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 source.
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.
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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.
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.