Sunday, February 17, 2013

An Ax Man

There is on TV these days a show called "Ax Men", about guys in the logging industry. It is on rather a grand scale, with operations enhanced by the evolution in machinery and equipment. Watching it brought back memories of my own brief career as an "ax man".

When school let out at the end of May, 1948, I got a summer job with Bob Hicks, our neighbor across the street. I was coming up on my fourteenth birthday.

Bob was around forty-five or fifty years old, and was self-employed in the logging business. Once or twice I had ridden with him down to the sand hills of the Florida panhandle, between Wausau and Lynn Haven and west of the Panama City highway, to get a load of logs. During those trips I gained some knowledge of his operations.

I often went across to Bob’s house on Saturday night to listen to the Grand Ole' Opry, and had got to be on quite friendly terms with him. One night I asked if he might be able to use me during the summer. In an oblique reference to my slight stature he asked what task did I think I might be able to perform. I replied that I knew that I could take care of the work horse that was used to pull the logs out to the high ground. He asked if I could drive a truck. I could not, but I said that I could, except that I was not old enough to get a driver's license.

After pondering over it for a while he said that he thought he could use me, and that I could start the next day if the two dollars per day that he could pay was satisfactory. I thought that quite satisfactory, because in the logging business back then many grown men with experience made only three dollars a day.

By the time the sun came up the next morning we were in the woods at the site of Bob’s current operations, about thirty miles south of Chipley and six or eight miles east of the Panama City highway.

As soon as we arrived at the site Bob went to check on the horse. This animal was considerably larger than the average farm horse, its height being such that I, standing straight, could not see across its back. It was a deep reddish brown in color, with a large black mane and tail. It was a gentle horse, and when called would follow one about until patted on the neck and told to stay. It was corraled at night and on weekends in a large circular pen made by nailing pine sapling poles to trees. Bob told me to watch while he harnessed it for work, so that thereafter I could do that in the mornings while he and the men attended to other preparations for the day's work. It would also be my job to water and feed the horse at the end of the day.

* * *

In converting a standing tree into logs, the first operation is to notch it at the bottom on the side facing the direction in which it is to be felled. Notching is generally done with the ax, although occasionally, on a very large tree, the notch is cut with the saw. Once the notch is properly cut the tree is saw-cut from the opposite side, at the level of the notch. As the cut reaches the notch the tree will begin to fall in the direction for which the notch was cut. A skilled person can notch a tree so that the top of its trunk will hit a mark made on the ground.

Bob had not yet acquired any of the chain saws such as are used today for cutting timber. All cutting was done with the ax and a cross-cut saw. A cross-cut saw is a large saw about six feet long, with an upright handle on each end. After a tree is felled, and all the limbs are trimmed off, the trunk is notch lightly at intervals such that the logs will be of a length suitable for hauling. Then the cross-cut saw is placed across the trunk at the first notch, and, with a man at each end, is pulled back and forth, alternately by one and then the other, until the trunk is cut through.

As the sawing continues the saw begins to get hot, from friction, and gradually begins to bind as the metal expands. When this occurs it is necessary to apply a lubricant of some sort. In those days kerosene was the universal remedy. In application, a large coke bottle is filled about three- quarters full, and the opening plugged with green pine needles, the kerosene being applied as needed by shaking the bottle over the saw.

After the tree is cut into logs the men select another tree some distance away, fell it in the opposite direction, and repeat the process while the logs just cut are pulled out to the loading ramp by whatever means is used, in our case the horse.

The truck will already have been parked at the loading ramp in the approximate position for loading. As the logs are brought up they are placed side by side so that all the big ends are at one end, lined up evenly, with the small ends pointed toward the rear of the truck body. The truck is then eased into the exact loading position, and two timber skid poles are placed, one end on the ground and the other end on the truck body.

A long steel "loading" chain, each end fastened to the truck body at appropriate points, is placed on the ground, and a log is rolled over it far enough so that the chain can be thrown back over the log and the truck body to the opposite side of the truck. In the meantime the horse will have been placed in position, and now the loading chain is connected to his harness and he is led away from the truck body, pulling the chain up and over the body, with the result that the log is rolled up the skids and onto the far side of the truck body. The process is repeated until the truck is loaded with as many logs as can be safely hauled. My job during loading operations was to mind the horse, and lead him foward when all was in readiness for the log to be rolled up onto the body of the truck.

When the truck is fully loaded, the logs are secured to the truck body with steel chains and a lock-down apparatus. The load is then ready for transport to its destination, in our case the J. T. Prine sawmill in Chipley.

* * *

Bob had realized, of course, that I could not really drive a truck, and, as time permitted, would take me out to a straight section of the logging road and let me practice, giving me useful pointers as to how and when I should do this or that. This was valuable and free instruction, and I paid close attention for I was anxious to demonstrate that I could be entrusted with the vehicles.

Bob used two trucks in his logging operation. One was a 1935 single-axle, one-and-a-half-ton Ford with the gear shift lever on the floor. The motor was started by turning the ignition key and pressing a starter button. It could also be started by engaging the front end of the crankshaft, through an opening below the hood, with a long crank, by which the motor was turned manually until it fired off. I could crank the truck by this method, and did so a couple of times. On one try, however, I did not follow through properly and the motor kicked back. This effort almost cost me a broken arm, and I did not try it again.

The other truck was a large Army suplus Dodge truck with a trailer unit, most likely used during World War II to pull heavy artillery pieces. It stood high off the ground, and could negotiate the roughest terrain. It was a 4-wheel drive vehicle, and both the front and rear wheels carried large "Jeep" type tires. It was thus ideal for hauling logs out of Florida’s sand hills. The rear wheels of the truck, and the wheels on the trailer unit, were dual wheels, so the truck was a ten wheeler. It was surprisingly easy to drive, after Bob had put me through some paces with it, and I could never decide whether I liked it or the Ford better.

After Bob was satisfied that I could be trusted with the vehicles he would let me take them around through the trees and pull into position at the loading ramp, and after a while this became another one of my regular jobs.

At the time I joined the crew the practice was to get a truck loaded as quickly as possible, and Bob would then deliver the load to the sawmill. I had been observing operations, and a little while after being entrusted with the vehicles I began to think about how we might increase the delivery rate to the sawmill. I could not drive on the public roads, because I was too young to obtain a driver’s license. However, I came up with a scheme that would put my driving capabilities to good use:

Everyone would work first to produce as many logs as could be hauled out in    two days, Then the first truck would be loaded, and Bob would depart on the delivery.

The rest of us would load the second truck as quickly as possible, and I would take that load out so as to have it at the highway by the time Bob returned to meet me there. We would then exchange vehicles, he returning to the sawmill with the loaded truck, and I returning to the work site with the empty truck.

This would shorten by one-third the distance, and by one-half the time, required for him to make a delivery.


To my surprise Bob readily agreed to try the idea. It worked out so well that the practice was adopted as standard procedure.

* * *

As I said earlier, it was my job at the end of the day to put the horse up for the night. This consisted of removing his harness, taking him for water at a large pond some distance away, then filling his box with feed, and finally, rubbing him down with a "curry" comb while he ate. Bob was particular about the horse, and I and it were always relieved of duty early enough that it could be attended to properly before sundown.

It was my habit to remove from the horse all the harness except the bridle, then hop up and ride him to the pond for water. One afternoon we had started for the pond when the horse, for some reason, became spooked and began to gallop down the trail that led out of the woods. In the process I dropped the bridle reins and they landed up behind the horse's ears, far out of my reach. The farther we went the faster he galloped, mane and tail flying in the breeze.

I was riding bare back, of course, and, as the horse was so large, my legs were not long enough for my feet to get any hold under the his belly. I was thus in a precarious position that was getting worse by the minute. On and on we went, the horse now completely out of control, and traveling so fast that I could barely duck in time to escape overhanging tree limbs.

Then, as suddenly as when he had bolted, the horse began to slow down, and gradually came to a halt. After a minute or so he snorted in his familiar fashion, and swished his tale a time or two. I decided that the adventure was over, and very gently slid forward until I could snare the reins, then eased back to my position and turned the horse toward the job site. The better part of an hour passed before the site came into view.

That experience makes a good little story, but at the time I was very scared, more so than on any occasion before or since.

Except for that incident I had a most enjoyabe summer as a young Ax Man.

*** End

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting to read what went on at a lumber site! I can almost see you on that wild ride, too! Thanks for sharing.