Smell of sawdust takes him back to Fisher’s Mill

Published 11:35 pm Friday, August 26, 2011

by James D. ‘Archie’ Hill

“Can I go?” I begged. I am ready to go. Anywhere to escape the day-to-day monotony of life on the farm.

Anywhere but the house and the routine of daily existence. Anywhere beyond the visual horizon, although I don’t know what that is at this time.

My father, perhaps in a weak moment, or maybe feeling a bit merciful, gives permission and I climb up on the strong crossbeam of the wagon. My seat, as his, is just a short distance from the rear ends of a pair of horses.

The horses are not embarrassed by their lot in life, and nature taking its course is one of the hazards of horse-drawn carriages of any sort. It is as natural as the wind that, gratefully, carries away their wind.

The wagon is a barebones framework of strong oak timbers, not the fancy box wagons seen in Western movies of the day but a work wagon, without a body. No fancy seats. Under the frame are stout-spoked, wide steel-banded wheels, not graceful, not built for speed, but strong and reliable for heavy loads.

A long tongue separates the horses and is the mounting structure for a double tree with a single tree on either side for each horse. Wagon crossbeams front and rear with stanchions on both ends could carry long items like boards or logs.

Today’s outing would use that ability; we are headed for the sawmill. It’s just down the road about a mile. Fisher’s Mill. It’s been there a long time.

We start out slowly, with the horses’ tails swishing at the occasional fly or irritant. Right of way is broad enough for the two-lane paved road with a generous grass covered space to fences on either side.

We travel on the grass, with just one or two forages to the pavement to get around culverts and ditches and the like. There’s little to no road traffic; the occasional truck passes, and the driver lifts a finger from the steering wheel in acknowledgement to my father. Most people know most people around here.

The mill sits on a large corner parcel of land on the south side of U.S. 58 just before the bridge at Shady Brook. There’s a dirt road beside it that stretches along the east bank of the creek until it joins the Nottoway River, and then follows the Nottoway for a few miles where it intersects the Newsoms Road.

As we enter the mill yard, long racks of wide boards are stacked like an X across a support for drying. On either side of the entry lane are stacks of lumber separated within the stack by thin boards and a small space between the boards on a single layer.

Air circulates around and between each board and the lumber air-dries to a useful state. Straight ahead and slightly left is the sawmill shed. It is connected to a steam boiler by a series of pipes and to electrical service by some overhead wires.

Other buildings and sheds house a business office and a planing mill. The planing mill smooths and properly sizes rough-cut lumber for a variety of uses.

Mr. Hedgepeth is the sawyer, and as far as I can tell, master of all things sawmill. Mr. Hedgepeth has a physical tremor of some sort that constantly moves his head up and down and to either side. The movement doesn’t seem to interfere with his authority.

The saw itself is a wide bladed monster, mounted on a spindle driven by a belt from the steam drivers. Mr. Hedgepeth sits close by the massive blade and gauges how many boards of what width can be cut from the log on the loading rails.

His judgment is law. As rough cut boards come off the main saw, they are trimmed to standard sizes; the pieces trimmed from either edge are called “strips.” These “strips” are sold for use in woodstoves for cooking or other uses, such as starting a fireplace fire.

“Strips” are what we came for. It was time to replenish the woodpile for the wood-fired cook stove in our house.

Our wagon is loaded stanchion high with strips, and my father and I both sit on top of the load for the return trip. We are much more comfortable, and have a better view. The horses take their task in about the same stride as when the wagon was empty. We pull into our yard and stop; my part is over, for now.

For that day, and others like it, I am grateful. The sawmill is a part of my heritage and in my travels later in life, where there is a sawmill, I visit, smell the sawdust and return, for a moment, to Fisher’s Mill.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High school. He can be reached at