The dairy farm I grew up on was pretty self-sufficient.
We grew most of what we ate, from meat to grain to vegetables and, of course, milk and butter.
We grew much of what the cows ate, too.
My Uncle Sam, and his two brothers Bee and Charles, milked separately but farmed together. Their homes were within a mile of each other. Combined, their herds ran about 100 head.
There was plenty of rich, bottomland pasture to graze the cattle on grass in the spring, summer and fall. But, come winter, the only way milk production could be maintained was to supplement. That meant we spent much of the spring and summer growing corn and sorghum to turn into silage in the fall. (Uncle Sam used to love to joke that Yankees called it ensilage.)
We had two in-ground silos and three trailers to move the fresh-cut vegetation from the field to storage.
Think we bought those trailers?
Think again. Think self-sufficiency. Back in those days the only “treated lumber” was creosote-infused. Not only would creosote have been toxic to the cows, we probably couldn’t have afforded it anyway.
Thus, the wood on the trailers had to be replaced periodically. The acids and sugars in the silage took their toll. To get the lumber, the brothers would take a day off, select the best trailer, hitch it behind one of the pickups, and amble off to a sawmill in the middle Mississippi, Big Black River swamp. If I was lucky, one of my friends got to go along. On the first of these trips I made, Junior Cain, a neighbor kid from down the road came along.
We rode in the bed of the pickup. No one thought that was dangerous then, and we never got hurt. On the back roads we sat on the lowered tailgate, big clay gravel rocks banging into our feet. We thought it was great. And completely normal.
The brothers would negotiate their best price for a certain amount of wood, load it into the trailer, and back home we would go.
But, what are you going to do with two little kids while the negotiating and sawing were going on? Why, do what grownups did with kids in those days: cut them loose to their own devices.
And, by “devices,” I don’t mean iPads.
The swamp sawmills had massive six-foot diameter circular saw blades and conveyor belts that piled the sawdust into mountains. And, what kid doesn’t like to climb a mountain?
Junior and I climbed to the top, rolled to the bottom and repeated dozens of times. We had sawdust chips in body parts where the sun didn’t shine. We were a mess, but the grownups didn’t care. We were in the bed of the truck, remember?
All that fun was a fond memory until, a couple of days later, I began to scratch. I was itchy on my head. I was itchy on my toes. And, I was itchy everywhere in between.
Imagine the embarrassment of a just-prepubescent boy having his Aunt Polly put calamine lotion on every part of his body.
All that swamp sawmill lumber had been gift-wrapped in poison oak, poison ivy, poison sumac, and maybe some poisonous plants that hadn’t been named yet. Everything went into the sawdust, of course. And inside our clothes and shoes.
However, an interesting thing happened. I became hyposensitized to all those plants. I could go into the backyard right now, pull poison ivy off the trees with my bare hands and never react.
There’s another thing I remember about that sawmill lumber. It was hard! Even in later years, when I had good coordination and experience driving nails, I would still bend half of the spikes I hammered. I never knew what species went into those trailers, but I’m guessing the sawyers cut whatever got in their way: oak, hickory, cypress.
Whatever it was, it was sturdy, and lasted for years, even under the heavy use of farm life.
What would we furniture builders give to have some of that wide, old-growth lumber today?
Jim Randolph is a veterinarian in Long Beach, Mississippi. His earlier careers as lawn mower, dairy farmer, automobile mechanic, microwave communications electronics instructor and journeyman carpenter all influence his approach to woodworking. His favorite projects are furniture built for his wife, Brenda, and for their children and grandchildren. His and Brenda’s home, nicknamed Sticks-In-The-Mud, is built on pilings (sticks) near the wetlands (mud) on a bayou off Jourdan River. His shop is in the lower level of their home.Questions and comments on woodworking may be written below in the comments section. Questions about pet care should be directed to his blog on pet care, www.MyPetsDoctor.com. We regret that, because of high volume, not all inquiries can be answered personally.