The Sawmill Days
I worked at various jobs after graduation from high school. As I stated previously, I sold produce (i.e. huckstered) for a while. I also made some money driving a cleaning truck, collecting dry cleaning. For a short time I drove a produce truck for a man over in Portage, I delivered produce to restaurants. I found out that the railroad shops in Altoona were hiring men, so I applied for a job and was hired as a laborer. I started out sweeping floors, gathering up trash and doing all the odd jobs. I bid on, and received, a job doing what was called "rolling wheels"; it involved moving the cast wheels from the foundry area to other parts of the assembly line. My days "workin’ on the railroad" didn’t last long. After two years of working there, and with the draft getting persistent, I gave a notice and quit. It was then that I started to work with my dad on his sawmill.
My dad was doing some pretty good business on his sawmill when I started to work with him. We hauled mine ties and mine timbers to the coal mining operations located at Beaverdale and Portage. We also cut railroad ties [six inches by six inches and eight feet long] for the little railroad that was used by the brickplant at Sproul. We also cut railroad ties for the Pennsylvania Rail Road. Some mine ties and props were delivered to Indiana, Pennsylvania and traded on coal.
In addition to lumber, our sawmill sold slab wood and coal. On trips to Portage, I would take the big truck, and Dollie would follow with the pickup. We would try to get to the coal mine around seven o’clock. Sometimes there would be as many as ten trucks ahead of us. We would get loaded and try to get home before noon. Then we would have to deliver the coal. It was shoveled off by hand into the homeowner’s "coal cellar". The coal cellar was most often a sectioned off part of the house’s basement. We usually would use what we called coal chutes to get the coal into the coal cellar through a window. The coal chute was a long metal ramp which would be positioned between the truck’s bed and the coal cellar window. You would shovel the coal onto the chute and let it slide into the coal cellar. People no longer know what they were, but I have the two cola chutes that we purchased from Claar lumber in those early days.
The war was getting hotter, and I was called for an examination for the draft. I failed the examination, so I continued to work with Pap on the sawmill. It kept going for now there was a great demand for lumber. We had a tract of timber near McKee that was on a steep hill called "dark hollow". We had one horse and did all the skidding, or hauling of the trees we cut down, with her. Sometimes at the steeper places we would drag the whole tree to the trail, which is what we called the ramp assembly down which the logs were slid. The trail led to a landing alongside a creek that flowed along the bottom of the hill. We would unhook the horse and start the tree down the trail. Sometimes it would go nearly to the log landing, where we would cut it up in the lengths that we needed to saw. The finished product and all slabwood would be sent down the hill, and over the creek and then loaded in the truck for delivery.
The sawmill business was profitable in the 1930s. We had hired several different men to operate the mill. But most of the guys we hired were only part time employees and didn’t seem to care how much (or rather, how little) they would work. Finally my dad hired Preston Holsinger to teach me to run the mill. I learned rather quickly, and was soon operating the mill. Sawing logs was something that I loved right off. The smell of the new lumber and the added smell of the burning gasoline seemed to get in my blood. I felt that I could work ten hours a day and not get tired.
I alluded to the location of the sawmill earlier. The mill was located near the site of the old Martha Furnace to the south of McKee. It was built on the hill on the opposite side of Halter Creek from the main road. To get to it, you had to go across the creek, and then a steep embankment and over the railroad tracks. We had to build chutes across the creek, and then we had to lay portable ones over the railroad. Since the train made only two trips each day, we were able to use the chutes over the tracks during the intervening time. All the lumber and slabwood was transported down out of the hill in that way. We used the log chutes to cross over the river since there was no bridge nearby. The whole setup might have been dangerous; but we weren’t thinking about the dangers, we simply had a job to do. Those were busy days, but they were rewarding too. Several "Knights of the Road", or as my dad called them, hoboes or bums, stayed down in Shaw’s barn on the north side of McKee. Their easiest way to get to Roaring Spring was to travel up the tracks. If the mill was not running when they were passing by, the hoboes would stop to talk. They would tell us stories of the places they had been. There were other men (old timers from the area) who were not working, and who would stop in at different times. Perhaps I would be waiting for logs, or maybe filing the saw when a local old timer would stop by to chat. We welcomed these people for the diversion they provided from the grind of the backbreaking work of the sawmill.
My sawmill days were a very enjoyable part of my life. I believe that those years that I was working on the mill were truly some of the happiest times of my life. There were days of cutting and trimming trees, skidding them to the mill. Then there were days of sawing and days of hauling the finished product. Life was not monotonous for me in those days. Then in the winter there was hunting and hauling coal and slab wood. There was also the hog butchering and taking the meat to Altoona. I drove the pickup truck and while my dad sold the meat, I run the heater and I think, in one winter I read the complete works of Charles Dickens. Those two years passed rather quickly and again the draft board ordered me for examination. This time I passed and after that life was no longer the same for me. Something happens to a peace loving country boy when he is called upon to learn the fastest ways to kill. I sometimes feel a kinship with the Waltons, even though we were not a large family, our values were of living life to the fullest without arguments and fighting was the most rewarding.
Summers were spent in working long hours, but we found time to put together food and with Brady and Laura head for Gettysburg or Washington DC for a day. Brady was always ready to go and if we asked him if they wanted to go he would only ask what time we wanted to leave. We also had the usual family picnics. But now this would all change. My thoughts and Dollies were geared to the senselessness of it all. However our thoughts and those of our family did not influence the draft board.
As the time to report for service drew closer and closer, our memories of the lazy vacations and visits of neighbors came to mind. The cold facts began to take over our thoughts.as we realized that the life as we knew it would never be the same. I suppose that sometimes we even thought that I might never return, although we never mentioned it out loud because at that early age we had a strong faith in our God. We did remember that the family [Brady, Laura and Leroy, Essie, Lillie, Thelma Mary, Mildred and Melvin, and of course Dad, mother, Dollie and I] usually had a dinner together in the summer, and that at Christmas time we went from house to house sampling mostly the fruit salad.
These were quality times when we sometimes met with other of the aunts and uncles. By this time, Aunt Ethel had married Calvin Teeter and Marie had married Roy Keith and my memories of Roy Keith were pleasant ones. As a teenager he let me drive one of his trucks in the cornfield as they cut ensilage. He also had us keep apples that he stored in our basement. The few times that we spent in his home at Ore Hill were filled with games and good food. Unfortunately he was burned up in a fire in 1935 or 1936 on the farm where my grand mother lived. He had purchased it and was clearing the brush and burning it when it got out of control and he got trapped in the blaze and was overcome by the smoke. I came home from school that day and saw the smoke up in the ridges and drove our car up to the farm and met my grandfather and joined in the search and it was we who found him. This I will never forget. This was the second time that I remember being saddened at that farm. The other time was when my grand mother Smith was dead and my schoolteacher brought all the pupils of the one room school to view her remains. The times that my grandfather Bowser broke a path for me over the hill to the school and the times that he went with me to the Smith Corner Church. The times spent with my uncles Sherman and Irvin on the farm came flooding back as I thought of leaving. Many other memories came to me before I went to basic training.