Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Steampunk Lessons from a Family History on Sawmill Operation ~ Part Two by Laurel Wanrow

History Undressed would like to welcome back guest author, Laurel Wanrow, with Part Two of Lessons from a Family History on Sawmill Operation. 

Last week, I introduced my grandfather, Herb Wanrow, and the operation of his steam engine-powered sawmill. To my surprise, according to my aunt, most times Herb would take the sawmill to people.

I’d never heard of a portable sawmill, but understood why Herb moved the operation when she reminded me that back in those times transporting the sawmill was easier than hauling the logs for a building’s worth of lumber to Herb’s farm—and back again! There was one caveat: the location had to have a supply of water. Usually the farmers in the area cut from their timber and dragged the logs with teams of horses or mules to a local water source, then put in a request for Herb to come out.  

However, I learned ‘easier’ was relative when my aunt relayed this story. Herb and his fireman would set off in the morning with the steam engine pulling the entire rig: sawmill on its wheeled platform, water tank mounted on iron wheels and a wagon filled with slabs. First, he’d stop at his parents’ windmill to fill the water tank—just as we would begin a car road trip with topping off the gas tank. With the twelve-foot long metal chamber full, they wouldn’t risk running out steam power.

The steam engine was powerful, but slow. Steering wasn’t ‘power steering’ but a chain running from the steering wheel to each front wheel to change directions. At three to four miles per hour, it took them most of the day to drive to one of the places they frequently set up, Lenning’s farm, five miles away.

I started to correct my aunt on this math, but she reminded me they had to stop to stoke the fire, add wood, and add water to the steam engine, which meant unhooking and bringing the water tank around each time. He’d pretty much use up that tank of water. My grandmother knew the route, so would catch them at noon, taking Herb his lunch along the road. He ate as he drove—fried chicken, pickles, bread and pie or cake. 

Once there, the all the equipment was unloaded and the sawmill set up again, including digging a pit for the sawdust to fall into, aligning the engine to the sawmill so the belt ran straight between the pulleys, and leaving room for the rails and log carriage. 

Then, Herb, could remove his coat and get to the business of directing the next set of customers on how to handle the logs while he operated the sawmill’s blade.

Seeing this really drove home the teamwork involved. Herb might have owned the rig, had the willingness to tinker and adjust, the ability to detect when it was working properly, and the skill to use up that cant efficiently, but he couldn’t do the work by himself.

A lot of steam stories seem to be romanticized, making machinery operation sound easy—the heat, fuel needs and labor to run them glossed over. Listening to my dad and aunt tell these memories of their family helped me to imagine many details for my steampunk story and brought up a few realities I wanted to get right.

Steam machinery is big and slow. I realized that once their equipment was out in the field, my farmworkers would not be returning it to the outbuildings each night. I gave them ‘equipment sheds’ in the fields for temporary storage, and even set the shapeshifter hero’s opening scene there, chasing one of the mysterious pests through the spindly legs of the stored clockwork machinery.

Water and fuel to heat it must be available. I didn’t give this a lot of thought in my early draft. I had boys levering a hand pump to send water to the tank of a two-story tall machine—through a hose. (What was I thinking?) When my aunt mentioned her dad used his parents’ windmill to fill his water sizable water tank, I asked, didn’t your farm have water? Not really, she answered, just a well with a hand pump…and to pump that amount of water by hand was unthinkable. The light dawned: the windmill did the heavy pumping. I immediately put up a windmill on Wellspring Farm (Easy for me say, er, write!) and added a rolling tank to supply the water, via pipes.

Most importantly, I didn’t worry about making all my characters knowledgably about mechanics. In my story, as in real life, not everyone has the same skill set, but everyone’s help is needed.

Herb Wanrow operated his sawmill every winter from the late 1910s to the 1940s. After a couple of seasons, he achieved what he set out to do: he was able to purchase a new car, a 1922 Star Car.  

~ ~ ~

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 his parents, 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.

It’s available on Amazon in ebook and print if you’d like to hold that gorgeous cover in your hands. Laurel can be found on Pinterest, Goodreads, Facebook, @laurelwanrow and blogging at www.laurelwanrow.com. To be notified of new releases sign up for Laurel's Newsletter.

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