Childhood memories of the Franklin mill

Published 8:34 am Saturday, November 21, 2009

As a child growing up in the Cobbtown section of Franklin, I could never have envisioned in my wildest dreams Camps Mill — or what we simply called “the mill” — located “over the river” ever shutting down. It had been an integral part of Franklin’s history and its economic lifeblood since its founding as a saw mill by the Camps before the turn of the century. I thought endless generations would raise their families from their earnings at the mill.

However, the prosperity provided by the mill came with a price. The rumblings of the mill’s debarking drums could be heard all over town, including my upstairs bedroom on Cemetery Street. Although the noise was not as loud in the winter with the windows closed, in the summer with the windows open while trying to catch a little breeze, the noise was as ubiquitous as the mosquitoes.

In the pre-Environmental Protection Agency days, the very pungent, rotten-egg odor emitted from the mill’s papermaking operations would assault the nostrils. Franklin’s residents complained good-naturedly about the odor because to them it represented prosperity. When out-of-town visitors would complain about the odor from the mill, the standard reply was: “That is the smell of money.”

Another nuisance from the mill was the fine ash that would sometimes blow all over town from the billows of thick, black smoke belching from its smokestack. Luckily for Franklin the prevailing winds in the area usually blew east — away from town.

While in classes at Hayden across town from the mill, I would often daydream while watching that black smoke roll from the mill’s smokestack. What intrigued my imagination more was that my father — when he worked the 7 a.m. to 3 pm. shift — was often responsible for the smoke that I was watching.

My father was a boiler tender at the mill — feeding coal and wood waste with a bulldozer onto a conveyor belt which fed the roaring fires in the boilers. He started working at the mill in 1940. My mother regaled us with stories about how they rejoiced when he got his first paycheck — about $18 net after deductions.

“We thought we were rich,“ she exclaimed.

From those humble beginnings, the mill provided a good living for us with my father building the family home in 1951 on Cemetery Street. He bought his first car in 1955 — a brand-new Ford four-door sedan from the Ford dealer on Jackson Street downtown. .

The mill had three rotating shifts that the hourly workers followed — 7 a.m. to 3 a.m., 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. If a worker’s “relief man” didn’t show up, workers often did “doubles” or double shifts. During such instances, a co-worker of my father would stop by to tell my mother. She would then fix him another lunch to send over by the messenger or one of her six sons, depending on the shift.

If my father worked a double after his 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, delivering the lunch fell on one of his six boys. Sometimes it was my turn. I would walk downtown to the Seaboard Airline railroad tracks, past the Pretlow peanut factory, over the Blackwater River trestle and then to the coal pile where my father was working.

Even though I was extra careful while walking on the railroad tracks over the trestle, looking down at the river through the spaces between the ties was a little unnerving for a young kid. My mind would conjure up scenarios of a Seaboard Airline train bearing down on me and trapping me on the trestle.

However, my mind wouldn’t let me visualize the train running me over or my having to jump into the murky depths of the Blackwater River. I guess the old saying about “God looking after fools and babies” should also include young, foolish children.

After delivering my father’s lunch, I would often stay and watch him “work the coal pile.” My father, who was a 6-foot plus hulk of a man, looked “Tom Thumbish” while sitting on that big dozer. His hands and feet performed synchronously as he adroitly worked the hand and feet controls. Each pass of his dozer deposited piles of coal and wood scraps onto the conveyor belt which would end up as ash and billows of smoke.

Even though I was fascinated by my father’s mastery of that huge, smoke-belching machine, I wasn’t impressed enough to consider bulldozer operator as a career choice. Little was I to know then what fate had in store for me. As a 24-year-old I passed the apprenticeship tests for the Operating Engineers Union. My 25-year career included “grade checker” (laying out grades/elevations from survey stakes and blueprints) and operating heavy equipment — including bulldozers.

The old saying “never say never” caused me to laugh at the irony of my career choice. Who knows? Maybe my father’s influence was subliminal. He and I often “talked shop” about running dozers and the discomfort that goes with the job. While my career was in warm Southern California, I came to appreciate more the dusty working conditions, the cold winters and the stifling hot summers that my father endured at the mill to support his family.

To be continued …