(photo circa 1943)
The Crowder Bros./Crowder Shingle
|Copyright (C) 1997 by
Norman A. Crowder.
All rights reserved.
At the outset I want to acknowledge the assistance of Art Bellingham in filling in some of the details of the early history of the mill, and of my cousin, Sheila (McCaffery) Sullivan, who furnished information and some pictures of the mill. According to Art, August Birkenfeld, sometime in the 1920's, built a lumber mill and a shingle mill about a half mile upstream -- the stream being the Nehalem river -- that is, northeast of the small town of Birkenfeld. The lumber mill (saw mill) burned once, was rebuilt, and then burned again in 1932 or '33 and was not rebuilt. As far as I know, the shingle mill never burned; however, it stood idle until 1935, when it was bought by the newly formed Crowder Bros. Shingle Co.
The Crowder Bros. Shingle Co. consisted of my father, William Carmichael Crowder, Thomas Scott Crowder and Henry Crowder. They contracted to pay $1,500 for the mill, with $150 down, and $150 per month. I have no idea where my father got his share of the initial $150, and I suspect he may have contributed somewhat more than his nominal $50. He may have borrowed on his life insurance. He had been working with "Old Man" Creagar (Jack Creager?) at a mill up on Keasey Road, but their output was traded for flour, which was traded to King's Grocery store for groceries -- in other words, it was not a cash economy in Oregon in 1935. In any event, the remainder of the purchase price was paid promptly, as far as I know.
What the brothers had bought was rather more than a shingle mill. The mill proper stood on a bluff overlooking the river, which, not far after it passed the mill, made a left turn, so that the mill stood on sort of an elbow. The mill was perhaps a quarter mile, or a little less, from the road, now Highway 202. There was a plank road down to the mill, and along that plank road some houses and shacks. I don't know whether the mill actually owned this property or simply had some sort of agreed access to it. As suggested above, in a depression economy with very little cash around, I don't think anyone reasoned very nicely about who actually owned the property. I'm sure my father had the p's and q's properly accounted for, though, and we certainly treated the area as if we owned it. The plank road continued around, past the shingle mill and the shingle shed, and then turned back up to rejoin the main road. There was even a railroad, consisting of one Model T Ford touring car with railroad wheels, a flat car, and a quarter of a mile of track that went from the mill to the shingle shed.
Shingle mills are "sized" by the number of "shingle machines" they have, the machine being the Sumner Upright Shingle Machine. Ours was a "one machine" mill. It was not, however, a really minimum mill, since the supporting machinery was altogether adequate to keep that one machine humming, and hum it did. Much of the time we ran three or four shifts, and I'm sure we broke all records for producing shingles in a one machine mill. My father thought that there was nothing more ridiculous than to spend $20,000 or so for a two or three machine "showplace" mill and then only run it one shift, and then, of course, to have it burn down some night when no one was watching it.
Shingle mills did burn down, of course. They were mostly steam powered, and the steam was generated by burning the saw dust and other waste, and dry red cedar burns very nicely. Our mill was steam, of course. The engine that powered the whole mill was a double acting, one cylinder, 18 by 24, that is, 18 inch diameter piston with a 24 inch stroke. I may be exaggerating here, it may have been only 12 by 16, but it was impressive to a fourteen year old. The boiler ran at a nominal 100 pounds per square inch and supplied the main engine, of course, a logging "donkey" that assisted in bringing the logs into the "slip" where the regular machinery could take over, the steam "drag saw" that made the first cut on the log, a shower and later the dry kiln. What I remember most vividly about that engine is that the lines of the main casting always seemed to me to suggest an animal about to spring on its prey. The engine ran clockwise, seen from the most accessible side, and the motion of the crankshaft end of the piston rod looked like a cougar springing on a hapless doe. I didn't mention this to any of the other workers at the mill.
But here I run before my horse to market. Let me introduce the Crowder brothers more formally. My father, William, known as Bill, of course, was the oldest son of Thomas Scott Crowder, who died in 1932. It was shingle mill family, this being the third or fourth mill the family had owned. Bill was a skilled sawyer -- more about what the sawyer did directly -- and could file and set saws, and pack, of course, as well as doing many of the other jobs around the mill. He was more than competent in these jobs, and I mean no disrespect when I say that he was not the "genius" that his brother Tom was. What he was was a superb manager and business man. In many ways he was a creature of contradictions. He got along well with every one, he was particularly apt at getting along with people who were a little "strange." But he was not gregarious. I cannot imagine him sitting around in a bar, exchanging small talk with friends. He was a little above average height, with jet black hair and eyebrows -- very handsome, in fact -- but he had a serious demeanor that discouraged familiarity. He had a somewhat exaggerated reputation as a teetotaler.
Tom was the second son, he was a little shorter than Bill, and stockier. He looked more like his father. Tom was a legend in the shingle industry. He was a very skilled sawyer, and an absolute horse for work. One day, when he had sawed his ten hour shift -- this would have been before 1920 -- the sawyer for the night shift did not show up, so Tom sawed the night shift, and his regular shift the next day. But Tom was much more than a hard worker, he was a craftsman. I said my father, Bill, could file and set the saws, but not the way Tom could. The main shingle saw in the Sumner Upright Shingle Machine was a 44-inch saw that ran at 1700 RPM. To run straight, at that speed, the saw had to be dish shaped at rest. "Hammering" the saw to just the right shape was one of the things that Tom excelled at. He was also the blacksmith and associate millwright. (We had inherited the original millwright, one Ole Olson, when we bought the mill.) To be a craftsman, one has to really care about the final product. For example, every now and then we would get an order for "under-coursing." This was simply a piece of wood shaped more or less like a shingle, but used under regular shingles on side-walls, to give a deeper shadow line and possibly provide some thermal insulation. Therefore the rattier it was, the more full of worm holes and knots, the better it was. Needless to say it was sawn from the junkiest timber. Tom hated to saw under-coursing -- it grossly offended his principles. Later I will give another example of how Tom expressed his vision of the Platonic Ideal of shingle.
Unhappily, Tom was given to drink. He could not stand prosperity, and when he had money enough for his day-to-day needs, he drank. Sometimes he would come to work drunk, and this led to his departing around late 1939, and the company was re-organized as the Crowder Shingle Co.
Henry was the one of the younger Crowder boys, and was at least ten years younger than Bill. He was a very vigorous hard worker, and was known for his quick temper, although there wasn't an ounce of harm in him. He ran the "deck" at the mill, which was the roughest kind of work. I don't believe he ever sawed. When the company was re-organized after Tom was excused I believe Henry's role, in management, was substantially diminished.
All of the Crowder boys, Bill, Tom, Al, Lee, Henry and Louis were vigorous and very hard workers. There weren't any lazy Crowders until I came along.
Now, as to the operation of the mill itself. The logs were brought in by truck and rolled off a hundred yards or so in front of the mill. I don't know where we got the cedar logs. We had our own logging truck, with Roy Reynolds for a driver. We got some from Lawrence Jepsen (Jep), who intermittently ran a small "gyppo" logging operation. We got some timber from a curious chap named Seymour Johnston. He ran a one man logging operation and was popularly believed not to have "both oars in the water." His equipment often broke down, since he didn't maintain it properly, and he was persuaded that "enemies" were putting sand in the bearings of his logging tractor. He had a rifle in his truck and would tell my father, "Well, I just about got one of the bastards last night." Dealing with Seymour exercised all of my father's interpersonal skills, as Seymour's valuation of his products was often optimistic.
Art Bellingham points out to me that probably most of our timber came by way of the big lumber mill, the Oregon-American Lumber Co., in Vernonia. In one sense, cedar is almost a by-product of fir logging. Generally, for every cedar tree in a stand, there will be ten fir trees. Cedar is valuable, however, and the loggers who brought fir logs to the OA pond in Vernonia also brought cedar. In fact, in the late 1920's and early 30's there was a shingle mill at the OA pond. In fact, my father came to Vernonia to work in that mill, but it shut down for good in the early 30's. Art says he made many a trip as the "swamper" on our truck, hauling logs from the OA pond to Birkenfeld.
We used the logging donkey to bring the logs up to the slip, where they could be reached by the apparatus that hauled them into the mill. I have to confess complete ignorance of what that apparatus was, and where it got its power. It must have been run by the main steam engine but I cannot recall even an outline of the machinery. I do know that it was a rare log that came in without some expenditure of profanity. The first saw the log encountered was a steam-driven reciprocating saw (a drag saw) that was roughly 10 feet long, a foot high, and perhaps 3/8 of an inch in thickness. This would saw a section, roughly 16 inches thick, off the log and the section would fall on the deck, usually with a little impatient assistance from Henry. On the deck the section, which might be upwards of six feet in diameter, was attacked by the deck hands and split into halves, or thirds or quarters, with sledges and wedges, and these rough blocks given to the man who ran the "knee-bolter." The men who worked on the deck that I remember were Jep, from time to time, occasionally Ole Olson, Jack Reister, possibly Victor Berg, and Ralph George. Ralph was a great favorite among we boys because he had been, we were told, wrestling champion of the Marines, and could be counted on to embarrass itinerant carnival wrestlers who came through our area from time to time. He was somewhat over six feet tall, not heavily built, but very strong and quick as a cat.
I thought of Ralph when, in 1992, a group of assorted Crowders and relatives attended the logging skills contest in Vernonia, and a descendant or relative of Ralph's took most of the prizes. The ladies in the company unanimously admired his skill and modest demeanor. I think that's what they admired, but they were breathing pretty heavily -- I suppose from anxiety, waiting for the judge's decisions. But back to the 1930's.
The knee-bolter was a steel topped table on a track, with a wide slot in the front to admit the knee-bolter saw. The top of the table was level with the deck so the operator stood in a hole, sort of. The saw was vertical and was sixty inches in diameter, ran at 600 RPM and had sixty large, mean-looking, inserted teeth. The table had an arm that stuck out to fit between the operator's legs, hence the name "knee bolter." The operator would wrestle the block onto the table, and, with his legs, push table and block into the saw, rotating the block so as to peel off the bark. If there was a large knot in the block, he would saw directly through it, so the knot would be the part of the block that would necessarily be wasted in the final cutting of the shingles.
Running the knee-bolter saw was the roughest and most dangerous job in the mill, and took the most strength and energy. In particular, apprentice knee-bolters had to learn not to argue with the saw -- if the saw wanted to take the block, let it have it. Otherwise the saw would take you and the block both. Occasionally the saw would reject a block, some times throwing it halfway across the mill. Running the knee-bolter saw could be exciting for an inexperienced person. I suppose it is still done roughly the same way -- I can't imagine how else it could be done -- but I should think it would give an OSHA inspector the heart attack. The main knee bolter was George Briggs, whom Art remembers as "one tough Polack." I think I recall Ole Olson doing some knee bolting, and maybe Vic Berg. Henry occasionally ran the bolt bolter, but I believe my father discouraged him. Henry was a little too impetuous for that line of work.
Before the block could go to the shingle machine it went to the "equalizer" saw. The function of this saw was simply to smooth the ends of the block, since the drag saw left them pretty rough. There had been no equalizer in the mill originally, but my father insisted on it. He was always very particular about the appearance of the shingles. Since there had been no equalizer saw in the mill when it was built, it turned out to be impossible to get the sawdust to the conveyor belt and thence to the furnace. The solution was to make a chute straight down to the ground floor where it emptied into a large wheel barrow. It was one of my jobs, when I was the "fireman," to trundle that wheel barrow out and empty it over the side of the bluff several times per shift.
The rig consisted of a sliding table, and the saw was guarded in back and on all sides except where it would contact the block. It would have required the most ingenious stupidity and carelessness to get hurt using the equalizer saw, and it was the only saw I was allowed to run. Most of the blocks were stored unequalized until they were needed, the equalizing being done by the "block piler" who placed the blocks on the sawyer's table. The deck could make blocks two or three times as fast as they could be used, and when we ran three and four shifts, the deck only worked the day shift. The variable was how many deck hands there were to help Henry.
As appears above, we were kept very busy and it might be appropriate here to say something about how the company did business-wise. We got a break in 1936 when the Shingle Weaver's Union went on an industry-wide strike for a six-hour day, and some pay increases. (The term "shingle weaving" comes from the process of packing the shingles into bundles. More about this process later.) One of my favorite stories about my father involves the bi-weekly meeting of the Shingle Mill Owners association, which took place in Portland. These meetings were usually occasions when the owners could try to figure out how to steal each other's timber and markets, but when the union struck, the talk was all about the strike and what should be done about it. Some favored hanging the union leaders, some thought that shooting would be more satisfying. My father did not take either side, so they elected him as Chairman for that meeting. Someone asked him, "Well, Bill, do you know how to conduct a meeting?"
"I should," says my father, "I was President of the Shingle Weaver's Union for two years." He knew, and tried to convince the others (some of which had been union members with him) that, aside from the rights and wrongs of the matter, trying to break the strike was doomed to failure. Sawing shingles, and to a lesser degree, packing them, was highly skilled labor, and there were no replacements for the men out on strike. Young men, even in 1936, were not learning the trade. At that time, most of our sawyers and packers were men in their late 40's or early fifties. The result of the strike was that most of the industry was shut down for five months. We simply gave the union what they wanted and were one of the few mills running -- the only one, as far as I know. And a very curious thing happened. As the reader will see, as soon as I describe the process of sawing shingles, one would think that the sawyer had only minimal control of how fast the shingles could be sawn. After all, the machine ran at a constant speed. But we made almost as many shingles on a six hour shift as we had on the eight hour shifts! Anyway, we made and sold a lot of shingles in 1936, and got a good toe-hold in the market. Whether we made much money I don't know. But back to the process of making shingles.
The Sumner Upright Shingle machine had two saws. The main "shingle" saw was the 44-inch saw I mentioned previously. It stood at the sawyer's left, somewhat in front of him. The second saw was the "clipper" saw, directly in front of the sawyer, at 90 degrees to the shingle saw. It was usually 40 to 42 inches in diameter, and ran, as I recall, at 1200 RPM. It was usually a "retired" shingle saw, as the process of "gumming out" the shingle saw gradually reduced its circumference. The blocks sat on a steel-topped table to the sawyer's right. The carriage was at the sawyer's left. The sawyer would step on a lever with his left foot, which would stop the carriage and open the "jaws," which consisted of two toothed rollers, top and bottom, which would hold the block. The rollers were controlled by a ratchet that, at each stroke of the carriage, would set out the block for the next cut. When the sawyer released the lever, the carriage would advance the block into the saw, cutting off one rough shingle, except on the first cut, of course. With each stroke of the carriage, the ratchet would set out the block for the next stroke. The shingle saw was mounted on a heavy collar, perhaps an inch thick at the hub, and tapering to nothing at a distance of a foot or so from the hub. This hub tended to push the rough shingles away from the saw. The sawyer picked up the rough shingle, and finished it on his clipping board, which was a hinged board, directly in front of him, squaring the sides with the clipper saw. There was more to it than that, however. A single rough shingle might be a No. 1, except for a knot hole in the middle. The sawyer would clip the knot out. This involved reaching over the clipper saw, of course. In a mill I saw recently, there was a guard directly over the clipper saw. I don't believe there was one in our mill. When the block was used up, there would be a small part, perhaps two or three inches wide, left. This "spalt" would fall out when the carriage was opened, or be knocked out by the next block.
The production of the mill depended directly on the skill of the sawyer. As he picked up a block to put it in the carriage he positioned it so as to get the best grade of shingle out of it. If there was a large knot, of course, it would become part of the "spalt." The sawyer graded the shingles as he sawed them. To the sawyer's right, a little in front, was the mouth of the No. 1 bin, a little behind that was the No. 2 bin. In our mill, the sawyer simply threw No. 3's out in front of the machine, and the fireman would pick them up from time to time and throw them down the No. 3 bin, which the sawyer couldn't reach.
I might mention here the grades of shingles. No. 1's were clear, no knots or holes, and were "vertical grain" -- that is, looking at the butt of the shingle, the grain ran from one side to the other. I believe No. 1's were supposed to be not less than three inches wide, or it may have been more. No. 2's could be flat grain and have knot holes in the first four inches from the tip. No. 3's could have knots or holes in the first eight inches. It was not only that the sawyer had to grade the shingles as he sawed them, but, as he picked up each block, he had to visualize the position of the block in the carriage that would give the best grade of shingle. Sawyers and packers were paid by the square (four bundles) and the sawyer got a premium (about 25%) for sawing No. 1's.
The sawyers that I remember were my father, Bill, his brother Tom, Al Ryder, and Old Man Potter. There were others, I remember one whose name, I think, was Vernon, and I believe there was a Mr. Weaver, from Clatskanie. Tom was the master. Every now and then the sawyers would get to competing, seeing who could saw the most shingles. My father didn't like that because it might lead to accidents. This might go on for a day or two, and then Tom would demonstrate just how to saw shingles, and that generally put a stop to the argument. Of course, the amount of shingles produced depended on the quality of the timber, and, when I was the fireman who supplied the sawyer with equalized blocks, I was offered inducements occasionally to pick out the biggest blocks. Old Man Potter even tried to bribe me to speed up the engine once.
Sawing was dangerous, of course. My father had one mangled finger nail on the middle finger of his left hand. He used to say that the trick was to get bit easy the first time. But the truth was that some sawyers were accident prone and some weren't. Tom had all his fingernails in pristine shape, while Old Man Potter was missing almost as many finger joints as he still had. I feel a little guilty here, I suppose I could refer to him as Mr. Potter -- I never knew his first name -- but, dammit, what we called him was Old Man Potter. He chewed Beech Nut tobacco, but seemed to feel he had to do it on the sly, as it were. I don't know why. Ole Olson was a good hand with the Copenhagen, and almost all the men smoked cigarettes, even while sawing. We were encouraged to "roll our own," as these would go out if they were put down, while the "tailor-mades" didn't always. My father was always very concerned about fire, but he smoked Lucky Strikes. I was partial to Golden Grain, myself. Five cents a bag, and well worth it. But I digress.
All the work I have described so far took place on the upper floor of the mill. The bins for the shingles were on the ground, or packing floor. The packing frame was 20 inches wide, and 24 inches long. The packer would put a "band-stick" with "band-irons" already nailed on it, on the bottom of the frame, and then lay 20 double "courses" of shingles in the frame, with the butts of one course toward him, and of the other course pointing away, so that the tips of the shingles overlapped in the middle of the frame by about 8 inches. This interlacing of the near and far courses presumably is how the term "shingle weaving" arose. When he had 20 such courses, he would lay a bandstick without irons on the top of the bundle and step on a lever on the right of the frame, which would grip the bandsticks and compress the bundle in the center. Then he would nail the ends of the band-irons to the top bandstick, and the bundle was finished.
The trick in packing was to be able to look in the bin and see three or four shingles -- which were random widths, of course -- which would just fill the width of the packing frame. It was a trick I never mastered. As far as I was concerned it was largely "cut and try," with the result that I had to handle quite a few shingles more than once. My uncle, Lee Crowder, was as famous as a packer as Tom was as a sawyer. He never handled a shingle more than once, and he never tired of admonishing me to "concentrate." It was all in vain, however, and I was always "swamped" by the end of the shift.
I packed for Old Man Potter, who was as stingy a man as ever lived. I have mentioned that sawyers and packers were paid by piece-work. Most sawyers were particular about the quality of the shingles they made, of all grades. They didn't try to "pad the account" by slipping some borderline No 2's into the No. 1 bin, or try to pass junk off as No. 3's. Not Old Man Potter. He would throw stuff down the No. 3 bin that wouldn't have made a respectable popsicle stick. It takes a long time to pack a bundle of shingles that average two inches in width. One night I hadn't had time to pack any No. 3's, but I had looked around the corner at the No. 3 bin -- it was out of sight of the main packing room -- and I am sure there were no less than four bundles of No. 3's there. Tom sawed the shift after Mr. Potter, and he always came to work 45 minutes or an hour early. He saw I was swamped as usual and he said, "I'll pack out the No. 3's for you." He came out with one bundle, disappeared again around the corner, and came back in a few minutes and went upstairs. I supposed he had work to do up there, and when the whistle blew, I packed out the No. 1 and No. 2 bins and trudged back to the No. 3 bin. There was half a bundle of shingles in the packing frame, none in the bin, and the fire was burning merrily. You see, the conveyor belt to the furnace ran right beside the No. 3 bin and Tom had censored Old Man Potter's No. 3's! Nihil nisi bonum de mortuis is all very well, but, on the Last Day, if my sins are forgiven as I forgive Old Man Potter's No. 3's, then pardon there is none for me.
The packers I remember were my Uncle Lee, Charley Biggs, and Claude Hillsbury. No doubt there were others, and all the Crowder boys could pack, as a matter of course. Claude Hillsbury was an interesting man. He was small, I doubt that he was over five feet two inches, and it seemed altogether fitting that he should have been the first in the county to buy a Willys, which was the first American compact car. He was said to have shot a more than adequate stick in the local pool halls and been quite a sport in his day, but marriage cured that. His wife was not a small woman. I witnessed an interesting transformation. The Jehovah's Witnesses converted his wife, and at first Claude seemed to take all this with a liberal sprinkling of salt. But, in the course of six months he became a true believer, and reckoned my prospects on the Other Side were not better than fair to poor. He had a farm up on the Keasey road, and kept a particularly belligerent and redolent billy goat.
Before relating my personal experiences in more detail, I should say a little more about the other features of the mill. On the northeast corner of the upper floor of the mill was the filing room. The shingle saw had to be "pointed up" every three or four hours. This could be done with the saw on the machine. Every twelve hours or so it was removed from the machine, to be more thoroughly filed in the filing room. After three or four days use, the saw would have to be "gummed out"; that is, it was mounted on a jig which had an emery wheel which would deepen the throat of each tooth, making a brave shower of sparks. These sparks never seemed to set anything on fire, which was a puzzle to me. The saw had integral teeth and these had to be a little wider at the tip than the body of the saw. This was done by "swaging," that is, literally squeezing the end of the tooth between two small and very hard steel rollers. I remember my father coming back from Portland once with a new set of rollers and remarking that those miserable little things cost five dollars apiece. After swaging the saw was pointed up and ready to go again, although Tom might give it a few considered whacks with the hammer, just to be sure it would run straight. The process of gumming out the saw gradually reduced it from 44 inches to a little less than 42, after which it would be retired to service as a clipper saw. The filing room was full of interest for me, and was an unending supply of wornout 10 inch bastard cut mill files.
In 1937 or '38 we built a dry kiln, which was heated by steam from the main boiler. There may have been some concern about boiler capacity, since we installed a "condenser" which was supposed to salvage heat from the engine exhaust and use it to pre-heat the water for the boiler, but it was a disaster, and was soon abandoned. Actually, I don't remember that it was any harder to keep steam up after we installed the dry kiln that it had been before. The dry kiln was a good investment. On rail shipments it was a "custom of the trade" that the customer paid freight on 144 pounds per square, but our actual cost was paid on the weight of the shipment, and we could dry the shingles down to about 100 pounds per square. We liked to ship long distances, to the middle west or northeast, and on many a shipment we made more on "underweights" than on the shingles. It was a good deal all around, because the customers preferred the dry shingles. We loaded the box-cars at Vernonia, and, as cars were hard to get, we loaded them full, and then some. Some years later, at the University of Chicago, I met a chap whose father had a lumber yard in upper New York state. I was describing how we loaded the shingles, and he began to roll up his sleeves and said, "I always wanted to meet one of those SOB's who loaded those box-cars."
I think my most hated job at the mill was pushing those trucks through that dry kiln. The temperature was upwards of 150 degrees, and the trucks were not easy to move. Each truck held about 120 bundles of shingles. I wonder that it never occurred to anyone to build the dry kiln on a slight slope.
Some of the shingles went directly from the mill to the shingle shed, about a quarter mile away, by means of the Crowder Short Line. This consisted of a Model T Ford with railroad wheels, and a single flat car. The Model T had been the doctor's car in the days when many of the logging camps could be reached only by rail, and many a damaged logger it had hauled out the woods in its time. Like all Model T's it was cranky about starting and indeed, in cold weather, the only person who could start it was Henry. He would get into such a temper that that crank handle would just be a blur. Sometimes I manned the spark and throttle levers at these ceremonies, and rarely did it to Henry's satisfaction.
We had a blacksmith shop with a forge and a drill press. Tom was the blacksmith, and it was a wonder to see him work. He would take a piece of iron out of the forge, give it a few measured taps and it would do exactly what he wanted. I would try the same thing and, I swear, the iron would turn around and stick its tongue out at me. I used to get abused about using Tom's metal drills to drill holes in wood, which I never understood. There was a supply of asbestos mixed with engine oil which was used to make dams when pouring babbit bearings, and I found it very suitable for sculpture as well. When my older sister, Willa, went to Reed College, Tom did quite a good business making ice axes for Willa and her friends to climb Mt. Hood with. One time some people at the mill got the luminous idea of making a butcher knife for my mother out of an old shingle saw. Well, it was a good knife, only it had about a 20-inch blade, probably two inches in width, and was a little too "industrial" for a kitchen. I chopped kindling with it for years.
Our truck driver was Roy Reynolds, and a good man he was, very hard working and responsible. My father recognized that he was a more than usually valuable employee and converted the truck into what would be now be called a "profit center"; that is, the truck had its own set of books, and Roy got some of the earnings of the truck. We had a bed for the log truck which could hold, as I recall, 700 bundles of shingles, that is, 175 squares. Being "available" I was often called on to go with the truck to unload it. When we got to our destination, in Hillsboro or Beaverton, for example, we would go into a local pool hall or tavern and pick up a couple of extra hands to unload the truck, for 50 cents apiece. Either my father or Roy figured out that there was no sense in having the truck come back from the neighborhood of Portland empty, so we used to come back with a load of hundred pound sacks of lime for the local farmers. I didn't much care for that particular piece of entrepreneurship.
I don't want to forget to mention one of the more interesting characters who worked at the mill, Jesse Picard. Jesse was a half breed Indian, Nez Perz, I believe, who worked as a night watchman and "swamper" when we weren't running four shifts. Jesse almost always came to work visibly drunk, but he would do more work drunk than two men could have done sober. When we came to work in the morning that mill would be spotless, all the sawdust swept up, all the floors watered and scrubbed, and, of course, steam up ready to go. Jesse had two sons, one of whom, Roland, taught me the only card trick I can do. Needless to say, it requires no skill, just a modicum of natural larceny.
My maternal uncle, Royal McCaffery worked at the mill briefly, I suppose as a fireman, but soon after he started we bought the grocery (general) store in Birkenfeld and Royal was detailed to run it. I think we bought it mainly to keep it open.. The store had been a branch of Bill Bridger's store in Mist.
Needless to say, I was the merest cipher among the august crew that worked the mill. My first job at the mill, in the summer of 1937, was nailing bands. I mentioned that the packer began by laying a bandstick, with bandirons on it, in the bottom of the packing frame. My job was nailing the bandirons on. The bandsticks, which were probably 1 by 1 1/2 inches and 20 inches long, were laid out on a table which would accommodate perhaps 25 bandsticks at a time. The bandirons were thin, perhaps .032 inches, 1/2 inch wide and 10 inch long pieces of blued steel, which were laid on the ends of the bandsticks and then nailed individually. In the course of a day we would make around a hundred squares of shingles, that is four hundred bundles, and that meant four hundred bandsticks, so it was not a small job. My job also included making "brands," that is, stenciling our brand on shingles which would be packed into each bundle. This latter job required a little diplomacy. I have mentioned that packers and sawyers were paid by the square, and they could be a little jealous about having to supply more than their fair share of the shingles used as brands.
When I graduated from high school I worked at the mill full time for 15 months, until I entered college in September 1939, and again during the summer of 1940. Most of the time I was the fireman, and I should explain what the fireman's duties were. On the night shifts, when the deck wasn't running, a full crew consisted of a sawyer, a packer and a fireman. The sawyer and packer were stuck at their posts. The fireman had no particular post, so he was the "free hand" who tended to everything else that needed to be done.
A major duty, of course, was tending the fire and the boiler. Most of the time there was little difficulty in keeping up steam, but during long runs of wet timber it could be a problem. We had a large bin where we could store dry sawdust, and that helped, and there were draft doors to regulate the fire. There was also a half inch steam pipe that blew into the draft doors, but it had no venturi to entrain air, and I never saw that turning it on did much good. When the wood was wet it was a sort of balancing act, since the boiler also had to be supplied with water, and adding water would cool the boiler and depress the steam pressure. We ran at a nominal 100 psi, and the mill would run at 80 psi, but not much less. But generally, keeping steam up was not a big problem.
How the water got into the boiler was, and in its details still is, a mystery to me. There was a device called an "injector" which was perhaps 3 by 3 by 5 inches, and connected to it were three pipes, one for steam, one for cold water, and one to take the water to the boiler. There was a hole in the bottom of the injector. There were valves on the steam and cold water pipes, and, when these were properly adjusted, the water would be forced into the boiler, against the pressure in the boiler. If they were not properly adjusted, either steam or water would come out the bottom of the injector. I asked Ole Olson how the injector worked, and he muttered something about Bernoulli's principle, but I was not much wiser.
Letting the boiler get low on water was, of course, a cardinal sin, because injecting cold water into a hot boiler could cause the boiler to blow up, or so I was told. Actually, the supply pipe for the boiler ran through the firebox so the water would be heated, but, then boilers did blow up, with colorful consequences, at least in the mill folklore. I recall one time when the wood had turned from wet to dry while I wasn't paying attention, and I came into the fire room to find the steam at 135 pounds and no water showing in the glass. My palms were a little sweaty as I turned on the injector.
There was also the problem of keeping a supply of water for the boiler. There was a large water tank out in front of the mill which was supplied from the river, some fifty or more feet below. The pump was down at the river. It consisted of two double-ended cylinders, one end for steam and the other for water. Presumably the two cylinders were ninety degrees out of phase, so that each, as it completed its stroke, would trigger the other. But I could never get the wretched thing to take the first stroke. So, at three o'clock in the morning (I was often on the graveyard shift) I would look anxiously at the gauge on the tank, hoping it would last to end of my shift. If the water was getting low, it would end up with me trudging over to Ole Olson's shack to wake him up to start the pump.
I suppose that Ole, being awakened, thought it was morning and proceeded to his morning prayers -- the name of the Deity seemed prominent in his remarks on these occasions. But then, not speaking Scandinavian myself, I can't be sure.
Tending the engine was, of course, part of the fireman's duties. Starting the engine involved some little ceremony. The sawyer would give two toots on the whistle, which I would answer with two. But sometimes the engine would have stopped on dead center. In that case I would jump up and down on one of the spokes of the big flywheel until it was in position to start. Then the drain cocks at each end of the cylinder had to be opened, to allow any water that had condensed to be expelled as the engine started so it always started in a cloud of steam. The engine had to be started gradually, or the belts might be thrown off.
There was an oiler on the engine that had to be kept supplied with warm oil. We had a retired coffee pot that sat on the brickwork of the boiler where it was kept warm. To refill this coffee pot involved going out to the blacksmith shop where the oil barrel was kept. The problem was that the oil came out the cold oil barrel very slowly, so there was a temptation to leave the tap open and attend to other duties while the pot filled. But that entailed the danger of forgetting about the oil barrel and letting 55 gallons of oil drain out on the floor. This was one of a large variety of sins that fortunately I never committed.
The three classic disasters that could overtake shingle mills were fire, boiler explosions and runaways. A steam engine has no natural top speed. and in a mill the load is intermittent, so the engine always has plenty of reserve power. The answer, of course, is a speed-sensitive governor. But governors are subject to accidents, the most common being having the drive belt for the governor come off. There are stories of mills being literally beaten to pieces by flailing line-shafts. We never had the governor's drive belt come off, or break, but I remember very well one night when I realized that the mill just didn't sound right. It was speeding up and slowing down more than was normal. I scurried to the engine room and, sure enough, one of the three fly-balls on the governor had come loose. I believe I shut the engine down without the formality of blowing the whistle.
The fireman's duties included tending to the wants of the sawyer and packer. The sawyer had to be kept supplied with equalized blocks, the No. 3's picked up and thrown down the bin, and the spalts picked up and piled against the wall. The packer had to be kept supplied with bandsticks and brands, and the bundles of shingles loaded onto the dry kiln trucks or onto the flat car of the Crowder Short Line.
Among the fireman's other duties was taking a turn on the grease cups on the bearings when the mill stopped, and trundling the wheel barrow with the equalizer saw sawdust out to the cliff, as I mentioned before. The fireman served also as a general sort of watchman, being not tied to any particular post. My father was very concerned about fire, and took many precautions. So complete were his precautions that the only time I saw a fire start I literally did not have to move my feet to reach out and take down a fire hose and turn it on.
I don't know whatever became of the mill or of the Crowder Shingle Co. I last saw the mill in 1941, and the next time I saw my folks was in the summer of 1942, when my father was managing a mill in Tillamook. Someone (Sheila McCaffery Sullivan?) told me it had been sold to Lawrence Jepsen, but I have never confirmed this. Sheila also says the mill was still standing in 1946. Today, of course, there is not a stick left of the mill, the dry kiln, the plank road the house where Jack Reister and his family lived, the shacks where Ole Olson and George Briggs lived, Henry's house, or our house. Before anyone builds a skyscraper in the northern corner of what is now a cow pasture, though, I advise them to take soundings, since there is one promontory there that consists of upwards of seven million cubic yards of equalizer sawdust that I trundled out there from 1938 to 1941.
I will be glad if anyone can supply any further information, corrections, etc.
-- Norman A. Crowder
(Note: Mr. Crowder died of lung cancer May 11,
1998, at his home in Deer Grove, IL, surrounded by beloved friends and
family. He was 77 years old.)
22 August 1997
(Note: Mr. Crowder died of lung cancer May 11, 1998, at his home in Deer Grove, IL, surrounded by beloved friends and family. He was 77 years old.)