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Brian Wayne Wells
(As published in the January/February 2006 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine)
Food, clothing and shelter are well known as the three basic requirements of human beings. Agricultural is generally concerned with the production of the raw materials i.e. plants and animals, that become the food for mankind. To a lesser degree, agriculture also is concerned with the production of raw materials for clothing for mankind e.g. cotton and wool. To a still lesser degree, agriculture may be said to be involved in one of the most basic building materials used in providing shelter for mankind i.e. wood. This is especially true in recent days when forests are replanted after harvest in preparation for another harvest of trees in the future.
Just as the development of the mechanical thresher/separator revolutionized the threshing small grains, so too did the sawmill revolutionize the lumber industry. In the early days of the settlement of the upper Midwest of the United States and Canada, homes were made from logs. However, a log house had a tremendous tendency to shrink or “settle” over the years. This settling was especially pronounced in the first couple years after the construction. Settling meant that windows and doors would not remain square and, thus, tight fitting doors and windows were impossible in traditional log homes. Only frame-built houses would allow for tight fitting windows and doors. As civilization came to the Midwest with more people settling in the towns and on the farms of the Midwest, the frame house became the rule in home construction.
This tremendous growth of frame house got under way in the period following the War Between the States—the golden age of American agriculture. This boom in frame built housing created a vigorous demand for sawn lumber. Thus saw mills sprung up all over the Midwest. Usually, these sawmills were located at the falls of a particular river. This would allow the sawmill to use the power generated by the falling water and a water wheel to power the saw. Additionally, the river would be used as a transportation medium for the logs as lumber camps cut the native timber of the watershed up river from the sawmill and floated the logs down the river to the sawmill. The water might be captured by a dam on the river just above the sawmill to provide a reservoir of water to power the sawmill through any dry spells. This “mill pond” above the sawmill also served as a storage place for all the logs that came floating down the river.
The wood most in demand for building construction was pine. Pine is a straight grained, light but strong wood. It is easily worked with a handsaw and/or a plane. Furthermore, it tends to maintain its proper dimensions and shape,once it had been properly seasoned. (Robert C. Nesbit and William F. Thompson, Wisconsin: A History [University of Wisconsin: Madison, 1989] p. 297.) However, pine was not available in all areas of the United States.
Because of these desirable characteristics, pine could be transported a considerable distance and compete economically with any lumber found locally in any hardwood community. (Ibid.) Any person that has tried to hammer a nail into a “native” hardwood board will recognize why this is true. Pine tree forests were discovered to be most abundant in two belts of land in the United States. First was the wide belt of land that reached from New England through the Great Lakes area, with Lake Erie representing the southern most fringe of this belt, and extending on to present-day northern Minnesota. (Ibid.) Secondly, there was the Southern pine wood belt which started in eastern North Carolina (Hugh Talmage Lefler & Albert Ray Newsome, North Carolina: The History of a Southern State [University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1973] pp. 100-101.) and arched to the south and including nearly all of South Carolina (David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina: A Short History [University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1951] pp. 3-4.)southern Georgia ( Kenneth Coleman & et al. A History of Georgia), northern Florida (Charlton W. Tebeau, A History of Florida [University of Miami Press: Coral Gables, Florida, 1971] pp. 42 & 52.), southern Alabama and southern Mississippi (Nollie Hickman, Mississippi Harvest: Lumbering in the Longleaf Pine Belt 1840-1915 [Paragon Press: Montgomery, Alabama 1962] pp. 3-11].
Lumbering of the northern pine woods began in Maine and followed the virgin forests of this band of land westward. The market for all this lumber was south of this belt where civilization in the form of towns and farms arose along the upper Ohio River valley during the early nineteenth. The cities of Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Louisville and Evansville were all build with pine wood harvested from the northern pine woods.