Where I grew up, we had a sawmill. We were no different than any other small town in South Mississippi. Back fifty years ago, every small town around here had a saw mill. The hills and bottoms outside town were covered in three things, row crops, pastures and pine trees.
My Grandfather said “Some of that land ain’t good for nothing more than growing pines.” He was right.
The sawmill we had was big. It was in town, on the north side. The Central Lumber Company straddled the road that led north to the next county.
The mill crowded the two railroad tracks that led to the rest of the world. From the south side to the north side, it stretched over a half mile. Pine logs were on the west side, next to the mill, where the cutting and sawing was done. New lumber was stacked on the east.
I would ride my bicycle to baseball practice, I can still hear the saw teeth biting into the logs. A high pitched whine that screamed when it made the first cut or got pinched.
Back then, huge machines straddled bundles of new lumber, to make stacks twenty feet high across the street. It seemed like there was a perpetual dust cloud on the gravel road that ran through the center of the mill.
They burned the sawdust, the bark and the trimmings. Black smoke floated towards the sky seven days a week. Ash fell from the sky, like powdered rain.
There must have been a hundred men working there. My Grandmother’s brother started there when he was seventeen. He retired when he turned sixty-five. Only job he ever had.
To this day, at exactly seven o’clock every morning, a steam whistle blows, still calling men to work. Back when we slept with windows open and there was no electricity, you could hear the steam whistle all over town.
There were saw mills in Bude, Hazlehurst, Monticello, another in Silver Creek, and a good-sized one in Crosby. Yes, there was one in Hamburg and another in Oldenburg. Mississippi had a lot of sawmills in the first half of the twentieth century.
I was afraid of every sawmill I saw.
One of them killed my other Grandfather. The one I never met. The one who died when my father was an eight year old child. The one that made my father, my uncle and my aunt into orphans. Something that bad, well, you had to fear it.
I remember my Dad’s folks saying he feel against a turning saw blade. He was cut real bad. They used a tourniquet. He was going to be alright. It was going to take an hour or two to find a doctor, put him on a wagon, take him to town. He loosed the tourniquet.
Died on the back of a wagon on a dirt road in Arkansas.
Anything big enough to kill my grandfather was big enough to scare me back then.
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