By Larry Scheckel
Hear the zing-zing sound of the 5-foot crosscut saw as it bites into the trunk of a white oak tree in the woods of the Scheckel farm outside of Seneca, in the heart of Crawford County. Every winter in the 1940s and 1950s, we’re cutting down trees for logs, fence posts and firewood. That’s a two-man crosscut saw I’m talking about. Oh yes, the neighbors had a Homelite chain saw to which an envious ear was turned occasionally to the sound. But not the Scheckel family. My dad had three wood cutters; Phillip, Bob and me. That would amount to two teams of crosscut sawyers.
After morning chores on Saturdays, down to the woods we’d go with a horse-drawn sleigh, two steerable runner blades in the front and two in the back, loaded with axes, cant hook, hammer mall, wedges and crosscut saws.
Dad showed us how to make a notch on the side of the tree that you want the tree to fall. Then the real work began. Back and forth went that crosscut saw, chips piling up on both sides, snow crunching beneath our 5-buckle rubber overshoes, azure-blue sky, and white clouds of breath. Two fellows working a crosscut can zip right through the truck of an oak, hickory or walnut.
Phillip, Bob and I would pick a direction and took great delight if the tree fell right in the spot we chose, an area that was clear of other trees so it wouldn’t get hung up. That could be dangerous. No steel helmets or steel-toed shoes for the Scheckel clan.
When the tree started to fall, Phillip. Bob and I would yell “timber” to warn anybody that was nearby. Of course, there wasn’t anyone except the four of us and Browser, the dog. We made sure the dog was out of the way.
As soon as the tree was toppled, two of us attacked the top of the tree with axes, cutting off the ends and stacking the brush. Rabbits would build homes in those brush piles. Two of us would use the crosscut saw to cut logs and fence posts. Long limbs about 10 to 12 feet were stacked up or loaded up on the sleigh. These would be taken to the farm buildings to await the “buzz” saw.
Two fellows working a sharp crosscut saw can almost keep up with a chain saw. A chain saw is easier, of course. There’s an old adage that cutting wood warms you twice: once when you cut it and again when it’s in the furnace.
I sometimes felt we were like Paul Bunyan, the lumberjack figure from American folklore. I read stories in our reading and language books at Oak Grove School. Paul Bunyan was of enormous size. He dug the Grand Canyon when he dragged his ax behind him. He created Mount Hood, in Oregon, when he piled up rocks to put out his campfire. Babe the Blue Ox was his companion. Paul Bunyan needed a place to water Babe, so he dug the Great Lakes. I had seen a picture in one of the library books at school that had a road going right through a tree. I told Dad about this picture, and he said, “They just should have gone around it.” Seemed reasonable to me!
Mrs. Ray, teacher at our one-room Oak Grove country school, had a copy of Aldo Leopold’s 1949 “A Sand County Almanac” book. She read parts of the book to the 28 students. Leopold related history as teeth cut deeper into the tree rings on his Sauk County property.
We’d take a breather now and then, deep in the woods, sit on logs or tree stumps and take a drink from a gallon jug that we brought along. Sometimes we packed a few sandwiches.
Dad would tell stories about his past, about the Springbrook, Iowa, farm where he grew up, a mysterious place we had never visited. A man was working in the woods with him when he was a boy. They were felling trees and a dead limb hit him on the head. The man got a bad bruise but kept right on working. At noon, they went home to eat dinner, the man laid down on the couch to rest a while and died. Dad thought that a blood clot had gone to his brain.
Dad related a story that as a young boy he was hunting with some neighbor kids. One youngster jumped up and down on a pile of brush to flush out a rabbit. As the rabbit raced out of the pile, a kid upped his shotgun and hit his brother in the face.
Dad talked about the importance of paying one’s debts, of being honest and frugal. He railed against big government. He mentioned a few times “you boys ought to marry one of those Lynch girls.” Those Lynch girls attended our St. Patrick’s Church in Seneca.
Cutting logs, fence posts and firewood was hard work. At the end of a five-hour stint in the woods of the town of Seneca, one knew he had done a day’s work. His whole body told him so. But something else was going on here, almost spiritual. Those logs went to Vedvik’s sawmill in Seneca and became lumber to build a corncrib and hog house. The fence posts would be set in the ground to “fix fence.” The firewood kept us warm on long winter nights when we made popcorn, listened to The Lone Ranger on the Philco, and played cards and Monopoly. We could experience the fruits of our labor.