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Today is September 21, 2017

The Little Sawmill That Could

Rural sawmills gave rise to Mississippi’s earliest towns while helping farm families to survive

By Debbie Stringer

The Little Sawmill That Could

Barry McLemore is one of the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum employees who demonstrate the vintage sawmill during special events. Small sawmills once served as the “heartbeat” of early communities in the state, he said. The mill, moved from Jefferson Davis County, is powered by a 1947 diesel engine, which drives a series of flat belts and pulleys. The carbide circular saw blade is a recent replacement.

Turning logs into lumber takes place in massive automated mills that produce tens of thousands of board feet per hour.

There was a time, however, when trees were felled with hand saws, hauled in mule-drawn wagons to a small rural sawmill and cut into boards, one at a time—as long as the saw didn’t overheat.

These mills played a vital role in the growth of towns along the new railroads being built throughout Mississippi in the 19th century. “You couldn’t build anything until a sawmill was set up, unless you wanted to hew logs,” said Aaron Rodgers, director of the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum, in Jackson.

Cutting lumber with hand tools was a difficult, extremely slow process. “You might be able to get two sides of a floor joist done in eight hours,” Rodgers said. Village building demanded a more efficient means of lumber production, hence the rise of the small rural sawmill with its engine-driven reciprocating (and later, circular) saw.

The advent of the circular saw in the mid-1800s, along with later innovations, led to the rise of large commercial sawmills capable of producing and shipping great numbers of board feet per day. Yet rural sawmills continued to supply local needs into the early 20th century as their power sources advanced from steam to gasoline and diesel engines.

Tucked behind the cotton gin at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum is one such rural sawmill, moved to the site from Jefferson Davis County. During special events at the museum, the sawmill’s 1947 diesel engine is fired up to demonstrate its operation for visitors. Through a series of flat belts and pulleys, the engine powers a circular saw and a rail-mounted carriage that moves logs into the spinning saw blade.

Next, the lumber goes through a vintage edger to neaten rough edges and create a four-sided board.

This type of small-scale mill was called a peckerwood sawmill in its day. The saw would cut just about any wood, hard or soft, for making everything from fence posts to framing materials to siding. Little skill was required to operate the mill and it could be disassembled, packed into wagons and moved to the next logging site.

Working in a rural sawmill was not a full-time job back then, Rodgers said. Most rural Mississippians were subsistence farmers, producing enough to feed their family and maybe some extra to sell. But when the harvest was done or the crops failed, farmers could find work in the local sawmill to earn income until the next planting season.

“That was really, really dangerous work, so the guys who worked in them did it because they had to, to supplement their [farm] income,” Rodgers said. “It was like you were putting your life in your hands to do that kind of thing.”

Hazards surrounded the workers. Sawdust spewing from the logs threatened their eyes and lungs, and nothing shielded them from the exposed high-speed saw blade and belt-driven machinery. “All it would take is just one stumble and that’s it for you,” Rodgers said.

Visitors to the Mississippi Ag Museum get that message. “Once you see that blade spinning and the carriage moving across it, most people realize that it was an incredibly dangerous job. I think it makes people appreciate how far we’ve come in making sure that families aren’t torn apart because of work accidents,” Rodgers said.

“And then I think a lot of people react to the sheer power of it. All you have to do is thump a log to realize how much material is there. This old equipment could just power right through it—hundreds of logs a day, if they wanted to.”

Recent upgrades to the museum’s sawmill, funded in part by the Mississippi Forestry Association, include the construction of a viewing deck for visitors, safety enhancements, repairs, a donated carbide saw blade and additional informational signage.

Termites, rust and weathering are constant threats to the old mill’s survival, but Rodgers believes this piece of Mississippi history is worth every effort to preserve and interpret for future generations. The exhibit represents a piece of family history for museum visitors whose relatives once worked in a sawmill.

“I think it’s important for us to teach how complicated life was then, and how hard it was, so you can appreciate how easy it is now,” Rodgers said.

“We like to think of ourselves as having these big, complicated lives now, but in these rural communities they may not have been formally educated but they had to know so much about how to live on their own. This sawmill is a perfect example of that. And there was so much hard work involved in it.”

Museum visitors can see the sawmill in action during the annual Harvest Festival, Nov. 7-11 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. The museum’s Small Town Mississippi will come to life with demonstrations in the sawmill, cotton gin, cane mill, print shop and blacksmith shop. Each is equipped with authentic equipment, machinery and tools.

“The experience you’re going to get is the really unique noise of a 20-year-old tree being cut into lumber, or the thump of the giant diesel engine running the cotton gin, or the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer. It’s an experience you can’t get from a video. And when it’s all running, it’s magical out here,” Rodgers said.

For visitor information, contact the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum at 601-432-4500 or visit msagmuseum.org.

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