Opal offers knowledge of the portable sawmill

Published 7:30 am Saturday, October 8, 2022

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A portable sawmill? As a youngster, I often visited a sawmill that was supervised by the father of one of my friends. But it was not portable. I just couldn’t imagine somebody hauling a rig on a highway with a sawmill attached.

I  might have been totally ignorant of such machinery if  Hurricane Opal had not swept through our community on Oct. 4, 1995.

Its ferocious winds pushed a long-standing cedar tree dangerously close to our house and laid its branches on the roof. There was no alternative. It had to come down. When the tree cutters arrived and removed it, my husband asked them to cut it in 8 ft. lengths because he wanted to salvage the wood.

That was when I heard about portable sawmills. My husband inquired around and found one. Several weeks later a man backed his rig into our front yard, clicked some switches, and set to work. A lift raised the logs and put them in position to saw. Then he made adjustments according to the size of the lumber that my husband wanted. Pretty soon, things began to hum. The saw whined. A wonderful scent of cedar floated around us and a big pile of cedar sawdust accumulated on the grass.

After about an hour and a half, my husband had a small stack of cedar lumber. Some of it turned out nicely, while part of it had soft spots. He stacked it in our garage, possibly turning it into the most aromatic garage in our neighborhood. When it dried out, he used a bit of it for some small items.

The cedar aroma that resulted on the day the portable sawmill was at work in our yard reminded me of the “after school” visits when my friend’s daddy tended to some business and left us to explore a little. We played in the sawdust pile. As the man with the portable sawmill pushed the logs across the saw, memories of the pungent smell of the wood and warmth came back. I also recalled the whine as the logs made contact as husky, sweating workers performed that same job long ago.

With sawmills still on my mind after the cedar was cut, I remembered the book I co-authored with the late John Haupt of Elberta who chronicled the history of his community. One section was devoted to early sawmills developed to cut the pines that furnished cheap but high-quality building material for early settlers.

In the list of sawmills, Mr. Haupt compiled was a statement that sawmills existed from 1907 up to 1958. A steam-powered sawmill was owned by two operators from 1916 until 1932. These two men took their steam-powered rig to the timber instead of vice versa.

Although I was unaware of it, I learned that portable sawmills have been on the scene a long time.