Milling Around

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

Russ Noah didn't plan to accumulate one of the finest privately owned exhibits of forestry artifacts in Missouri. "My collection started accidentally," says the 74-year-old retired forester from Eminence. His love of antiques began with family household items and furniture that he inherited. At auctions, he picked up old household and farming items that fascinated him, such as a Maytag washing machine that ran on gasoline, numerous wood stoves, a rope bed, feather mattresses, sheep shears and grinders-anything that needed tinkering to make it useable again.

One day an old steam boiler and engine caught his eye. "That's what started the ball rolling on collecting forestry equipment," Noah says. Today that steam boiler can be stoked to run the up-and-down sawmill Noah built in his backyard (see sidebar). If he doesn't feel like gathering wood for the boiler, he could always back up a 1922 Fordson tractor, hook it up to the mill, start it with the hand crank and let it rip.

His career as a forester provided Noah with the expertise and the opportunity to collect, restore and preserve equipment that helped build Missouri's logging industry. While pursuing a two-year forestry program at the University of Missouri in Columbia, he spent the summer working for the U.S. Forest Service in California's fir, spruce and pine forests.

During World War II, he left school and applied for the draft, but was deferred. Instead of joining the armed forces, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service in northeast Washington and for the National Park Service in Yellowstone, where he spent two winters and three summers.

"I made my living one winter on snowshoes and skis," Noah says. His job was to keep trappers from illegally taking animals in the park. "I went through often enough to see any fresh tracks in the snow." In the fall, his job was to protect the animals in the park from illegal hunting. These duties allowed him to travel a lot of the backcountry on foot and horseback. "I got to see wilderness areas before they were designated wilderness areas," he says.

After the war, Noah went to work for the Conservation Department at Ellington and Doniphan, fighting fires. "I often thought the whole world was on fire," he says. "Sometimes it looked like the fire went on forever, and a lot of the forests did burn in those days."

In 1951, he took a job with Pioneer Forest Inc., where he carried out timber management plans on 40,000 acres of woods. Not only did he take care of timber sales and mark trees for sale, he also walked the 250 miles of unfenced boundary lines that needed to be remarked with paint every six years. "I was in the woods practically all the time," Noah says of the 34 years he worked in the Ozarks.

During this time, Noah acquired a lot of his knowledge of old forestry equipment. "I learned about mills when I was working. I watched people put mills together. I've seen them work all my life," Noah says. As sawmills were upgraded or replaced, Noah rescued the discarded parts from junk piles.

A portable railroad tie mill was one of several mills he restored. Made in the 1800s, it could be taken apart and transported by wagon to the next site. Railing and a pulley system move the logs to the mill's sawblade in a straight line.

When building these mills, the old-time loggers didn't always have much of a plan, Noah says. "They just put them together until they would work." The mills didn't have to be exact-a 1/2-inch tolerance was acceptable. "Today if a saw cuts crazy lumber, you lose money," he says.

For power to run the mill, Noah uses a 1906 portable Case steam engine. To get it running, he had to replace all of its 32 flues. The engine is considered portable because it can be pulled to a different site. It does not move on its own. The engine Noah restored, which bears the Case eagle symbol and the engine number 1724, was used in Shannon County to run sawmills and to thresh wheat.

Another mill Noah restored has close ties to his own family history. This mill was designed specifically to cut wood shingles to the correct proportions. One day after Noah brought it home, his father recognized it as the one Noah's uncle ran in the early 1900s. Noah's father was too young to run the mill, but he still was able to help with the aid of his little red wagon. His job was to deliver shingle scraps to families living in company houses to use as firewood.

To help carry his equipment, Noah restored a 1925 Model TT truck, one of the early gasoline powered vehicles used in the forest industry. Noah carefully rebuilt this truck, as well as two Model T cars, to working condition. The restoration didn't always go quickly. He scoured the country looking for parts to these historic machines.

In the early 1970s, he found the engine he needed to restore his Model TT abandoned in the woods. When he took it home, it still had grease in it. He replaced the rings and cleaned it up. "And it ran," Noah says. "Those old Ford engines were tough."

Another time Noah found the fenders he needed hanging in a man's shed. The owner said on several occasions that he might sell them, but never would. "When the man died, I bought them from his daughter," Noah says. That was eight years after he first spotted them.

Noah also restored many old tractors, most of which started by turning the crank on the front. At one time he had 19, many of which had been used to power sawmills and logging equipment in the Ozarks.

For some of Noah's artifacts, a fleet of tractors could have come in handy to bring the items home. In 1968 the town of Eminence was holding its bicentennial and had plans to rebuild a pre-1841 log cabin on the courthouse lawn. After kids set it on fire one night, the city abandoned the project.

But Noah couldn't let one of the oldest cabins in the area go to ruin. "So I brought the logs over to my place," Noah says, where he rebuilt the cabin with its original logs in his spare time. He added a front porch, a wooden shingle roof and boards on the interior walls to hide the charred wood. "I had to shorten it one log because some of the logs were too burned, but for all practical purposes it's the same cabin."

The cabin originally was built along the Current River, Noah says. He got the rock for the fireplace from an old county court house that burned during the Civil War. "I picked up the rocks after work-a little at a time-then when I retired I built the fireplace," he says.

The cabin and its contents, a rope bed with a feather mattress and horse hair mattress, a pie safe, a wood cook stove, a table and a rocking chair, are getting ready for yet another move.

The cabin and the other items mentioned in this article, plus numerous antique saws and other forestry equipment Noah collected, will be going to the Missouri Forestry Heritage Center that is scheduled to be built near Winona with funding from members and a matching $1 million grant from the Conservation Department. The center will house a museum, displays and working exhibits that will allow visitors to see Noah's mills and steam engines working as they did in the past.

"The Heritage Center was the perfect place to put my collection," says Noah, whose arthritis is forcing him to slow down just a little. "When the Heritage Center gets up and running, I can go visit my collection, and they can do the maintenance work."

Even though Noah is giving up custody of his forestry artifacts, that doesn't mean he will close up his tidy work shed behind his house. Noah is keeping his two Model T's and a 1941 tractor-the ones with electric starters so he doesn't have to crank them. He still plans to restore some old grist mills he has collected and to pursue another hobby-canoeing.

Many of the items he generously donated to the center, but a few he sold. With the money he received, he bought a custom-built canoe made from western red cedar. He stores it in the shed with his old skis and snow shoes from Yellowstone. "If something is made of wood, I can't help but want one," Noah says. Now that he has all that space and more time on his hands, perhaps his collecting days are beginning again.

The gauge read 60 pounds of pressure, and Russ Noah eased the throttle valve open, bringing the old steam engine to life. As the hiss of escaping steam settled to a rhythmic thump and the flywheel reached a speed that suited Noah's critical eye, he engaged the feedworks lever of the sawmill and moved back in time to the early 1800s.

This 1800s up-and-down sawmill is one of only a handful of this type in existence. The mills were so named because they had a vertical blade that moved up and down as it cut into a log.

The up-and-down mill replaced the earlier pit saw simply by substituting mechanical power for manpower. With a power source that didn't tire, the up-and-down mill had the capacity to temporarily furnish the lumber needed for an expanding nation, until being replaced by the faster and more efficient circular mill in the 1860s.

Up-and-down mills usually were constructed on site from available materials. If an entrepreneur had the saw blade beforehand, he was fortunate. According to legend, the saw blade for a mill on the upper Jacks Fork River in Shannon County was smeltered on the spot from iron-bearing ore. Some early mills relied on the tension created by a bent tree sapling to help raise the saw blade for the downward cutting stroke, but many were water powered. Steam was used as a power source in later years.

Noah's mill began with the purchase of the saw blade from an elderly man whose ancestors had been in the milling business in Ohio. The blade's owner recalled stories of the mill his grandmother told him as a child. The saw's teeth were in poor condition, and Noah painstakingly hand filed and reshaped the teeth to uniformity.

With the blade in hand, Noah persuaded Jim Rector, a local old-time tie hacker, to shape the structural timbers using a broad axe. Noah studied the small amount of reference material available on the history of up-and-down mills and designed one to his liking. His 6-horsepower stationary steam engine dating to the late 1800s keeps the mill running at 30 revolutions per minute.

The production of up-and-down mills was low by today's standards, but a vast improvement over the muscle powered pit saw. In eight hours an up and-down mill could produce 200 board feet of lumber, while today's small mills can saw 1,000 board feet. In the time it has taken to read this article, the blade in Noah's mill is only half way down the length of an 8-foot log, advancing at 1/4 inch a stroke.

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