Skip Navigation

40 Years of Sawmilling

By Steve Dye

A logging and milling operation run by Wayne Fox in Wood County about 1900. All photos courtesy of Steve Dye.

It was late 1945 or early 1946 when U. S. Grant “Lyss” Dye, my grandfather, bought our first sawmill. It was in Wood County near Parkersburg. My dad was in the army in the Philippines. Granddad had just retired from the oil-rig business and was hoping his two head-block mill would supplement his farming income. (See “Building Rigs the Old Way: Oilman U.S. Dye” by Steve Dye in Winter 2009.)

Granddad couldn’t get everything he needed to set up the mill properly. The best power source he could come up with was an old Buick straight-eight engine from his junked eight-seat passenger car. The Buick engine had too many RPMs and not enough lugging power, but Granddad made do with what he could get. He built a wooden flywheel—about six feet across and maybe 10 inches thick—to even out the power flow between the engine and the saw. It didn’t work too well, so he left it on the ground to rot. Part of it was still lying in the pasture in the 1970s.

With so many men overseas, help was hard to come by. Grandma Dye’s sister, Mary Devol, often served as off-bearer, carrying the boards and slabs away from the saw. Wearing some of her brother Charley’s old clothes and one of Granddad’s old hats, she looked like a male worker from a distance. I don’t know what Aunt Mary got for her efforts, but she enjoyed it. In her later years, she’d climb up the hill [behind her house?] to watch us saw at the mill.

To skid logs to the mill, Granddad first used a ’35 Fordson farm tractor; however, the steel cleats on the rear tires caught in tree roots too easily, making the process dangerous. As an alternative, they used Duke, their strawberry-roan workhorse. They’d bought Duke as a trained seven-year-old gelding for $200. While plowing, he’d stop at the least sign of resistance, like hitting a large rock or root, to avoid breaking the plow. Sometimes, Duke could be aggravating since he’d stop whenever the plow clipped anything as little as some hardpan. Pulling logs, though, Duke took the opposite approach. When a log got held up by a root, stump, or rock, he’d get into a near crouch and then straighten his powerful rear legs until something gave.

When Dad returned from overseas, Granddad became an off-bearer and turned over the sawyer’s job to him. Although Dad was named “U. S.” like his father, he was known variously as John, Junior, or June. Being a sawyer was the most strenuous job in the mill since it involved heavy-lifting tasks, like rolling and adjusting logs on the carriage. Most neighbors living today remember Dad, not Granddad, as the “sawmill guy.”

In 1947, Dad used $1,200 of his G.I. Bill money to buy an International U-9 Gasoline Power Unit, which replaced the old straight-eight engine. It was mounted on steel skids, started with a hand crank, and had no gas tank. Dad connected a piece of rubber hose to the fuel pump with a length of copper tubing connected to the hose. This turned the gas can also into a gas tank. He laid an old rag over the spout to keep dirt and sawdust from getting into the gas. No one could steal the gas at night since there was none left at the mill. To save on fuel, Dad rigged the throttle control to a lever by the sawyer’s position so he could let the engine idle except when the saw was in a cut. He and his crew could saw at a comfortable pace all day and burn only about a gallon of gas an hour.

Winter or summer, the U-9 typically required only two cranks to start—one with the choke closed, and the second with it open. If it needed more, the sparkplugs likely needed to be cleaned or changed. Of course, the points and distributor got replaced a few times over the years—and the magneto once—but the faithful U-9 ran 40 years without an overhaul.

The next order of business was to replace the cotton belt, which Granddad had scrounged from some used oilfield equipment. It’d worked fine with the old Buick engine, but when the governor of the U-9 opened up, it was more strain than the age-weakened belt could take. They bought a new belt and laced together the ends with a leather thong; eventually, they switched to a lightweight metal alligator clamp.

When Dad was in school in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Granddad bought 180 acres of timberland that straddled Spider Ridge Road. Roughly 80 acres were on the east side of the road (where the Stone Creek housing development is now in Parkersburg); about 100 acres lay on the west side. The 80-acre side is the site of Woodyard Cave, a once popular destination for neighborhood picnickers and hikers. This area was mostly covered with Virginia Pine, suggesting it’d been cleared for farmland until about 1900.

Since it was all “hill and holler,” the 100-acre side had never been plowed nor timbered—except for a small section where a neighbor trespassed—leaving a lot of virgin hardwoods. The rest was mostly second-growth hardwoods—a good size for tie logs.

My folks were married in June 1948. My mom remembers Dad and Granddad spending as much time running the mill as their farm work would allow. By then, Ole Duke had been relegated back to farming, and the logging was done with a 1947 Ford Ferguson tractor. They mounted chains on the Ferguson’s rear tires for better traction in the soft wood’s dirt and for when the trails got muddy. Three older cousins—Mike Dawkins, Jimmy Smith, and Ed Canary—helped out at different times. Jimmy would sit on the hood to hold down the front end. He’d straddle the tractor and, with his gloved hands glued to the oversized radiator cap, ride the bucking front end like he was in a rodeo. Granddad steered with the brakes, and his muddy five-buckle artic boots sometimes slipped off the pedals, making the experience even more thrilling. This practice likely wouldn’t be approved by OSHA today. Jimmy says it’s a wonder he survived since Granddad had a bad habit of running into trees. That problem was compounded by Granddad’s tendency to pull back on the steering wheel and yell, “Whoa!” just before impact.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.