The Wood Lot

By Howard J. Savage in Community

As the wind howls around the eaves and the snow piles up and we crank up the furnace another notch I find myself remembering the “old” days when we heated and cooked only with wood. Years ago an important asset to any farm was a fair sized wood lot. Hardwood trees were a real bonus. Tapping the maples provided a wonderful sweetener as well as extra cash. Back in the day the trees were tapped with metal spiels on which buckets were hung to catch the sap. These buckets would be gathered and dumped every day until there was enough sap to begin the boiling down process that produced maple syrup and even maple sugar. If you had a lot of trees and did a lot of tapping, there would be a ‘sugar shack’ in the bush with lots of wood handy to keep the fire going for days. The sap would be poured into big flat pans and boiled for hours until it reached the right texture and consistency for syrup. That batch would be bottled and the whole process began again. Depending on the weather – it needs to freeze at night and be mild in the day – you could be busy for days. At the first tapping the sap makes a nice dark syrup. As the trees begin to ease up on the sap running it becomes lighter and not as good quality. This all required a heap of work, slugging through deep snow, handling heavy buckets and keeping the fire stoked. As time went on the process changed to using plastic lines that dumped automatically into a large tank that hauled the sap to a sophisticated boiler. Much easier and more time effective but like everything else that changes you lose something special from the old ways.
Going back in years again, we recall when the average farmer made a living just off his own farm. His animals and crops were his lifeblood and he kept his family clothed and fed. A big part of being able to do this was due to a ready supply of wood. It not only heated the homes but it was essential for cooking as well. I well remember the big cookstove in our kitchen. It heated the downstairs and all our meals were prepared on and in it. But it needed wood to operate. Lots and lots of wood. The wood lot also provided timbers for repair to buildings and in a pinch some logs could be sold for ready cash. Seventy years ago the farmer had one way to get his wood. Sharpen up the cross cut saw and axe, grab a helper and head to the bush. A cross cut saw was a long sharp blade
with a handle on each end. It took two people, one on each end and a lot of sweat and muscle to saw through a big tree. Our bush had a nice mix of trees. Hardwood, cherry and birch and in the wetter areas red cedar that was used for posts. Once the tree was toppled they were pulled out into a clear area by horse and chain. ( I remember Dad telling the story of the horse that ran away with a big log on behind. By the time he ran several rods bumping through a frozen plowed field there wasn’t too much trimming left to do!) The limbs were cut off in ten or twelve foot lengths and loaded onto a stone boat and dragged to the house where it was dumped in a big pile to dry before being cut into manageable pieces. The smaller tops were cut and split into even sizes to maintain a steady heat in the cookstove for baking. A bigger block was used at night to keep the fire going as long as possible.This all made a lot of work and everybody got into the act. Dad and Mom did the crosscutting, the older kids did the splitting and the little kids got to throw all the pieces into the cellar and stack them against the walls.
My Dad was a mechanic and jack of all trades. He decided to lighten the labour a bit by making a mobile circular saw. He started with the rear end of a ‘35 car. It was different from an average car. At the very outside of the axle next to the wheels there was two pipes that come together about six feet long with a ball on it. This let the wheels up and down. He welded a hitch on it and got the base for a trailer and in this case a base for a circular saw. A few 4×4 timbers, one inch wood, hard work and brainpower and he had the carriage for a saw. For rollers he used chains that rolled back and forth on some angle iron. He had to buy the circular saw. The shaft the saw fit on was from a threshing machine because it was carbon steel shafting. Cut to length it did the job quite well. He put a pulley on one end for a flat belt and a flange on each side of the circular saw. As he had the table back the saw would be in the guard to cover the whirling blade and when the table was loaded ready to saw it was pushed ahead. The blade would slice through material in one foot lengths. This could produce a big pile of wood in good time. The neighbours would get together and have ‘wood bees’ where a bunch of men would work at one place and cut wood for a couple of days and then move on to the next place. It made things a lot easier and quicker and was even enjoyable with lots of hands and some fun thrown into the mix.
Then the first chainsaw was invented. They were expensive and not too many people could afford one. It was big and heavy and a two-man operation. Even so it took hours off time in the
bush and lot of backbreaking work. It did have one problem though. The blade was so wide it was making a half inch cut and that meant a lot of wood was blown away in the wind as sawdust. Then they made one with a narrower blade and a motor that ran much faster, and was a lot lighter. Soon almost everybody had one. I sure hope it was better than the one we had the pleasure of owning. There wasn’t a day you didn’t feel like burning the dad-blamed thing. It was nearly impossible to start. It had a clutch but the motor would stall before it would slip. A belt and pulley on a tractor could get it started but what a pain. Your hands would vibrate half the night after holding onto that thing when it was running. Then Dad got a single man Pioneer and it was like heaven to operate. The saws got better and better. They got lighter with tougher blades of different lengths that could cut at any angle. The blades went so fast they had to be oiled often. Now there were chainsaws with long cutting bars for logging and shorter bars for farm use that only weighed about twenty five pounds. All of them would go through logs like butter. A saw for every step in the tree cutting process. It could all be done at the bush, from felling the tree, to limbing it and cutting it into blocks. The wood still went to the house but now with a row of blocks all around the outside of a wagon and the smaller stuff in the centre it was a slick operation. Although you still had to handle the wood onto the wagon and off at the house, but that is what the kids were for! No invention came along to magically stack the wood in the cellar or bring it upstairs to the wood box behind the stove.
Even splitting the blocks with an axe eased off as someone invented a wood splitter. The first splitter stood straight up and was fastened to the back of a tractor. Then came one that had a larger cylinder and was powered by hydraulics. So by the time my kids came along and it was wood gathering time, a day in the bush was a treat. We loaded the blocks into our dump truck using the hay elevator and one big load did the job.
Now the old wood burning cookstoves are pretty much a thing of the past. I still say there is no warmth like the one coming off wood glowing in a cosy stove. As always progress made things better at the cost of something else. But to be honest, it’s kinda nice just to dial up the thermostat on a wild, windy winter night.