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A Sad Sight

March 13, 2011

The following slide show is of the saw mill at the farm. My grandfather built the mill in the thirties. For several years it had no roof, but eventually he built one. I suppose that when he was using the mill regularly it was easy enough to keep up with maintenance. But it has not run since the 1980’s (during which time I did some work there) and the annual toll of snow and moisture finally proved too much. This month the roof gave way.

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I worked at the sawmill in my teens and twenties, when doing extremely dangerous work is merely cool, and there is very little awareness of the potential for long term disability or short term life. I worked there with my cousins and Jimmy Dolan. My cousins were my age and therefore as oblivious as I. And Jimmy Dolan was in his 60’s and a former B-17 bombardier. And though he never said anything about it other than it was cold in the open bomb bay, I suspect after flying in one it would take more than mere proximity to a spinning thirty-two inch circular saw to scare him. Jimmy ran the controls, which were a tensioner (which engaged the enormous belt drive to make the carriage drive the log through the blade) and an index lever (which was pulled to draw the log a set distance closer to the blade with each pass.) The safety equipment consisted of a window screen hanging from the ceiling by two strings, which was all that “stood” between the operator and the blade. The screen did stop the chips from hitting the operator, but had he slipped it would not stop him from hitting the blade. Jimmy was a great guy to work for. He was patient and good humored. He was one of my grandfather’s constant companions for years, right up until the day when he called in to say his wife had had a heart attack and that he would no longer be coming to work, ever. Despite numerous efforts to make arrangements which would accommodate him, he never returned. I think this was my grandfather’s greatest human loss other than my grandmother.
Until he quit, every morning for as long as I can remember, my grandfather and Jimmy started their day at work in my grandfather’s studio . (My grandfather was a sculptor as well as a farmer and inventor.) They would sit in the two chairs in the studio and drink their morning beverage while Jimmy smoked. My grandfather had Red Rose tea with milk and sugar, and Jimmy had coffee. They brought their thermoses (grandpa ended up with a steel one after dropping countless old glass models), but Jimmy’s looked plenty old. My grandfather with his enormous hands that sagged under their own weight, and him with his gnarled and nicotine stained fingernails. They’d sit and sip and discuss the news, or the Red Sox, or the health and appetite of a horse, and always the weather, and the plans for the day (which were largely contingent on the weather). And when they were done, they’d always pore the final drops of coffee or tea out of their thermos cups on to the floor, screw the caps back on, Jimmy would put his hat on and we’d head out and begin the day. (One of the many ways in which this experience spoiled me for “normal” work, was that I could never really be happy in a workplace where I couldn’t pour the last drips or drops of coffee onto the floor.)
Jimmy was very hard working, and most of us (my cousins and I) spent more time working with him then anyone else. He supervised us when we were splitting wood, baling hay, feeding animals, working the sawmill, putting hay up into the loft, just about anything we did. And no matter what we were doing, whenever we would break something , or get a tractor stuck, or have the wood chipper come loose and go careening down an embankment, he would help us work like the dickens to get it back before my grandfather found out. And we knew he’d never tell, and he was doing it to protect us and not himself. We always said, “A definition of a good day was when no one got hurt, and we fixed whatever we broke.”
All these thoughts came back to me in the instant that I saw the poor old sawmill, and I wish we could get it back and running, but we’ll probably have to tear it down and scrap the mill, unless anyone has a bright idea of what else can be done with it. I asked the Charles River Museum of Industry if they wanted it, but it’s too big. So let me know if you think of something.

“All that is solid melts into air…” -Karl Marx

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2011 11:16 am

    Your piece on the sawmill is just lovely, Malcolm. It says a lot about grandpa and about you.

    I hope I can mine it for a poem or two.

    love, Ma

  2. Steve Winchester permalink
    March 28, 2011 9:40 am

    What I’d give to have that sawmill! Nice story Malcolm, makes me think of my grandfather. Thank you for that!

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