Saw display offers flashbacks to days of old in the woods


February 28, 2017

LOGGERS FROM ANOTHER GENERATION stand by a tree they are in the process of cutting with a crosscut saw similar to those on display at the East Linn Museum.

If you were to ask, “Where can I find an intriguing collection of crosscut and chain saws?” a good answer is the East Linn Museum.

Passing through the main room toward the back, you enter a narrow hallway with a low set of stairs. Pause – for you have entered an area of crosscut saws and tools associated with their use in the woods.

But, if you go farther, through the door at the end of the hall and down a small ramp, you will find the annex and a collection of chain saws.

Eighteen, in fact, hang by heavy chains from the ceiling above you. A couple of two-man saws are harder to spot as they are on the floor behind the embalming table which, in addition to the dried stains of red paint, add an almost sinister aura to the saw display. (Usually, it’s adolescents who envision chain saw massacres.)

However, for real nostalgia, it is better to linger in the hallway among the crosscut saws for a moment. For one thing, saws fill a wall opposite the Douglas fir cross section to which dendrochronology has been applied.

A counting of tree rings allowed markers to be placed where significant dates occurred, such as when Columbus sailed his ships to America. About 1377 the tree had been a seedling, to be cut down in 1975. By then, its diameter measured 7 feet.

Such trees in virgin timber required felling by long crosscut saws and two among the different sized saws on display measure 8 to 9 feet in length. Because they curve on the toothed edge, the saw blades look even longer to an inexperienced eye, more like 10 or 12 feet.

Their tooth pattern helps define the crosscut saw; commonly, four adjoining long teeth are followed by a gap and then a raker broader than a tooth and having a notch at the top. Of course, the pattern repeats down the saw’s length. As its name implies, the raker pulled wood debris out of the area cut by the teeth.

Tooth patterns might vary, however. But they also could be a similar pattern on the crosscut’s cousin, the whip saw. Two men worked a crosscut, but the whip saw had only one handle and tapered toward the far end for one man’s use.

Don Menear found one of the more interesting saws up on Whiskey Butte. This is a cut-down crosscut, to which a handle has been welded – an old horseshoe. In this form the rusted saw resembles a whip saw.

Considering variations in teeth, you can compare a crosscut with a pit saw hung above. After a log was suitably squared with a broadaxe, a pit saw allowed boards to be cut. The trimmed log sat on a raised platform or over the proverbial pit. One man stood on the log, sawing down, and one under it sent the saw, which only cut on the downstroke, back up.

The saw had uniform curved teeth like those of a monster from the ancient deep. As you might expect, the man in the pit got well covered with sawdust!

Some crosscuts at the museum have singular histories. One was found on a sand bar near Clackamas. Another had been buried in a back yard, complete with its removable, reusable handles. However, one whip saw has the most intriguing history, for it is said to have been used to cut lumber on the George Whitcomb homestead above Foster.

Whitcomb brought his family to Oregon in 1889 and settled on Big Bottom, where Quartzville Creek joined the South Santiam. Eventually acquiring 320 acres, he proved to be both industrious and energetic.

He promoted the building of the Big Bottom Road, obtained a U.S. Post Office franchise for Big Bottom and carried the mail from Foster to the expanding mining district at Quartzville. He also built an inn near Big Bottom to accommodate miners and operated a stage coach between Lebanon and Cascadia.

The waters of Green Peter Reservoir now cover Big Bottom as well as the graves of the three youngest Whitcomb children. They died of diphtheria in 1899. Whitcomb Butte commemorates their graves. So the whip saw once belonging to George Whitcomb can be seen as a meager memorial to a fuller past.

Crosscut saws stimulate visions of the past – young men in stagged pants and calked boots always appear strong and daring in old photographs of loggers surrounded by virgin timber. It’s hard to remember loggers then often lived in remote camps, working for a dollar or a dollar and a half, 13 hours a day, six days a week. And when it came to falling trees 7 or 8 feet in diameter, a pair of fallers might work on one for a day or more.

Behind them came a team of buckers to trim the tree and cut it into the right lengths for removal. The brawn of men, oxen and horses constituted the power used in logging, until the steam donkey came along. Dangerous, back-breaking work.

Yet, the crosscut saw was still being used when change came into the woods, up until the 1940s, in fact. The use of log trucks like the East Linn Museum’s Denby truck accelerated after World War I. Another world war had to be fought before the crosscut saw was replaced by the chain saw.

Herb Thums of Crawfordsville remembers how, as a boy, he helped his father, who logged with horses. It was really a family affair because when trees were felled, the father took one end of a crosscut saw and two kids operated the other. Chain saws made things easier. But they had drawbacks, being sometimes hard to start while possessing unreliable chains, he recalls.

The coming of chain saws acted as a transition in the woods, though. A bucker and a faller could do the work with chain saws that had taken two fallers and a team of buckers with crosscut saws.

By now you have left the hallway, with its romanticized memories of daring young men, and you have gone down the ramp into the annex where the chain saws hang above the mortuary table. This conjunction of table and saws is purely coincidental, being a matter of space.

A real chain saw enthusiast can likely look these saws over and tell which were earlier brands and models and which came later. Some brands involved are Titan, Pioneer, Tecumseh, Mall, Homelite and McCulloch. Most of the saws were donated by the now gone “Sweet Home Equipment Company” in 1984. Some are only parts of saws, some have long bars, others shorter ones, and some have chains and others not. For the most part, these saws appear worn and maybe even worn out.

There has been a fashion to use crosscut and whip saws in home décor. It isn’t too unusual to see a section of a crosscut saw or a whip saw painted with forest scenes having conifers, maybe a deer, and often a lake which reflects the peaked Mount Hood-like mountain in the background.

This does not occur with chain saws. Maybe because the museum’s chain saws grace the heavens, so to speak, grimy and oil-stained, they are businesslike and brutal in appearance. Old loggers may rest in the sunshine and dream of the good days of chain saws, but for many, they don’t rouse nostalgia.

McCulloch and Homelite are the most common brands among the saws. Checking a 1957 phone book shows two dealers in saws in Sweet Home; one sold McCullochs and the other Homelites.

A dealer recently contacted named two modern popular brands: Husqvarna, a Swedish brand, and Stihl, made by a German company, as “the best” and said that McCulloch and Home-lite no longer make big saws for work in the woods. If you go to Hoy’s Hardware today, Stihl and Husqvarna are well-represented on the shelves.

So the old brands and the elderly chain saws in the museum may be deserving of nostalgia after all because they recall Sweet Home’s heyday when it was known as Timber Town and sawmills and log ponds dominated much of the landscape.

Also, if you look, more crosscut saws show up in the annex along with additional tools like axes, the cook stove from Dollar Camp, and something resembling a low-lying rainbow made of wood and steel like a modern art assemblage. This is a frame for sharpening crosscut saws, and one is included mounted on it.

In logging, whether crosscuts were used or chain saws, saw filers were of great importance – which continues to be the case, for modern chain saws still have to be sharpened. The sharper the tool, after all, the easier the work.

This sharpening apparatus belonged to the late Gerald Jackson. He mainly worked on crosscut saws used in logging competitions, but he learned his skills from Mike Lentz, who had filed saws both for industry and for logging competitions. Many of the tools used in saw filing are there with the frame. In earlier days, saw filers really knew what they were doing since they had often worked in logging as fallers and buckers. Gerald Jackson, likewise, had been a logger as well as a competitor at logging shows where he often won.

If you are lucky, on a museum visit you may meet volunteer Nadine Jackson. Many times she watched her husband at the task of saw filing and she can explain the tools and process clearly. Plus, she is knowledgeable about the varied kinds of hand-operated saws in the hallway, the crosscuts, whip saws and the like.

If you believe saws are not interesting, you need to visit the East Linn Museum. Saws, either crosscut or mechanized, have contributed very much to the history of this area, but you will seldom see them displayed in the same numbers as exist at the museum. This remains true, particularly of the chain saws.

On the other hand, chain saws continue their legend, still having many uses. When it comes to art they have taken a new role as tools for sculptures, sculpted often by former loggers. And loggers and bears serve as subjects shaped from tree trunks by experts. Those sculptures call up memories of logging in earlier days when two sturdy men stood on spring-boards at opposite sides of a giant fir tree and pulled back and forth and back and forth and back and forth with a crosscut saw.

Sometimes we think what happens during our own times need not to be commemorated. But turn around. It’s already being forgotten! Look how few of us know that chain saws didn’t come in to real use until the middle of the twentieth century. Yet, when it came to accelerating timber harvests, they very much affected the ecology of forests wherever they were used.

Change makes history what it is, and it helps to know what shapes that change, technologies included. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the boldness of daring men using crosscut and chain saws.


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