Saturday, September 5, 2020

Going Home Again, Memories of a Mill.

 Note:  This was written as noted in August of 2020, but I never published it as a blog. I have added some text to it to honor Elaine Saunders, Dean's wife, who passed away today...remembering how wonderful it was to be adopted by the Saunders' and how much they contributed to my life, and that of my friend Dave who is included in this writing. 

Mixed emotions this August 9, 2020

Today I returned to Addison, the town from which I graduated high school. The town in which I lived when my mom passed away, and the town that I think of as my “original” home town. My family moved there from Wamplers Lake (Brooklyn, MI) area in about 1975, I graduated from high school there,  in 1982.

I got a call yesterday from my friend Ray who still lives in Addison.  He told me the sawmill where I worked as a young man in high school had been sold, and there was a barn sale going on.  Please don’t get the idea I was ever a "good" woodworker, or even a great mill employee.  I was an employee. The Saunders family is a good family, and Dean, the operator of the mill back then was also a teacher at our high school.  I never had him for shop or mechanical drawing, but my best friend Dave knew I wanted a job, and suggested I come to work there, my first job being the emptying of maple sap buckets in preparation for the making of maple syrup.   It must have been an early Easter that year, I can remember working Good Friday and getting sap on my clothes from wind blowing suddenly while collecting and dumping the buckets.

Working at the mill was a year round job. While the mill was not heated in the winter nor cooled in the summer, it was a job!  I was so proud to have a job in high school, and remember sitting in my last period class which was advanced math (I sat up front because I was not a good student of it, the desks arranged after each test with the worst scores in front)…and looking forward to going home and working!   Working meant spending money for tubes, parts for TV sets, buying used TVs to fix, pizza, and just generally having money to spend.  When you think about it, the best financial times you can have are when the roof over your head and the heat, lights, and food on the table are bought by your parents….or in my case my Father.

My work at the mill included those things that I was best qualified to do. I was never the one who could set up a moulder (makes the trim and moulding for your doors and windows)…nor was I good at setting up and operating anything there except maybe the single-sided planer.  I was, however good at getting the boiler up to steam quickly and efficiently, good at being “quality control” while I stacked the moulding, trim, and other orders as they came OUT Of equipment, and at doing as I was told.  I was careful, I showed up on time, seldom took a day off, did as I was instructed, and I guess those qualities along with guidance on each job from my best friend Dave was enough that I was worth the paycheck in the eyes of Mr. Saunders.

But I learned there. Oh, did I learn!  We not only made maple syrup, but in proper season: sorghum, and a few times even apple butter all powered by the steam of the huge boiler.  I once cut sorghum in the field and felt like a migrant worker, I once  changed the teeth in the sawmill circular blade, went along a few times with the owner and Dave to sites where logs were to be picked up, loaded on the large truck, and usually had the job of stacking lumber in the sawmill part of the operation after it went through the edger.  Dave’s job was to take any lumber coming down from the sawmill carriage and rollers, decide the width it would be cut, and run it through the edger, trimming off rough edges for me to then stack the final boards.  The boards were placed on rolling carts, but the carts were not “permanently assembled.” They were two sets of wheels, the weight of a 4x4 on each end being just enough to keep them upright on rails when they weren't loaded, then the increasing weight of the lumber made sure they stayed in an upright position.  A few times, the cart’s wheels would give, and the lumber would tumble….Dave always teased me when that happened, and it held up production in the sawmill, but I actually did get pretty good at keeping the carts well stacked, and knowing where the wider boards and narrower ones would best go to tie-together a load, before it was taken to the upper mill for air drying. 

The wheels we built into carts by loading them with the weight of wood

The “upper” (finish) mill was where wood was dried in the steam powered kiln, and the planing, sanding, edging, making of moulding, and other wood "finish"  operations were done.  There was a huge electrical box on one wall that started up the large and powerful electric motor which then ran much of the equipment via huge line shafts above our heads.  The belts from the line shafts could be as wide as a foot or so, many were smaller…To start the overhead line shaft going, you threw a huge lever toward the wall on a large black (ancient) electrical box, held it there til the speed "felt" right, then pulled the lever from the back or “startup” position through it's rest position to the front  “run” position.  After a few times doing it and watching the bulbs dim in the mill, you had a feeling for how long to keep the lever in startup before getting everything up to speed. 

The "Start Box" for the one motor running the line shafts for the equpment

Today, there's no way high school students could work at a sawmill/finish mill. Too many regulations to protect the kind of employee that would hurt themselves. Dave and I were not that kind. We knew the dangers of each machine, Dean, the owner made sure we did, and he trusted us to work like adults.  It was a prideful thing to have that job. The job paid around $3-something or 4-something per hour back in about 1979, and the hours added up quickly. In the school  year, it was 3-6PM after school. On weekends, Saturday was a work day, often finished by mid afternoon unless it was a big-order day or a sawing day. Sundays we did not work, holidays we did not work, my memory tells me we did work some “snow days” from school, however.  Carharts were the recommended winter wear, heavy boots, and very heavy work gloves. In the summer, jeans, T-shirts, and lots of liquids to drink. What I did learn back then, but at the time may not have appreciated has now become priceless in memory, and still a prideful thing.  How many people today have seen apple butter made in a copper kettle?  Or, been part of collecting maple sap the old fashioned way...and firing the boiler that helped it become syrup....or even know how the trim in their home came to be (beyond going to Menards or Lowes and buying it!)....We made that kind of trim. We sold rough boards, planed boards, and helped make things for customers. In the sawmill, I learned not only how to stack lumber, but how to be efficient, how to keep up the pace with a determined best friend who I think got a kick out of watching me occasionally fall behind, who would then yell, "Stack them boards, and stack 'em FAST!" as they came of the sawmill's edger. 

There were steam operated pumps that refilled the boiler from the return of the pumps was the well pump itself, and we drank right out of the pipe some very cold, very fresh water on the hottest of days inside the boiler house.  After each “feeding” of the boiler with sawdust, and watching the initial fire grow with the huge air draw it had, you always wet down the area in front of the boiler...and swept back any sawdust that flew from the collection bin, sent through large piping from the upper mill.  We had it drilled in our heads (politely) how to be responsible around equipment that only “adults” should run or be near, yet we not only survived, we learned, we were proud, and we were treated well! 

In the summer, the Saunders family was a part of the event commonly called the Wauseon Steamshow, or properly named, the “Threshers' Reunion.” It meant we had a week of work, but it was now offsite, at the fairgrounds in Wauseon, Ohio.  Saunders' owned a steam tractor, a Port Huron, and took it there each year. It was part of the daily tractor parade. It was the only one on site that had a locomotive generator on it and electrical lighting under it's canopy. During that week in the summer, Dave and I would work the sawmill at the event, and get paid by the Threshers' reunion and by the Saunders!  Dean, our boss supplied many if not all of the logs for sawing and had to haul the wood back to Addison as well.  In essence, we were on display for a crowd that may never have seen a real sawmill (portable in this case) ..let alone one run by a steam tractor.  The flea market was always great, and one year in my memory the family was on vacation, and so Dave was in charge, and we still took part in the Wauseon event. I still try to go to the yearly event if possible, though in 2020, like with many things, it was canceled by the mess our country is in called “Covid-19.” My last trip there was about 3 years ago, and the memories of our years working there are still vivid and cherished.

It's hard for many of my friends of today to believe I ever worked in a place like the mill. It's hard for me sometimes to realize how many years have gone by.  I wouldn't trade the memories for anything.  At the close of each day it was a short walk up Saunders Street to home for me, and about 3 houses farther for Dave. I went home to dinner with my father, Dave went home to his family...and we'd do it all again the next day.  When I worked there, I knew it was indeed WORK. There were things I liked to do more than others, there were things that scared me, and there were things I never was good at doing. I believe that I was allowed to work because there's always the need of the person who can tell when a running machine has a problem...either by the sound of the equipment or a change in what comes out the “finished” end. That was me. I was a gopher, a stand-er at the end of machines, and a stacker of lumber. I was good at stacking at the sawmill after I got the hang of it...and really, the sawmill hours went quickly...though they were probably the most demanding.

I knew when working there that I didn't want to do manual labor my whole life for a vocation....but also knew there was nothing wrong WITH doing it. It was many times a rather heated discussion with my buddy Dave, but it seemed to end well most times. I had no idea and no plan for my life yet, because you have to remember both Dave and I were still in high school.  By the time I graduated, I thought engineering would be my direction, but I was not good at the math. Ironically, my best buddy ended up in engineering his whole life, and I ended up performing on the radio, something I'd never considered in school at all.

It's 40-plus years since I was invited to go to work at the mill. Many years since Dean wrote us paychecks in the upstairs office of the Saunders' home, and we'd proudly cash them and go to Jackson to buy work clothes (which wore out fast)...or stereo equipment, or whatever was on the  mind of a couple of best buddies who in high school were inseparable. Good at arguing, but inseparable.  Dave was adopted by my father, and considered family. Dave flew up from Texas for my father's funeral...which was one of the highest compliments to my father, and to me.  We've fought, we've been like brothers, we've kept in touch more lately than in the intervening years, and I'm grateful so much for the brother-like friendship.

Looping back to the start of this rambling; On the way driving down to Addison from my radio station to visit the sale, the mill, and the US 127 event, many memories came back to me of growing up on Saunders Street, working at the mill, and of my high school years. I was grateful for one last chance to visit this place while it's still as close to what it was as can be expected after years of weathering and not being in operation. I took around 80 pictures. I sat on the same forklift I learned to drive back then.  I walked in front of the boiler I used to fire,  went up the steps of the boiler house, and saw the machinery that paid for my high school fun.  I was nervous along the drive as to how it would feel, now that our former boss, Dean Saunders has passed away...and now that the house my father owned and in which I lived on Saunders Street is in it's second ownership since I locked it for the last time.  How was I going to handle  the experience which I describe the most as “bittersweet.” I knew it was a goodbye to the physical remains of part of my boyhood and growing up. It was the last chance to walk in the walls of the mill and relive some memories, despite some equipment being there only as ghosts.

(Added 9-5--20) It should be noted now, as I edit and publish this piece almost a month from the orignal writing, that I just received word of the passing of Elaine (Saunders), Dean's wife and one of my "adopted" mothers. Elaine's smile is what I will remember most, greeting me at their door, and she was very good at hugs, and making everyone feel like family. She was one of my adopted mothers after my mom passed away as I was literally a few days into high school.  As I complete this addition to the story, I know what I'll remember is Elaine's incredible outpouring of enthusiasm for life, that smile, and evenings I visited she and Dean in their living room for wonderful conversation.   I'm saddened at her passing, as she had recently reconnected with me on Facebook and had some wonderful things to say about my posts...though I've never felt I was important enough to "follow.' Elaine: you are already missed, but remembered fondly.

The Saunders'  and not just their mill were a wonderful and very big part of my growing up in small town America, a time that will not come again for anyone, as our technology-laden, lawsuit-crazy, cover-your-behind world has robbed the young people of today of having the kind of growing up I've described here.  I am SO grateful for my parents' move to Addison, for the people I met there, and the care of the community there for each other.  I'm grateful I had the chance to deliver newspapers to half the town (Dave had the other half)....and for graduating from a school where people really knew each other and each other's families.

80 pictures later, and driving home from my visit to the old mill grounds, I thanked the Lord for my growing up in Addison and what I had learned, and the people who trusted me.  To this day, I'm not sure why Dean kept me as an employee, with my tiny knowledge of wood, and bigger interest in electronics, but he was an honest man, honest boss, and a good human being. He gave me a chance at my first real job after my paper route.  The Saunders family adopted Dave and I, we were welcome anytime at their home, and they became very close. The times HAVE changed. but the friendships and the memories live-on.  Before writing this, I just spent the better part of an hour on the phone with Dave, now in Texas with his family.  I shared the pictures with him, we both had a few virtual tears and memories together, and I want to leave you with one last "event" of the mill that I think is very unique.

Since my father died in 2005, I've had a few coins of his, saved in a jar, and a few sequential bills he liked to save as well. Recently, I had the few coins appraised and had just enough to take on the US 127 garage sale circuit which goes right through the center of my old hometown. I'd sold the coins and taken the money with me on the day of my nostalgic visit to the mill.  Dave and I had spoken on the phone, and decided  that if there was anything from the mill which I thought he'd like to have or re-purpose in his home, he'd like me to let him know.  I called him from the sale, but at the time, he wasn't ready to have me buy anything, (like a wooden pulley or a saw blade) occurred to me, he was not wanting me to “bother.”  However, it also occurred to me  if I spent my FATHER's money on something for him, he couldn't argue with me or feel like it was a bother, or that it required repayment. So, that's just what I did.  Dave will have a large wooden pulley from somewhere in the mill, and a saw blade from the firewood cut-off saw (or maybe it's from the edger we don't know)...for his home. Gifts from my father, whom we shared,  who not only adopted Dave, but allowed me to work at the mill in the first place. 

So, I bought Dave the large wooden pulley, and a saw blade....It seemed the right thing to do...and tonight on the phone, Dave didn't argue with me since it was Reg's money, not mine.  I'm certain both Reg and Dean are smiling that Dave and I shared this last chapter of our working together.  Reg would be happy to buy Dave this gift and...I was happy to make it happen....and I can't wait to see what my best friend of so many years makes from the pulley we may have seen every day back in our days of working together.

(example of the large wooden pulleys on the overhead line shaft)

He'll have the mementos, I have the memories, the pictures...and so many great stories to tell of working in high school in a place young people now will never appreciate. We both, actually, have wonderful memories.

Thank you, Dean for the work, the teachings, the opportunity, and the trust in me....and thank you Reg, (my father) for the permission to work at the mill while in school, the roof over my head while I did, and the wonderful antique  radio I found on the “trail” this weekend after visiting the mill. And, thank you for buying a last and very fitting gift to Dave, as a final way of (Reg) saying, "Dave, you're part of the family."

And now, I return to my work....behind a microphone...with stories to tell, and this is one of them.  



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