Autumn at the Sawmill

Reader Contribution by Dave Boyt
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After a summer of enduring 100-degree temperatures, fighting off ticks, and chiggers, dealing with dehydration, and cooling down overheated engines, the crisp air and solitude of autumn is a welcome, and all-to-brief break before I start worrying about antifreeze, tire chains, firewood, and frozen water lines.

The crisp air has a sense of urgency. I know winter is on the way and there are a lot of preparations, but I can enjoy a few days before firing up the log splitter. The problem is, a few days turns into a few weeks, and once again, I’m rushing around (usually after dark) draining the radiators and engine blocks of anything that might not have antifreeze in it, bringing in plants that shouldn’t freeze, and setting up a light to warm the pump house. Usually, around 2:00 or so, I’ll wake up with the nagging feeling I had forgotten something … but what?  The answer comes when I try to make a pot of coffee. Oh. I forgot to leave the faucet dripping, and the water line froze. How is it that the water line can freeze overnight, but take two days to thaw out? I take some out of the emergency reserve (5:00 a.m. and no coffee IS an emergency!).

The old Ford 8N tractor is even less enthusiastic about working in cold weather than I am. Straight 30 weight tractor oil is like molasses at twenty degrees and the 6-volt battery, several years past its expiration, was barely able to make the starter groan. A 12-volt kick from the old Chevy flatbed and a shot of ether into the air filter brought two, then three of the tractor’s four cylinders the tractor to life. A minute later the fourth cylinder warmed up enough to kick in, and the engine smoothed out. Hydraulics run slowly at that temperature, but eventually, the loader lifted high enough off the ground to allow forward movement. The tractor continues with a cantankerous attitude as I set the first log on the mill. Instead of setting it down gently, the front end loader drops it all at once, rolling the log over the stops and off the other side of the mill.

Other than closing the choke a little longer than usual, the Norwood sawmill never seems to be much affected by the weather. With a touch of throttle, the clutch kicks in and the blade turns smoothly. Here in Missouri, we don’t have the vivid colors of New England. Sassafras and sumac provide yellow and red, but oak and hickory leaves just turn a rusty brown (which means the old tractor is well camouflaged this time of year) before they fall off the trees. Ears adjust to quiet, much as eyes adjust to the dark. When I shut down the sawmill, everything seems silent at first. Soon I became aware of the louder sounds—a dog barking out in the woods, a flock of geese winging their way south, and traffic off in the distance.  With deer season just a week away, there is occasional gun fire, as neighbor sights in his rifle and does a little target practice. After forty years of using a chain saw, the more subtle sounds are lost to my ears, but I know them well. The west wind rattles the leaves in the trees and blows a chill in the air.  My coffee, by now, has frozen over, and I have to jab a hole in it with a screwdriver to get any caffeine. There must be some way to rig a way to keep it warm with the heat from the engine’s exhaust.

Maybe I could even cook with it—or at least warm up a sandwich. Another million-dollar idea to file away for another day.

There are no orders to meet, so this is a good day to just pick through the log piles. There is a walnut log with an interesting shape, sycamore that is just crying out to be quarter-sawn, and a maple out of a yard in town—probably full of nails, but there might be interesting wood inside. I take a final look around, savor the quiet for a few more seconds, then fire up the mill to see what’s inside that maple log.