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The Obvious Death Traps That Came With Toiling in a Sawmill

Updated on May 23, 2020
My version of a tough sawmill worker.
My version of a tough sawmill worker. | Source

An old, retired man said this of the early sawmilling industry in America; "The two closest places to Hell on earth are working in a sawmill and walking by a sawmill."

Early sawmill.
Early sawmill. | Source

Sawmill work is hard work . . .

A wiser string of words have never been said by man or beast. In early times one did not "work" in a sawmill. One "toiled" in a sawmill from daybreak to sunset--six days a week. And unless you are never had to "toil' in a sawmill, this is going to be very confusing to you.

The sawmill when founded, sounded uptown and gave a lot of small communities a hint of pride for having the first real factory in existence. That was before other lumber barons started a sawmill of their own. Before you knew it, everywhere you could toss a slab, you would hit a sawmill. The look of so many sawmills was deceiving. It looked like "harnessed progress" sitting in one place, but what the photo didn't show was the near-inhumane treatment the hands of a sawmill endured to feed their families.

A log truck pulls in with another load of logs for the sawmill.
A log truck pulls in with another load of logs for the sawmill. | Source
A look inside an old sawmill.
A look inside an old sawmill.
Photo of Aldridge Mill, an early sawmill.
Photo of Aldridge Mill, an early sawmill.
Sawmill boss.
Sawmill boss.

Please read this text block closely

I mean that to the sawmill employee, working in a sawmill compared to staring at a sweaty mule's butt all day long was nothing short of a miracle from Heaven. "I work in a sawmill!" boasts "Huck," a newly-hired sawmill employees in his 20's talking to his friend, "Zack," who sadly, was still plowing his mule planting crops and having to have his wife and kids help him harvest the crop in the fall.

Not "Huck." Before long, those 20-hour days in all sorts of weather became natural. "Huck,' when will you be home? We have supper with my parents tonight." "Huck's" wife reminds him as he leaves for another day of hard-labor in the sawmill for the unheard of price of "ten cents" a day. You can see why "Huck" is strutting with pride in his overalls. He was given a raise last week from a "nickel" to a "dime."

"Oh, honey. I'd say around seven," he says as he mounts his horse to take him to work up in the heavily-wooded area where he and his family live.

As "Huck" rides out of sight, his sweet wife, "Maxine," looks out her kitchen window and sighs, "Ohh, that 'Huck.' He loves his work so much. I just hope that this prosperity doesn't make him have a cold heart and look down on others who do not have it this good."

Tough labor all day long.
Tough labor all day long.
See the team of mules hauling the lumber?
See the team of mules hauling the lumber?
Water-powered sawmill.
Water-powered sawmill.
Sawmill camp of the late 1930's.
Sawmill camp of the late 1930's.
Up at dawn. Work 'til dark. This was how it was in any sawmill worker's life.
Up at dawn. Work 'til dark. This was how it was in any sawmill worker's life.
Back-breaking work for low pay.
Back-breaking work for low pay.
A sawmill worker poses for a photo.
A sawmill worker poses for a photo.
No fortunes were made by the average sawmill employees.
No fortunes were made by the average sawmill employees.
Every man had his job to do.
Every man had his job to do.
If one didn't pay close attention, he could be injured by death-traps inside a sawmill.
If one didn't pay close attention, he could be injured by death-traps inside a sawmill.
Sawmills turned-out some of America's toughest men.
Sawmills turned-out some of America's toughest men.
Leona Helmsley
Leona Helmsley

Foolish, foolish woman. So blessed and so blind. Please tell me why she and others like her did not see

The Obvious Death Traps That Came With Toiling in a Sawmill

SAWDUST -- in the eye can cause horrible pain and sometimes blindness. There was no safety equipment in these days. What a bunch of tough guys who worked the sawmills.

NO VENTILATION -- except Mother Nature's breezes to keep the sawmill employees from burning up. Men. Real men, ran the sawmills. But a person could have health complications from not getting clean, cool air.

INDIGESTION -- was present with the sawmill employees for they were not allowed a "lunch hour." They had what they could get from greedy sawmill owners to "wolf down" their meager fixings.

CURSINGS -- by sawmill bosses was present most all of the time. But in these raw days of sawmill work, no one knew a thing about how one can cause another serious psychological damage from cursing him day in and day out. This explains why sawmill workers had short lives.

SERIOUS CUTS --from the huge blades that sliced rough timber as easily as a switchblade through a Hefty bag filled with water I know caused numerous serious cuts and many deaths. So why didn't the sawmill owners think to put a guard on those blades? Well, greed has its own direction.

FIST-FIGHTS -- among poorly-paid sawmill workers led to many men getting fired and having no way, but farming, to feed their huge families. But once a man went from the cornfield to the hazardous sawmill and then back to the cornfield was a terrible downfall. And these sad situations led to many men suffering from clinical depression that they not only hid but didn't know how to describe this dark feeling.

MOONSHINE -- during working hours surely caused some near-death accidents, and death, to those who took a few swigs of homemade whiskey while the boss man was not looking in order to cope with the harsh treatment that came with working in a sawmill.

FIRES -- sometimes caused by over-heated motors that turned the blade saws did hurt a lot men, but also damaged the sawmill to the extent of having to shut it down to order blades to just keep it going.

DISGRUNTLED EMPLOYEES -- who got some "pay back," on a short-tempered boss for firing him for goofing off on company time would sometimes come back with a double-barrel shotgun to regain his manly pride. My guess is that some good-hearted sawmill employee would try to stop the angry ex-employee with the shotgun from doing any serious harm would take a barrel of shot trying to be a peacemaker.

LOG SPILLS -- were rare, but a dangerous reality. Sometimes a man driving a team of mules pulling a wagon loaded-down with huge logs would get in too much of a hurry and spill the logs onto anything and anyone who was in the way. It was always something dangerous when you worked in a sawmill.

PRETTY WOMEN -- who were in fact, wives of the sawmill owners who grew lonely at home and would drive their carriages to the sawmill to see their husbands, or the "secret lover" there whom she fancied. Seeing the sight of a pretty woman would distract the men working at he sawmill and cause serious accidents, even bloodshed caused by the jealous bosses.

RUN-AWAY OXEN -- or mules who were sometimes frightened by a loud noise made by the lumber falling against other pieces of lumber would cause the sawmill employees or wagon driver serious injuries and sometimes put them out of work permanently.

But with all things being equal, at least sawmill work was not as bad as working for once-owner of New York Palace Motel, Leona Hemsley.

You might check out these links: › History


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    • kenneth avery profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenneth Avery 

      6 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Dear Lynne,

      Wow! What an interesting idea for a book (for you) in your comment. That part about your grandpa and his plane having a spare tank would be a great start to tell people about his life, his many ventures and you playing in the sawdust.

      I am serious. People in 2015 for the most part are weary of the same spy vs spy, mayhem, cars exploding and what a change of scenery this would make.

      Laura Ingalls Wilder had success with simple storylines about Walnut Grove and see what happened to her.

      So please, for me, at least put it to some thought.

      And thank you for your sweet comment and visit with me anytime.

    • kenneth avery profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenneth Avery 

      6 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      old albion/Graham,

      Thank you sincerely for your nice comment. I do appreciate what you said about this almost-forgotten subject.

      Some of these operations were responsible for making men out boys in a short time.

      Visit anytime.

    • Lynne-Modranski profile image

      Lynne Modranski 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Wow! Your article was not at all what I expected. My grandfather was owner/operator of a sawmill when I was young. He'd owned a farm, then a dairy, then the sawmill. (and rumor has it that he may have had a spare gas tank on his small plane that accommodated moonshine during the prohibition) My dad and all of his brothers worked at the mill from time to time. It was obviously dangerous, but no more dangerous than any other factory job at the time. And compared to coal mining (the other main occupation in our area during the early to mid-1900s) the sawmill was absolutely wonderful. Many men lost there lives to cave-ins, lung cancer and being buried in a pile of coal accidentally. No one ever died or had a life threatening injury in Grandpa's sawmill.

      I wasn't down there very often when it was in operation. The grandkids had to stay at the house during the week for safety sake. Grandpa always had a few hands besides his own and his sons, but I can't think that the language would have been bad there because it NEVER slipped out when I was around. It wasn't tolerated in our family.

      My fondest memory was playing in the sawdust pile on Sunday afternoons. It was huge! And six or seven cousins playing in the stuff was all kinds of fun. We had to ask permission every time because there was always the chance it would be burning on the inside. That's how they got rid of it.

      I am sure that there were sawmills as you describe. Especially when they overran an entire town. But my sawmill memory is MUCH different! Thanks for sharing.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 

      6 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Well done Ken. Another interesting story so well illustrated as usual. It sure was/is a difficult environment to be in.



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