Sawmills and Slabs
One of my neighbors stopped in the street yesterday and we were discussing the abrupt change in the weather as the first cold snap of the winter was moving in. We started talking about fireplaces and wood and then we started talking about wood stoves. This particular neighbor is one of the few in the neighborhood that is actually older than me and has actually been around wood stoves: not those newfangled ones but the old Home Comfort ones that Grandmother used to cook those delicious biscuits and apple pies. And, there were sawmills and slabs involved. People today might recognize a sawmill if they saw one but if you type in wood slab in Google you won’t see what we got as slabs back in Sandy Point.
One of our sons lived in Spokane, Washington for a while and the house they bought had a pellet stove in the bottom level. Man! That thing put out some heat and used those pellets you buy in a bag.
The closest thing to that in Sandy Point would have been sawdust or shavings and 90% of it was burned in big sawdust burners at the end of the sawmill yard. Some was used on the floors of restaurant kitchens, butcher shops, chicken houses, and around muddy areas at the Georgia State Fair and horse stalls.
Here is an old sawdust burner. Imagine hot coals inside, flames coming out of the top and the sheet metal sides glowing red hot as you drove past in the dark of night! That was a common sight as the demand for dimensional lumber to build houses grew after WWII. The EPA would go berserk today!
The Open Air barbecue in Jackson, some of the best Barbecue in the State, had sawdust floors until the health departments started making those type places put in concrete or wood, etc. No more spitting on the floor! Sawdust and chips today go into particle board, pressed wood products, and charcoal for the barbecue grill and paper.
My neighbor said all of his aunts and grandmothers cooked on the wood stoves and mine did too and most I ever saw were the Home Comfort Stoves. I’m sure there were others used. But they all required fuel and were designed to burn wood which was more readily available than other fuels and coal, if used, was usually used in an iron coal heater that could take more heat.
The kitchen stove was fired up early. My grandfather would get up early and go “light the stove” to let it start warming up the kitchen and getting hot enough to melt lard and cook eggs and bacon and fat back. There was an oven for those biscuits and warmers at the top where my grandmother put two cups of coffee and bread for me and her youngest son, my uncle, who was only three years older than me. That was our breakfast when we got up. I still say Starbucks or Chic Fil A could sell them but they would need my grandmother’s biscuits!
But, that brings us back to the saw mills and slabs.
The fireplace wood, usually oak, was identified as “fire wood” and was cut and split, hopefully from last year’s wood or wood that had dried out. Sometimes it might be sweetgum or hickory but that darn sweetgum popped out hot coals everywhere. The trees were sawed down on the farm usually with hand saws until the Swedish guy invented the chain saw and people who could afford one got one. Those firewood pieces had to be the right size for the particular fireplace and might be twenty inches to thirty inches. Today, it’s a good Stihl chain saw and a log splitter. Or buy it off a wood lot. The log splitter back in Sandy Point was an ax.
Wood for the Home Comfort stove in the kitchen was “stove wood” and was usually pine. And the source of that stove wood at my grandparents’ was the local saw mill and most towns had a saw mill somewhere close. There were portable mills that were set up on large timber tracts and all of the waste was left behind and sawdust piles dotted the landscape in woods of the South. These were often referred to as “peckerwood” mills.
Sawmills in the Old Days of Sandy Point were terribly inefficient as far as yield of saw lumber from the tree. Not only did they generate mountains of sawdust that was mostly burned, they generated slabs. Modern mills use lasers and get a much higher yield and all of the tree gets used in one way or another. But in the old days a lot of the tree went to waste.
The sawdust eventually came to be used for fuel to kiln dry the lumber but most lumber was stacked outside and air dried back then. It would be rough sewn and then “dressed” when someone needed to build a house or construct anything needing finished lumber. The old barn on my son’s farm in Tennessee has all undressed oak lumber and it is still very stout after all these years.
There were two big sawmills near Sandy Point and the sawdust burners would glow at night as the sawdust burned and there were heavy screens over the top to reduce sparks from drifting and setting everything on fire. It was part of the only industry for miles around in farming country.
When a pine tree was cut up for lumber, it had to be prepared and after it was cut to the length, the log was trimmed on all four sides by various methods to square it up using large saw blades depending on the size and sophistication of the mill. This process created “slabs” of wood from the four sides of the tree with the bark still on them.
To the mill, this was waste but to many people it was cheap lumber to build a pig pen, a cow pen, or to put a roof on the chicken coop. To others It was “stove wood”! Almost!
My grandfather would take the truck and go get a load of the slabs which the mill sold for a cheap price to get rid them. You had to load them yourself.
Once home, there was a big wood saw, often referred to as a buzz saw, with a 30” blade that was hooked up to the PTO on the tractor with a belt and when running the whine of the saw could be heard for a long distance and the danger of losing a hand, a finger, or an arm was very high! I think they should have been named “whine” saws not buzz saws. They still make these saws in a slightly safer version, today.
The slabs were fed into the saw and cut into pieces about twelve inches long to fit into the wood stove after being split a couple of times with an ax. Then you had stove wood. A big pile in the yard and a chop block and an ax stood ready and there was a stove wood box on the back porch and a small box by the stove so grandmama did not have to go out in the cold to get more as needed. The kids had to keep the stove wood box full. There was kindling too.
Was it worth all that work? There was no choice if you wanted a hot meal, a warm kitchen and the best biscuits in the world. Even after my grandmother got an electric range she still did her serious cooking on the wood stove.
But I believe wood stoves got too much credit on the pies and biscuits. I believe it had more to do with that wooden bowl/tray/platter thing my grandmother used to make up that dough and the way she would have it up to her elbows and maybe it was that wooden spoon and the wooden rolling pin. Or, perhaps, that hog lard from the bacon grease that sat on the warmer of the stove. No wonder my cholesterol is 300!