Beech logs

Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.

Joe Fahnestock

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Dayton Daily News & Radio's 'Joe's Journal'

Down the Hogpath we went, then, b'aring to the left, up a narrow com lane walled in by towering Miami County hybrids so thick you could hardly make the next turn. Lucky no one was coming out that lane or one of us would have to do some tall maneuvering at backing out to where we'd started, lest one or t'other 'd wind up in 'ither cornfield thick enough to frighten even a raccoon from entering.

'T was a balmy summer afternoon, the tell-tale whiffs of kerosene exhaust wafting from the old tin stack, slightly askew atop the open-air shed and the on-and-off chugging of an old Rumely Oil-Pull let us know our journey was not in vain.

The smell of fresh-sawn lumber, the sight of a big 22-inch beech log being rolled over into position, the whine of the big 52-inch saw blade as old Rumely tugged at the flopping belt convinced us without a doubt that 'Old Independent' was buzzing timber that day.

'You caught us just right,' said Clyde Robbins, taking time out for a giant chew which consisted of Red Fox scrap, mingled with sawdust dropping from off his head-sawyer's cap while son, Don, lugged another one-by-four-inch beech board from the saw table to a stack out back. 'Feller just phoned yesterday afternoon for us to cut down these beech trees and haul these logs over for sawin'.'

'Found a whole bunch of beech over in Phebe McBride's woods up the road,' said he, between chaws to settle his fresh cud. 'Don't find much beech a-round these parts anymore.'

'Making up these boards for A. & L. Woodworking Products out of Tipp City, Ohio,' shouted the diminutive head-sawyer Clyde Robbins over the rumbling, vibrating machinery that fairly shook the ramparts of the little old sawmill building and the cornfields a-bout it. 'Feller once asked me what we call our sawmill company, 'n I answered, 'Old Independent--'cause we saw when we want to, 'n don't when we don't. We farm when we're not saw-in', 'n we saw when we're not farmin'.'

Though a small man in stature, the 75-year old Clyde Robbins is a giant among men when it comes to buzzing the big ones that arrive at one end of his little country sawmill into boards just the right size which son Don stacks out the other end. Despite his limp, suffered ever since polio struck him when he was past forty, he rises early of a mornin' to face into the chores of the day, be it farming orsawmilling--whatever he and Don have chalked up for the labors at hand. Whether it's cultivating between the com rows, each on their own tractor, or sawing up beech boards down by the jog in cornfield lane, there's a certain country togetherness that one misses in the hurried, harrowed world just beyond their line fence.

'Polio left me stiff--I can't walk too good or bend over, but I never thought a man was of much use bein' idle just 'cause he was crippled up a little,' says Clyde--a shining example of fortitude to many who give up in the face of physical handicaps. 'When it struck, I wound up in bed. I could move my legs, but couldn't tell which way they'd go. One arm would not move, but I made my good arm force the weak one into action. I made up my mind it would work--and it has ever since,' added the head sawyer, helping Don maneuver another beech log into position.

'This little riggin' is what we call a 'Poor Man's Log-Turner',' explained Clyde. 'Don built it out of junk parts that others throw away. Saves lots of work for us--rolling logs up into position and turning them over on the carriage.'

'I use a little horse-and-a-half Novo Engine, made in Lansing, Mich., about forty years ago, to power this hoist,' says Don. 'Sure a big help to us when we're busy sawing.'

There were other extra Rube Gold-bergian contraptions which son Don had rigged up--a car generator and battery run off the main belt line to lengthen the sawmill day by lighting five bulbs in and around as well as over the machinery. And there was the specially contrived hand throttle, placed right in front of head sawyer Clyde's position, at saw feed level to the sawmill carriage, enabling him to give that needed extra spurt to old Rumely's vibrating innards just prior to edging the big log into the blade.

The Ronninses, father and son, fetch more beech logs up to Old Independent Sawmill from Phebe McBride's woods. That's the head sawyer, 77 year old Clyde, hanging onto the rear of that tractor.

Don Robbins manipulates 'Poor Man's Log Roller and Turner' which he rigged from old junk parts that others throw away. Powered by 40 year old horse and a half Novo Engine, seen behind log. Don's Rube Goldbergian contraptions help keep 'Old Independent Sawmill' running fit as a fiddle.

Too, there is the old Lewellen Vari-Speed pulley and gear box which Don and Clyde rescued from Troy's Gum Products' industrial scrap pile and affixed directly over the saw mandril to afford the head sawyer whatever power-ratio is called for in the sawing of logs.

'I like to saw with steam. Started sawing with an old 16-horse Baker back in the orchard. There was no sawmill building,' reminisces Clyde. 'After a year I bought an old 15-horse Case Engine, then sawed with a Keck-Gonner-man a short while. But soon as I got a chance to sell'em, I bought a Buffalo-Pitts single IB-horse and sawed quite a little with it, right here at the present sawmill site. One day I had been sawing some pretty heavy stuff and the boiler inspector must've spied some smoke coming out of the stack. He drove back here and told me, 'I ordered you to quit using that engine. It's unsafe.' But I told him, 'Oh, I just run this old steam engine in here to have its picture took'.'

When I junked that old Buffalo-Pitts, and saw how thin the boiler was, I was quite relieved,' says Clyde, 'The only steam engine I really felt safe with was the Keck-Gonnerman. It had a thick boiler.'

'Went over to Rumelys back in '42,' explained Clyde. 'We have two 25-40's--one here on the sawmill, the other back in the barn for grinding feed.'

'Both Rumelys are around 1928 models,' added Don Robbins who figures, after trial and experience, that a third white gas and the rest kerosene add about a third more power to the old Oil-Pulls than just straight coal oil. 'I made a little test and, outside of a little belt trouble and idling time, we figure we can saw about five-hundred feet of lumber on five gallons of fuel--or a gallon of fuel to a hundred board feet.'

What both Clyde and Don Robbins like best about the Rumelys is that they keep right on running, summer and winter, over the years, with very little repair bills.

'They're good tractors,' says Clyde. 'And they get by with as little fuel as anything we've used.'

Despite their double roles as farmers and sawmillers, head-sawyer Clyde Robbins tries to 'tend the Darke County Threshers show each year, and Don has shown one of the Rumelys, testing it on the Baker Fan and putting it through the usual paces as is expected in exhibiting the grand old era of kerosene internal-combustion on the American farm.

But almost as proud as they are of their Rumelys, the Robbinses also bask in the glory of their antique sawmill riggin'--the carriage and husk are original Gaar-Scott, manufactured at Richmond, Indiana, ninety years ago, the blocks and knees are of Farquhar manufacture.

'We're using the fourth 'set works' that's been in there,' comments the head sawyer.

'What you're seeing here is almost a lost art,' reminded Clarence Walpole, a retired Allis-Chalmers and Hudson Dealer in Troy, Ohio, who had dropped by to inspect a stack of panelling sawed from poplar at the Old Independent Sawmill earlier that day.

'Some just like to come and sit a-round and watch,' says Clyde Robbins. 'Clem Bruckner, brother of the Waco Airplane Manufacturer, comes out often while we are sawing. He used to be with the Nichols and Shepard Company.'

'Me--? There's one thing I like better than sawin'--and that's settin' on a beech log and just talking with folks,' mused Clyde. 'Stay around a while, I hate to see you go.'

'Maw'n him (Don) kept complaining 'bout my fav'rite old rockin' chair. Claimed I needed a new one,' said Clyde, emptying his chew and filling up again. 'Hut I always noticed when I wasn't a-settin' in it, they'd be settin' in it. And if they weren't settin'in it, the cat was.'

'After fifteen years of trying, Don and I finally were able to get away and get Dad a new chair,' smiled Dorothy -- Mrs. Robbins, the wife of head-sawyer Clyde. 'His old one was so 'done in1, after forty-four years.'

'But I aint hardly set in the new one,' sulked Clyde.

Though the Robbinses may not make many of the summertime engine reunions, every day is 'show time' at the old Independent Sawmill and 'round the Robbins' country home, where wood slabs, fresh from the Rumely sawmill arc still stacked by the rick for cookin' n heatiw', the eggs are gathered daily from clucking red hens, the hogs are slopped, the corn cultivated--and everyone gathers round the dinner table for country eating and visitin'.

Uncluttered by busy highway traffic, here the Robbinses live and work as did their forefathers of yesteryear. And to it all, the charming Mrs. Robbins (Dorothy), a former school ma'arm in several one-room country schools, lends a touch of the intellectual and literary. Through her lucid mind and penetrating soul there seems to be an earthy poetry to all that is country living--whether it's planting garden seed, gathering the eggs, preserving red raspberries and stewing apple sauce or making life comfortable and filling for the head sawyer and son who come in tired after a day down at the Old Independent Sawmill by the lane.

To head sawyer, Spark Plug Clyde Robbins, his son Don, and lovely wife Dorothy, we thank you for keeping and preserving our beautiful American farm ways, pure from the maddening world outside. And for being very much alive at seventy-five, a seat in our honored Hall of Spark Plug Fame to you, bonnie Clyde.

A 25-40 Rumely is the main power at Old Independent Sawmill down Hogpath Road, west of Troy, Ohio. Don Robbins steps aboard old Rumely to give her a spurt of needed power to get through that next beech log.

Head sawyer, Clyde Robbins, edges big 22-inch beech log into the blade, son Don latches onto the board (right foreground).

Head sawyer, Clyde Robbins, has just cut first edge off big beech log. Son Don lugs it off to pile in background of 'Old Independent Sawmill'. Tall Miami County corn in background.

Head sawyer, Clyde Robbins, edges the set works into place for next board. Son Don lugs off another board in background.

(And who knows--maybe Mrs. Robbins will even give me a spare sprig to start a new red raspberry bush for writing this all.)