The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Friday, June 24, 2011

Sawdust in the blood

 The last post set me to reminiscing about my own roots in sawmilling...they run pretty deep. The first two pictures at the right are the proud employees of the Ray & Ray sawmill near the town of Hughes Springs in East Texas, in 1904. You can see they had good hats and big logs, back in those days.

They also had a lot of use for oxen, mules, and boys around the mill. I think this was a little before OSHA and child labor laws...or if it wasn't, they didn't pay too much attention to them. That part of East Texas was so far back in the woods in 1904 that the law didn't mess with them.  I'm pretty sure there was a still out behind that building you're looking at.

My great, great grandfather was one of the Ray & Rays; his brother was the other.  My great grandfather, that handsome-looking blade with the horse, would have been a young teen-ager in the mill shots, although I don't know which one he is. Obviously, the mill was doing pretty well; for my great-grandfather Harvey Ray to have a fine-looking animal like that in 1908, at the age of 18, would be the equivalent to one of my kids driving around in a new Corvette, which they ain't.

The mill stayed in the family for another 50 years after these mill shots. Harvey, in fact, was the owner of the mill when it finally shut down. The story I was told was that he was so mad that the employees tried to unionize, that he went to the bank, sold the mill property, came back and locked the gate, and that was that. There was a lot of pride involved, and I imagine that great grandpa took the unionization movement personally. Politically correct, he wasn't...I knew him when I was a real young kid in the 1960's, and the next picture with his dog is just about how I remember him. Even remember the dog. They were both real worn out when I last saw him in 1967, a few weeks before he died. The dog died a couple of weeks after Papa did.

The man standing behind the brahman bull is my grandfather Clarence (Bud) Ray, whom I knew as Grandpa. He was Papa's son. The bull he was standing behind was one of Papa's. Grandpa Bud was pretty tall in those days, a little over six feet tall; that gives you an idea of how big that bull was. I remember them talking about that bull a lot; in fact, they talked a lot of bull, period. In my dim memories I remember that bull as being some kind of world champion, or at least it should have been, according to the Ray boys.

Grandpa also worked in the sawmill as a boy, and as a log truck driver for the mill when he got back from the war. After the mill closed, he became an OTR trucker, and spent the next thirty years driving his own rig over the highways of America. I used to think that was a great job.  And as I sit here and type, I still do. I've always liked the breeze of the open road.

One day before he died, Grandpa Bud took me out to the old mill site. It was back in the woods on what he called "Ray Mountain", although I don't think anyone else called it that by 1980. He stopped by the side of the gravel road in a forest so thick you couldn't see ten feet into it, pointed into it and said, "The mill was about two hundred yards back in there." I never was the brightest bulb in the pack, and I asked him "why was the mill way back in there?" He was kind with me and explained that it was a sawmill, and there were no trees anywhere around back in those days.

Well, my dad started the Ray family on the path to higher education, and got a semester of Texas A&M in before he decided he was cut out for better things, and went in the Marines. I think they gave him a deal he couldn't refuse...three meals a day. Dad said he was eating on couch change at A&M, and he was getting pretty thin. The Marines put a little meat on his bones...and allowed him to meet my Mom. They started having babies in Quantico, Virginia, and that's where I got my start in life.

After the service, my dad went into manufacturing and wound up in the oil business in Houston. I got a job in the plant my dad managed, went to college night classes, then eventually decided to try forestry school back guessed it, East Texas.  One day, I came home from school and started telling my dad about cruising timber, using all the terms of the trade, and my words reminded my dad of his childhood growing up around the mill. As he reminisced, I realized that I was bringing the family back full circle, and felt pretty good about that.

One last might have thought it was pretty mean-spirited of Papa to shut down the mill the way he did. Well, when he died, my grandpa and his siblings were cleaning out Papa's house, and they found a cigar box up in his bedroom closet.  Inside the cigar box were dozens of IOU's from folks all over the area, amounting to thousands of dollars. Papa had been helping folks out for a long time, and had apparently been holding their IOU's until they could come and pay them.

Well, Papa's little farm didn't amount to much by 1967, and the bull was gone...but I think his reputation was worth a fortune.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Chuck,
Thanks for the story! Family is a blessing, and those of us that have family can be grateful! Some people (it seems more and more) can't really even share about family like that anymore. KDA