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Welcome guest author Laurel Wanrow to History Undressed! Laurel has written a two part series about Sawmill Stories. Below you will find part one and she will be back again next week to share part two with us! Thank you Laurel for sharing with us!!
Steampunk Lessons from a Family
History on Sawmill Operation ~ Part One
By Laurel Wanrow
While writing The Unraveling,
I was asked why I chose to locate my steampunk story in the countryside instead
of London or another city, the gritty setting of most steampunks. I thought on
this, and finally came to the conclusion it’s because I’d never been to London.
Now you have to understand,
I’ve never lived on a farm either. But my dad did, and I’d been to plenty of
farms. It’s a case of write what you know…almost. Machinery and steam engines
were new territory for me, but here I had family help again. My grandfather—my
dad’s father—owned and ran steam engines. Through stories my dad and his sister
told I could more easily imagine life on a farm working with those big engines
than any adventure in London’s back alleys.
Let me stop here and give
fair notice that this article is an oral history, not a research document. This
two part series of sawmill stories is a recollection of the times and how I
used family tales to enhance my novel.
My grandfather, Herbert F.
Wanrow, was a first generation American born in 1889 to a farming family in eastern
Nebraska. But Herb didn’t seem to take to that life. Typical of most young men, he liked fancy cars…but needed an income
to get them. By the time Herb reached his twenties in the 1910s, he was selling
farm machinery. Companies such as Gleaner, Oliver, Avery, Case and Meikle
shipped the parts in crates by rail to their nearest town, Humboldt, and Herb
hauled them home with a horse and wagon and put them together.
Selling farm machinery was
seasonal work, so pretty quickly Herb put his money into purchasing a sawmill
to keep work going into the fall and winter.
Pouring over our photos, I
got a sense of scale for an operation that these days most of us only see the
results of in Home Depot. My grandfather’s sawmill consisted of the large
upright blade and its mechanical parts, all of which were mounted in a substantial
wheeled platform. Under the platform is a pit, dug to accommodate the sawdust. To
move a sizable log—such as the one Herb is leaning against—past the blade with
the precision to produce lumber required a wheeled carriage set on rails. This
log (once cut, the tree trunk was always referred to as a log) has passed
through the blade three times already to ‘square it up’, or remove the bark. After
the final bark slab is removed, it’ll be called a cant.
For all that, the sawmill is
only half the equipment needed; like many machines of the day, it wasn’t self-powered,
but operated with a secondary source. By 1923, self-propelling machinery was
being patented, but that doesn’t mean everyone could or did use it. During this
time, in this part of Nebraska, horses or mules still powered the farm
implements. But a sawmill required more power, so Herb also bought a steam
engine. Its power is transmitted to the sawmill with a belt that runs around the
wheel-like pulley to the far right.
Herb set up his steam engine with
a windbreak of slabs some distance from the sawmill and ran the long belt
between the two. Feeding wood—usually the endless supply of slabs—into the
firebox at the back was the work of one full-time helper, a fireman. Another
helper filled the water tanks on the back and front of the engine from a water
tank on a wheeled carriage…and kept that water tank refilled from the closest
For one entrepreneur, Herb (in
the felt hat) ran quite an operation. Beyond his fireman, the hands helping
were usually the customer he was cutting wood for, and his boys or hired hands.
They rolled the log onto the carriage, and then turned it with cant hooks.
Using the upright ‘dogs’ to hold the log in place on the rolling carriage, Herb
moved log after log through the blade to produce cants. From them, he cut the rough
lumber to fill his customers’ orders.
Only Herb did the sawing,
riding in a seat along the cant. It was an art to size up and turn the cant to
get the most efficient board feet out of it. Depending on what board dimensions
the customer desired—thickness and length—Herb either advanced the cant with a
notched cog for the next cut, or directed helpers to turn it. Helpers then
carried off each board and stacked them so the weight of the pile would keep
them from twisting. (My dad noted that in this photo, the stacks don’t look
very good—but those fell to the customer to take care of.)
Herb Wanrow owned the only
steam engine and sawmill in the area. Word of his skill as a sawmill operator
spread and those stacks of lumber earned him a winter income. Next week I’ll
share how my grandfather took his business on the road.
~ ~ ~
Laurel Wanrow has dabbled in
genealogy since high school, recording family history tales from both sides of
her family, and her husband’s. She’s lucky enough to be caretaker for the
Wanrow family cabin in the Rocky Mountains, built by her father and grandparents,
though the lumber did not come from Herb’s sawmill.
The Unraveling, Volume One of
The Luminated Threads is Laurel’s debut novel, a Steampunk Fantasy Romance is
set in Victorian England in a rural valley of shapeshifters and magic.
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