Autumn Milling

Autumn has to be the best time to run a portable bandsaw mill here in the Missouri Ozarks.  After a summer of enduring 100-degree temperatures, fighting off ticks and chiggers, dealing with dehydration, and entertaining visitors (who usually show up when I am trying to patch up the hydraulics on my old 8N Ford tractor, straighten out a bent bandsaw blade for one more cut, or replace the clutch in my truck), the crisp air and solitude of autumn is a welcome, and all-to-brief, break before I start worrying about antifreeze, tire chains, firewood and frozen water lines.

Fall Leaves

The crisp air brings with it a sense of urgency. I know winter is on the way and there are a lot of preparations to be made, but I can enjoy a few days before firing up the log splitter. The only problem is, a few days turns into a few weeks, and once again, we’re rushing around (usually after dark) draining the radiators and engine blocks of anything that might not have antifreeze in it, bringing in plants that shouldn’t freeze, setting up a light to warm the pump house and leaving the kitchen faucet dripping so the water line doesn’t freeze. Usually, around 2:00am or so, I’ll wake up with the nagging feeling I’ve forgotten something…but what? The answer usually comes when I fire up the mill the next day and discover the water lube line is iced up again. No problem…I’ll just mill without it.

Dealing with the first freeze of the season has become something of a ritual for me. Straight 30 weight tractor oil is like molasses at 20 degrees and the 6-volt battery, several years past its expiration, is barely able to make the starter groan. It took a 12-volt kick from the old Chevy flatbed and a shot of ether to bring the tractor to life. Hydraulics run a little slower at that temperature, but eventually, the loader bucket lifts high enough off the ground to allow forward movement. The tractor continues with a cantankerous attitude while performing the tasks I desire of it. Instead of smoothly setting the first log on the sawmill, the front end loader drops it all at once, rolling the log over the stops and off the other side of the mill. 

Other than the water lube freezing up and using the choke a little longer than usual, the mill itself never seems to be much affected by the first freeze of the season.  Actually on days like this, running a manual sawmill is a pleasant job and the brisk weather provides the motivation to stay in motion.  Here in Missouri, we don’t have the vivid colors of New England. Sassafras and sumac provide yellow and red, but oak and hickory leaves just turn a rusty brown (which makes my tractor harder to find sometimes) before they fall off the trees.

Ears adjust to quiet, much as eyes adjust to the dark. Even though the mill is relatively quiet (especially compared to a chainsaw), once you shut it down, everything seems silent at first. Soon you become aware of the louder sounds—a dog barking out in the woods, a flock of geese winging their way south and traffic far off in the distance. With deer season just a week away, there is occasional gunfire, as my neighbor sights in his rifle and does a little target practice. After forty years of using a chainsaw, the more subtle sounds are lost to my ears, but I know them well. The west wind rattles the leaves in the trees and blows a chill in the air. My coffee, by now, is too cold to have the desired effect of warmth and I consider the prospect of rigging up some way to use the heat from the engine to reheat it. Maybe I could even cook with it—or at least warm up a sandwich. Another million-dollar idea to file away for another day.

There are no orders to meet, so this is a good day to just pick through the log piles. There’s a walnut log with an interesting shape, a sycamore just crying out to be quarter-sawn and a maple salvaged from a neighbor’s yard, which is probably full of nails, but it might have spalted by now. Breaking the ice in my coffee for one last sip, I take a final look around, savor the quiet for a few seconds more then fire up the mill to see what’s inside the maple.

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