The Haircut Engine

By Staff
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The old millhouse.
2 / 3
The horizontal A-frame grist mill. All pictures 7/10/96.
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The 10 HP IHC engine.

2507 S.W. Rockhouse Road Madison, Alabama 35758

Being retired, my brother Joe and I see each other often. His hobby is woodworking, while mine is salvaging old iron. Also, both of us enjoy another hobby Indian artifact collecting. We hunt together quite often, so we have plenty of time to talk. During a visit to his home, we were discussing where our next trip would take us. Mostly, we walked in planted fields or river banks, but this day, with the temperature in the nineties, we decided to wait for a cooler day. I mentioned that I needed a haircut and was going to the local barbershop.

Joe told me that he had a friend a retired barber who still cut hair occasionally, who probably would cut mine if I wanted him to. We called and he said to come on over. His name is Bill Erwin.

While there, I mentioned old engines, as most old iron nuts do. It turned out Bill had run an old grist mill and feed mill when he was eleven or twelve years old, and a large old one lunger was the power supply. Bill loved to talk, so for thirty minutes he told us about his father, and life in the hills of Tennessee.

Bill’s father had been a woodworker and whittler. He made such things as walking sticks, stools, chairs, baskets, etc., generally selling his wares on Saturday of each week at local flea markets and hardware stores. As sales would get slow in a community, they moved on to another. This time, they would move to the old grist mill site. The owner of the grist mill let them live in the house rent free, just for running the grist mill and feed mill one day a week, and that day was Friday. The owner also got his feed for the cattle ground that same day. The general store, also owned by this same man, sold the corn meal on Saturday, and of course the following week.

When Friday came, Bill’s job was to operate the grist mill, while his father took care of his whittling and woodworking chores to be prepared for Saturday. Bill, being only eleven or twelve years old (he is now seventy), could not start the big engine, so his father started it and then left it to Bill to run and maintain. Bill fed the mill with corn and sacked the meal along with any adjustments to be made. He also ran the feed mill.

By now, you are probably thinking the same thing I am. The old engine and mill couldn’t still be there after all these years. Well, Bill said it was still there, as he had gone back five years ago. Even though I was both optimistic and doubtful, we decided to make the 150 mile trip in a few days, just to make sure. Bill told us that we would have to walk over a mile to get to the old site.

The day finally came when we were to make the trip. My brother Joe and I arrived at Bill’s house around 7:00 a.m. Bill told us that he, being a big man of 295 pounds, would not attempt to walk in to the site, but would wait in the truck for us. He also warned us of the Tennessee rattlesnakes, ticks, and other pests. Rattlesnakes or any other pests or conditions won’t deter an old iron nut, as you already know.

After winding through hills and valleys, we arrived at a trail leading to the mill site. There was a road to follow, but a locked gate prevented us from going on, so we had to walk farther than we expected. After getting drinks, food, flashlight, etc., Joe and I started walking. Bill had laid out the route or trails to take and other directions. He had mentioned an old house with a dog trot and a large barn that we would pass. The old house had recently burned down, but the barn was still there. We continued to follow the directions Bill had given us mostly trails which were old and grown up. After a mile or so up and down hills, we came to where the old mill was supposed to be. It was a wooded area and nothing could be seen from the edge of the woods. We walked farther down what had once been a wagon trail, but now had ten to twelve inch trees growing in it. There it was an old falling shack right in front of us. Joe entered through the side of the shack, as some planks were missing, and I entered through what was once a door. Well, guess what. The old engine was still there and the old ‘A’ frame horizontal grist mill, but no feed grinder. Ground hogs had undermined the floor and the old engine was almost on its side. We had to be very careful where we stepped, as the floor was almost rotted away. As Bill had said, it was a big engine with flywheels about 42 inches in diameter. The magneto, oiler and nameplate were missing, but everything else was intact. Being familiar with all kinds of old engines, I recognized it as an International Harvester, 10 HP ‘M’ type. Naturally, it was stuck and badly rusted. The roof had fallen in where the old grist mill was and it was deteriorated, possibly beyond restoration. Belt pulleys and line shaft were still there, as was the round barrel type fuel tank and brass cylinder pump.

After taking pictures of all the equipment as well as the building, we made our way about 50 yards uphill to the old delapidated house where Bill and his dad had lived some 60 years ago. It had been, in its day, a very good house with outside cellar or storm pit and also a separate kitchen. If the old buildings had not been there, we would never have known that once a thriving community store and mill existed there. It felt good just to try and visualize this place as it once was, and to see Bill as a kid running from one building to another, playing in the nearby river and stream. Is there a hobby better than collecting old iron and memories?

After getting back to the truck, our trip back to Alabama was uneventful, but full of good conversation.

By the way, I did try to locate the owner before leaving the area, but had no luck. It seems the original owner had passed away with few, if any relatives, and the one acre mill site was left landlocked by large farm owners. With some names to check-out and several long distance phone calls, I have yet to find the information I need to purchase the old iron.

If I am lucky enough to purchase the old iron, maybe a follow-up story about moving it would be in order later.

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