The Old Mill
“PATCHWORK CLEAR-CUTTING IS THE BEST THING for those owls,” Wayne Giesy tells me. “In the wild there’s less food for them. Lewis and Clark nearly starved to death in that damn forest before they got out to hunt and fish. The ecology people are missing the boat.” Wayne Giesy works for the Hull-Oakes Lumber Company, in Monroe, Oregon, twenty-five miles outside Eugene. Hull-Oakes is a sawmill that, as Giesy’s words may suggest, specializes in cutting extremely big old-growth logs. It can handle a Douglas fir trunk eighty-five feet long—longer than can be processed by any other mill in the state. It can do so because it employs a technology no one else has: a centuryold belt-and-chain-driven sawing system powered by two reciprocating steam engines. The new computerized mills are no competition. They aren’t designed for the huge old timbers.
“It was all state of the art when Ralph Hull built the mill, in the late 1930s,” Giesy explains, “and here at Hull-Oakes, if it ain’t broke, we don’t fix it.” Hull, who was born in 1912, still stops by once or twice a week to keep an eye on things. He had an uncle with a sawmill here that burned down in 1936; Hull took it over and rebuilt it.
Back then, logs came down out of the surrounding hills pulled by teams of horses; now they are delivered by truck, but not too much else has changed. They begin their journey from tree trunks to two-by-sixes in a murky pond where a man on a little powerboat shepherds them onto a conveyer up to the ring barker, a machine with a blade that encircles the log to gently strip its outer coating.
From there the logs tumble down into the mill’s main shed, a corrugated metal structure enclosing about twenty thousand square feet. They land in the loader, a ninety-footlong timber-and-iron hopper with kickers—projecting arms —that separate out a single log and move it onto the carriage. The carriage, a sort of railroad flatcar pulled by a steam-driven cable, takes each log up into position to be cut.
The main saw blade is a fifty-three-foot-long spinning loop that has to be sharpened every four hours and have water constantly run over it to keep it cool and remove pitch. Next to the few exposed feet of it where it cuts stands the head sawyer, who works levers to run the carriage back and forth and operate the loader. Another man, standing on the carriage, sets ratchets to position the log precisely. What isn’t run by cable is run by cowhide belts, all connected to either of the two steam engines beneath the building.
The headrig cuts each log into broad boards; these pass down to the edger, which trims them to specific widths, and then to trim saws, which cut to length. The trim saws cut boards up to forty-three feet long; anything longer goes instead to a separate timber saw.
I ask Giesy who requires such lengths of wood. “Twice in the last seven years the USS Constitution needed new decking. We cut all the big logs for the ship’s deck. A lot of our lumber goes to the Far North too. Wood stands temperature change well, so they use it for bridges and buildings and towers and wharves.”
A plate on the headrig identifies it as a Cunningham’s band mill, with patent dates of 1890 and 1891. It was manufactured by the Filer & Stowell Company of Milwaukee— BUILDERS OF HIGH-GRADE SAW MILL MACHINERY .
We descend to the basement, beneath the plank main floor, and there in the gloom stands a 1906 Ames steam engine with two 16-inch cylinders and a Gardner governor with four-inch balls. “Stand on the lineshaft,” Giesy says. I balance my weight on the wood box enclosing it, and he observes, “You hardly feel a thing, right? The millwright did a damn fine job. Off by a fraction of an inch, and you’d feel it ten feet away.” This engine runs the headrig band saw and the edger; a similar one nearby pulls the carriage.
The steam that powers them is fed from boilers in a shed where a fireman burns damp sawdust, shavings, and bark, beginning in the middle of the night, to have 150 pounds of pressure up by starting time. Sprinklers keep a constant rain of water falling over the boiler house’s roof in case of errant sparks.
The operation looks almost entirely like a piece of another era, and a large-scale one, too, since it employs eighty-five people. I’m about to mention this to Wayne Giesy when I’m jarred by the sight of a helicopter flying overhead. “What’s it doing this deep in the Northwest woods?” I ask. “Oh, that’s the state police. They’re looking for pot.”
Just then Ralph Hull himself drives up in his pickup truck and slowly emerges. He’s a weathered, straight-backed man with a white beard, a stem expression, and a gentle, soft voice. As soon as Wayne Giesy introduces me, Hull turns to Topic A. “You should write about those environmentalists,” he says. “They give clear-cutting a bad press …”