Rescuing an Old Sawmill

By Staff
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Rick lashes the mill to the trailer for final removal.
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Jonathan White puts his back into freeing a line shaft from an enveloping tree.
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Tom (front) and Rick Warner get the sawmill's pulleys ready for removal;
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A spur gear from the mill, buried in years of forest debris;

In December 2002, my good friend Jonathan White, Coward, S.C., asked if I’d help him recover a sawmill he had acquired. The mill was in a pine forest, where it had been rotting away for years, but Jonathan said it was all there, even if the wood on the unit had rotted away. Jonathan and I both enjoy restoring old equipment, so we know how important it is to carefully disassemble machinery so it will go back together. I’ve already restored a mill, so I was ready for the challenge and the prospect of another day at the sawmill.

First look
We picked a Saturday to look at the mill, and our plan was simply to take some pictures and look over the parts so we could see what we were up against. Working our way into the forest of 15-year-old pines where the mill sat, it was evident it had been there a long time. As I looked and knelt among the remains, my mind wondered back to the hills of West Virginia. The year was 1952 and I was 12 years old. I was helping my Dad run a steam-powered sawmill in a remote part of the state called Cody Town. We were staying in a one-room shanty near the mill, and a creek with brook trout was not far away. It would be the best summer of my childhood. Every morning at 4 a.m. we got up, walked a short distance to the mill, filled up the boiler with water, started the fire, and by 7 a.m. another day at the mill started. Now, 50 years later, I’m back in the woods looking at the remains of a similar mill.

The mill we found was a ‘Sumter,’ probably made in Sumter, S.C., sometime in the 1920s. This was once a steam-powered sawmill in its early days, as we found parts of a boiler and water fill mechanism nearby. Maybe the boiler blew up or rusted out, or maybe it was sold for junk, but a McCormick-Deering 15-30, cut in half and made into a power unit, had replaced the steam power. I’m sure it didn’t have much power for a mill of this size, but it was probably good on fuel. Luckily, a protective sheet of tin covered the unit’s vitals through the years, and this 15-30 looked complete. The old engine will run again soon, but probably only for display.

Getting it out
We dug up parts and pieces and chopped a line shaft out of a big gum tree. We were having fun, but the sun was going down on another day at the sawmill. That first Saturday we managed to bring out one pickup load of the mill and made our plans to get the rest.

The following Saturday we were back on site early. Frost was on the metal and everything was cold. We snapped a few pictures and then went back to the task at hand. The carriage, at just short of 20 feet long and perhaps 1,500 pounds, was the longest and heaviest part of the mill. We were concerned about putting the carriage on our boat trailer, but once we got it rolling up a make-shift ramp all went well. It snapped and popped as we moved it, but like a homeless dog, I could tell this mill wanted to go home with us.

Jonathan has a lot of work ahead of him, but surprisingly most of the mill’s gears, cogs and iron works are in good shape. All of the shafts run on babbitt bearings, but those will probably get changed to rollers.

I looked at the gears and pulleys as we loaded them on the trailer, and again my mind went back to that mill in West Virginia. I could see the big and small pulleys turning the belts, hear them flapping and the saw humming as it went through the log. The experience of that summer put ideas in my head that would benefit me all of my life. If you’ve never been around a steam-powered sawmill, you’ve missed a great experience. The sawmill did great things for our country. It provided lumber for homes and business and enabled many a poor man to build – and keep – his home. This poor man and his wife restored a mill, sawed the lumber and built their home. As my granddaddy would tell me, a hungry man will do anything. Jonathan is ahead of the game in these areas, but he will be a much wiser man when he finishes this project. It was a pleasure to help him on this part of his adventure and spend another day at the sawmill.

As a footnote, Jonathan wants to pay a special tribute to the man who made acquisition of this sawmill possible, Robert Walkup of Florence, SC. Robert purchased the entire outift about five years ago, mostly for the McCormick-Deering power unit. After looking things over, he agreed to give Jonathan the sawmill in exchange for extracting and hauling the power unit for him. Sadly, Robert passed away this past March. Loved by all who knew him, he was truly an honorable man. He loved tractors, but could fix just about anything. This sawmill will be restored in his memory.

Contact engine enthusiast Tom Loudin at: 2350 Salem Road, Scranton, SC 29591.

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