Every mill had a pond. Logs floated like half-submerged alligators, and there was a concrete wall opposite the mill house where the logging trucks and trains pulled in. The tie-downs were removed, the near side steel racks were lowered and the logs tumbled into the pond with a rush, sending a wave toward the mill. A mill worker wearing corked (caulked) boots danced on those logs. He literally danced, the logs turning and sinking as he went across, nimbly guiding a log with his peavey, a lance with a sharp point and a hanging hook, toward the chain. It was a dance that allowed no mistakes. A slip meant dropping between logs that weighed as much as a locomotive, and those logs shifted against each other constantly, The chain dipped into the pond, a continuously moving loop with hooks that pulled logs, dripping, out of the water, up the incline and into the mill. There, other hooks, fueled by hydraulic power, slammed into the log, lifting it onto the carrier. Controlled by the sawyer who sat in a tiny booth next to the giant band saw; he positioned the log, it moved toward the saw and the scream of the teeth sliced off a bark side, the discarded piece dropping onto a conveyor belt, bound for the burner. The log retreated, the hooks lifted and bit again and it turned, exposing another side and once again the big saw sliced off another long side of bark, as easily as if it were a chunk of cheese cut with a sharp knife. It was a ballet of machinery, big enough to manhandle the trunk of a huge sugar pine or fir, something bigger than a truck, lifted as easily as if it were no more than a napkin. Boards peeled off, the sawyer touching his controls lightly, the smell of wood filled the air, sawdust spurted, fell onto a conveyor to end up in the smoking burner. The smoke drifted across the town, and the smell of burning wood was a continuous part of breathing in those mountain towns.
Men walked the moving boards, guiding them to other saws that trimmed them, or sent them off to where other men pulled them onto stacks. At the Essex Cedar mill, the clear heart pieces went into the kiln to be dried, and eventually ended up as yellow pencils in classrooms across the nation.
Other pieces of lumber became the framework of houses or bridges. Discarded chunks of cedar became fences in parks. Once, Dennis Curran and I brought a City of Oakland truck to the Essex mill to get a load of pecky cedar that would go back to Oakland and become fences in city parks. The fork lift operator put one unit onto the truck, and them came with another.
No, we called out. We only ordered one.
I got too many, he said. This one is on the house. It settled onto the truck, lowering the bed, flattening the springs. The front end lifted, the wheels barely touching the ground.
I was eighteen, Dennis was fifteen. We didn’t know any better. We thought we were getting a bargain, and we eased the truck out of the mill yard. Charlie would be proud of us. The truck wallowed all the way back to Oakland Camp, the heavy load of lumber dictating our movements.
When we arrived, Charlie Way, the caretaker took one look and said, “What the hell were you two thinking?
The second one is free, we crowed.
The second one has nearly brought this truck to its knees. Unload that wood as quick as you can, you two numbskulls.
Charlie was from Alabama, and numbskulls sounded much like toadstools.
Fortunately for us, there was no permanent damage, and that second unit of pecky cedar lay there among the trees for the next month, mute testimony to our teenage idiocy.
But the smell of the mills, wood and smoke, hung over towns throughout the Sierras: McCloud, Dunsmuir, Quincy, Loyalton, Greenville, Crescent Mills, Portola, Graeagle, in the Feather River Canyon, in Sierraville,, Downieville, Truckee, countless little portable mills in narrow canyons, on Red Clover Creek, Indian Creek, Spanish Creek. They are nearly all gone, the constant blue air from the burners is gone. The smell of freshly cut sawdust has disappeared. Houses now have aluminum studs, and those yellow pencils have been replaced by computer keyboards. No longer is a pencil case part of a child’s school kit.
Uncle Howard took Paul and me to the mill in McCloud. You could hear the saw miles away, and it was reputed to be the biggest band saw in the world. Its high pitched scream spirited through the forest, and monopolized the world surrounding it.. Some of the logs were the trunks of Sugar Pines so big that a single one occupied a railroad flatcar. When we got to the mill, the noise of the saw was ear shattering; it vibrated our bodies, and the floor of the cook shack where the men ate was scarred by the caulked boots they wore. Some of those trees were a thousand years old. They were cut into slats that became the boxes for strawberries in Southern California. Sugar Pine did not fuse its scent into the fruit, and was much valued by those growers.
So those trees, saplings when Sir Francis Drake hauled his ship onto the California coast when only natives and grizzly bears roamed those woods, became boxes stacked at the end of strawberry rows in the Southern California sunshine.