End of an Era – Melvin Clark
End of an Era
By Melvin R. Clark
Mel Clark was born on November 4, 1912 and graduated from the old Lincoln high school in Bayfield, 1932. No date is offered in a booklet he gifted to the Jim and Marge Miller family, who in turn allowed me to transcribe his life on the Bayfield waterfront. It is assumed Mr. Clark was in the latter stages of life when detailed his life. Here now is his rendition of the final days of lumbering in the Bayfield peninsula. Robert J. Nelson
“The Wachsmuth sawmill was the largest industry in Bayfield, employing many of the men in the area. It was started by Mr. Pike in the late 19th century and was later owned by Mr. Henry J. Wachsmuth. From our home [area of 225 South Fifth Street] we could see most of the mill buildings located below in the mill yard.
Most of the logs came to the mill by rail or boat. The railroad hauled the logs to the sawmill site. A tugboat and scow would bring in large load of logs from the islands. Most of the logs were put in the mill pond and were later prepared for the mill. This scow or barge was a large wooden boat with a flat bottom. And one end was the steam engine and the operator’s room. From his position, he could see the entire area. A large swivel-mounted boom extended from his location to about amidships, where it was attached to a large clam, a machine which could grasp logs and move them. The operator, with various levers could lift and turn the clam, could open and close the jaws, and place the logs to any desired position. Several logs could be unloaded together into the water with this equipment. A number of large logs chained together, also called a boom, and was placed near the mill pond to prevent the logs from floating away. The tugboat would then tow the empty scow back to the lumber camp on the island for a new load.
When the logs had soaked in the mill pond enough, they were prepared for the saw mill. This was done by two men, one on each end of a log. They were called “skinners” and wore special shoes with steel cleats for safety on the slippery logs and short pants to prevent getting wet. The tools they used to remove loose bark and knots were an adz, a cutting tool with a thin arched blade set at right angles to the handle, and a short pike pole, a wooden shaft with a pointed steel head. When the logs were ready, they were taken to the conveyor, which pulled the log up to the second floor where it was rolled onto a machine called a carriage, operated by steam. The operator, the sawyer, sat near the front and worked the levers which adjusted the logs to receive the desired cut. The large endless steel band saw with large cutting teeth was located on the ground floor near its steam-driven engine. It passed over a wooden pulley then extended to a similar wooden pulley on the second floor, where it was lined up with the carriage. When the log was positioned for the cut, the carriage would move forward to bring the log in contact with the saw blade. When the logs were cut, the carriage would return the log for the next cut. The sawyer’s work required a lot of skill and was a dangerous operation. The boards cut from the logs were sent to smaller saws where the ends were trimmed to the desired length.
Cedar boards went to the shingle mill, where they were cut and shaped to make roof shingles, packed in a bundle called a square. The lath mill cut thin strips of wood used in building houses. The laths were fastened to the building studs to hold the plaster in place for construction. The slab and trimmings were sold as firewood, sent to the burner, or used as fuel for the boilers. The cut boards were inspected and separated according to quality. Those that were free of knots, splits, or cracks were sent to the planing mill for processing. This was a separate and noisy place where the boards were sent through a large lathe with sharp cutters to make a smooth finish on all four sides. The finished lumber was stacked up to air dry to be used in the building industry.
The curled-up shavings, called excelsior, were packed in containers, and were sold to companies that had uses for it, like packaging. The sawdust was picked up from the floor by a large vacuum and blower mounted on the roof. It was then blown outside through a large pipe into a huge pile. The sawdust was sold to fishermen who had ice houses and to farmers and builders for insulation and for keeping ice.
The constant use of the band saw blade and the blades of other saws make sharpening a necessity. The band saw was removed from its fastening, rolled up, and sent to the filing shop where there was equipment for that work. The dull blades or tools needing sharpening were clamped in a vice which held an item securely while being worked on. Long handled mill files were used for sharpening. This was another kind of work that required a great deal of skill. The workmen were known as filers, a most desirable trade, which paid a high wage.
A tramway system, consisting of an elevated wood structure, extended the length of the mill yard, including access to several docks or slips, as they were called. It was built to haul small cars loaded with lumber. The cars ran on small steel rails with suitable switches. The cars were loaded with rough, green boards at the saw mill and pulled by a horse to the proper area. The lumber was then piled in criss-cross fashion to air dry. The tramway was extended to the surrounding docks where the lumber could be stacked. Large lumber carrying boats could load the lumber into their holds to take to the ports along the Great Lakes to supply the high demand for the wood for buildings and furniture.
We played with the tram cars when the mill was not operating. It was like a small railroad, great fun to push the cars, and then ride for a short distance. I am sure that the workers did not mind looking for the cars on returning to work the next day. On Sunday morning after Sunday school, Harry Hessing and I decided to check out the sawmill tram. It was very quiet at the mill, and we had it all to ourselves, or so it seemed. We were switching the tracks on one of the rails when Harry fell and injured his arm. About this time, Mr. Egan, the watchmen, appeared on the scene. Harry was crying and I was scared; we were afraid of the watchmen. When he saw we were all right, he said, “You boys get the hell out of here and don’t come back again”. Needless to say, that ended our fun on the tram.
One summer during school vacation it was decided to have a woodworking class for the boys Sunday school class. Mr. Smith was designated to be the instructor. He was a young man who served as the church assistant in other activities. Our shop would be in the church kitchen. Our first class was a tour of the saw mill, very interesting and informative. When the tour was over, we were given some boards that could be used in our class. The pieces were smooth and easily cut with our class saws. We were taught how to cut and fit the parts of a birdhouse, and how to sand them and assemble them. They were later painted in different colors. This was a good project and we all learned a great deal about wood and its uses. We learned to build items by ourselves, and applied this training and manual training classes in school.
When the forest trees were cut and used in this area, there was no raw material for the mill. The Wachsmuth Sawmill and Lumber Company shut down completely during the late summer of 1924. This was a devastating time for Bayfield, with the loss of work for so many. Our home on Fifth Street was on the bluff above the mill. From the vantage point on our front porch, we watched the closing of the saw mill as to begin with the removal of the burner. This was a tall steel structure with a rounded dome covered with steel wire mesh to contain sparks and embers while allowing the smoke to pass through. The base had several large doors to where the bark and slabs of unwanted wood scraps were burned. It was also used to supply some heat for the steam boilers. On the scheduled date, the dynamite, which has been placed in the base, was set off causing a tremendous noise. The huge burner toppled and crashed to the ground. A large cloud of dust erupted from the explosion.
The steam-operated work whistle was tied down and continued to blast until it ran out of steam, for a final farewell to the end of an era”.
The buildings and mill remnants remained on the grounds until a Tuesday night March 20, 1930. The Bayfield County Press recalls,
“Tuesday evening about eight o’clock the city fire siren warned people of the third serious fire in less than two weeks. Tuesday’s fire cause the complete destruction of the Wachsmuth electric powered lumber mill situated on the bay front just South of the Wachsmuth lumber yards. First notice of the fire was being by Wilbur L. McCredie as he was coming by the Gus Weber home. He noticed a bright light at the windows of the mill, but at first figured that someone was working there. He then saw flames shooting and ran into the Weber home to telephone the alarm to the central office. The fire was well underway by the time anyone arrived on the scene was entirely beyond control when the fire department got several streams of water playing on it. Nothing could be done except to keep the fire from spreading to the nearby lathe mill and the tugs Chattanooga and the R. T. Roy, docked in an adjacent slip.”
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This history brief was written by Robert J. Nelson. Generously sharing our local history through his research and writing.