Water. She
keeps the fire roaring under the boiler by stoking it with more
slabs of wood. The old steamer rocks and strains and hisses

LISTEN to her growl and grunt,’ says Rust as an especially
thick log is put on the carriage.

The log is so think, in fact, that the blade can’t bite all
the way through it. So much pressure is put on the belt attached to
the steamer flywheel that it breaks with a loud snap and flops
almost to the top of the tin-roofed shed housing the mill

Elizabeth jockeys the steamer to a halt and the whole crew
begins scurrying around for equipment with which to repair the

Finally things are ready to roll again. Elizabeth Rust eases
forward the throttle of the steamer, Nona Spivey grips the saw-
control lever and the mill is in operation once more.

‘I showed Elizabeth what to do with the steamer for a day or
two and then I turned her loose,’ Rust says. ‘Now she’s
one of the best hands I ever saw.

‘She’s one of four grandchildren I’m raising,’
he continues. ‘Two of the grand boys are in school, but they
help out on Saturdays. There’s another little girl, just 5, who
already is trying to give me a hand by oiling the belts.’

Rust, who came to Kentucky from North Carolina 18 years ago, has
two steam engines that he alternates in powering the mill.
He’ll use the 19-horsepower engine about six months, then
replace it with a 22-horsepower job for six months.

But it isn’t the horsepower or the man power that makes
things tick around the Rust mill it’s the woman power.

‘I’d really be handicapped if I didn’t have Nona and
Elizabeth,’ Rust confesses.

Which, after seeing them in action around and about the mill,
stands as the undersigned of the year.

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