By Jane-Ann Heitmueller
“Well Darlin’,” said Daddy, with a big smile on his handsome face, “it looks like we’re about to become homeowners!”
It was a lovely spring morning as my parents, hand in hand, proudly exited the front door of their local, small town bank. They had just signed papers to borrow forty-five hundred dollars. Although today it may seem an impossible task, back in 1950 Mom and Dad had already saved half the money they needed to build their new home, but needed to borrow the remainder. It’s hard to believe that one could construct a two story, three bedroom, one bathroom house with a full basement, for a mere nine thousand dollars. The monthly mortgage to the local bank was thirty-six dollars and if they really scrimped they could double up on the payment to save both time and interest. Years earlier Mom had purchased the two acre rural property, hoping to use it as a future home site when she married. She had always dreamed of living out in the country in a nice home with lots of space, room to have a large lawn, vegetable garden and plenty of freedom from close neighbors.
There is much truth in the saying that timing is everything, for little did they know that the day after our basement was dug, Mr. Arnold would begin construction on his twenty acre lumber yard just across the dirt road from our property.
Mom was beside herself. “I simply can’t believe this!” she raged. “We can’t live across the street from a sawmill. Think of all the noise, dust, trucks and traffic right in our front door. Fred, we have to sell this land right now and build farther away from town!”
Dad, the calmer of my two parents, responded in a soft voice, “Now Honey, you know they will be good neighbors and won’t be on our doorstep every day borrowing a cup of sugar like a lot of people. It could be much worse. Let’s give it a try. We can always sell the place later if things don’t work out. Why don’t we sleep on it and see how we feel in the morning?”
“Oh, alright, but I still don’t like the idea.”
In due time Mom came to the realization that Daddy was correct, and we resumed the task of construction on our side of the road. Meanwhile, Mr. Arnold diligently tended to his own building project.
Every day after work and school, Mom, Dad and I would head out to see how the carpenters were coming along with the house. Things seemed to be progressing on schedule as they dug the basement, poured the footings and started work on the framework. We didn’t pay much attention to Mr. Arnold’s sawmill construction until the Sunday afternoon we drove up to check on the house and were startled to see the massive smokestack they had moved into the mill yard.
“Daddy, Daddy, let’s go see it,” I begged, tugging at his sleeve with typical nine year old eagerness.
“Alright,” he said, after a minute or two of consideration, “don’t suppose it would hurt to take a look.”
As Dad and I approached the smokestack, stretched on its side across the dirt lot, we could see that it was much larger than we had imagined. Daddy was six feet tall and he could actually stand up inside, with several inches to spare. He estimated that it was at least a hundred feet long. What a grand time I had running back and forth in that dark, echoing tunnel of fun, trying to imagine how in the world they would ever hoist it upright, and how majestic it would look standing erect with black smoke billowing from the top.
It was at that moment I lost all interest in our own construction project and centered my entire focus on Mr. Arnold’s amazing task. Every afternoon, my dog Sambo and I would perch atop the mound of dirt created from digging our basement. We’d sit spellbound for hours, watching bulldozers, cranes and other heavy equipment busily working across the road. It was our own magical erector set. During the next few weeks we’d watch with intrigue as the framework of the sawmill took shape. Three massive tin buildings sprang to life before our very eyes. A huge concrete vat was dug that would eventually be filled with water and used as a source of transportation for the freshly debarked logs. Eventually, the day came when Sambo and I were simply transfixed with fascination and excitement as they began the precarious job of positioning that towering smokestack into place. I held my breath… knowing for sure the cables would break and the gigantic structure would fall crashing to the ground! Gee, this was better than going to watch Roy Rogers at the Saturday matinee and we had the best seat in the house!
By early fall we moved into our new home and in short time the mill was also completed and started doing business. Mom was correct in many respects. It wasn’t long before the parade of bulky log trucks began delivering their freshly cut timber to be sold for lumber. They clogged the road in front of our house and made it difficult for us to come and go out of our own driveway. With all the traffic came the constant clouds of thick, red dust seeping into every slight crevice and crack, leaving a thin layer of silt on our floors, furniture, curtains and cabinets. The bulky saws and powerful machines emitted unbearable screeching and banging. We quickly learned that the only time Mr. Arnold closed his mill was Sunday, other than that, the work continued both day and night. To add insult to injury, Mr. Arnold installed a shrill, deafening whistle to his daily operation. They blew that noontime whistle as a signal for the workers to cease operations for lunchtime, then thirty minutes later to resume their labor. It could be heard miles away downtown, so you can imagine how loud it was right next door. Those billowing, black clouds of smoke I had been so anxious to see now drifted overhead and were filled with minute pieces of soot that floated down like tiny black feathers over the landscape, covering our entire yard and rooftop. We had to leave our shoes on the porch so we wouldn’t track the filthy residue into the house.
“Dang it,” Mom complained, “I can’t even hang my laundry on the line any more. What are we ever going to do about all this mess?”
Thank goodness Mr. Arnold’s employees didn’t enjoy having their vehicles covered with those black particles either. Finally, after a few weeks of hearing their many complaints, he put a filter on the smokestack and solved that problem for everyone.
Just after Christmas I developed a strange fever late each afternoon and Dr. Stitt couldn’t seem to find the origin of the problem. He sent me home with medicine and told Mom to see that I got plenty of sleep. There was no way, with all the noise coming from the mill, that I could get any rest. I was miserable, tossing and turning for days, as poor Mom worried and paced, doing everything possible to barricade my room from the constant racket that invaded our lives.
“I just can’t stand this any longer,” she firmly announced late one Saturday afternoon. “She’ll never get better if they don’t do something about all that noise. The poor little thing can’t have a minute of peace. I’m going to march over there right this minute and give that Mr. Arnold a piece of my mind!”
Dad’s calm demeanor came to the rescue once again. “I know it’s hard sweetheart, but tomorrow is Sunday and the mill will be closed. Let’s wait until the first of the week. If she hasn’t improved by that time I’ll go over and speak with him. He has children of his own and I’m sure he’ll understand.”
“Well, maybe so,” Mom answered sternly, “but I’m not going to wait a second later than Monday morning and I mean that!”
Fortunately, for both myself and Mr. Arnold, late Sunday evening I suddenly emerged from my mysterious malady and things returned to normal. We eventually became desensitized to the daily melee in our little world and only noticed the noise, dust and traffic when a visitor brought it to our attention.
The lumber yard soon became my own private Disneyland. Sambo and I spent many joyous hours climbing, hiding and chasing each other on top of and around the stacks of logs. I became great pals with Mr. Cole, the jolly fellow in charge of measuring and marking each truckload of logs for sale. The ladies in the office kept their eye out for me and spoiled me with candy from the vending machine. I couldn’t have been happier.
One hot, summer Sunday afternoon when I was about twelve, I headed over to the log vat with a special mission in mind. The little pond I had dug in the backyard needed some water creatures and I knew exactly where I could find them. Just last week I had discovered millions of tadpoles swirling amidst the vat’s murky water and floating chunks of bark. Carefully, lowering myself down the slippery algae covered incline, I bent over and scooped up as many of the tiny little chattering frogs the front of my shirt could hold. Then, dripping with slime and bark fragments, I joyfully grasped the treasured contents to my chest, staggered home and proudly dumped my prized load of wiggling frogs into the newly constructed pond.
When I turned fifteen and wanted to get my driver’s license the mill property became my special obstacle course. Mom and I spent many Sunday afternoons there as I jerked and jumped our old ’54 Chevy all over that lot, learning how to safely change gears on the straight shift and skillfully maneuver around the stacks of lumber.
After college I left home, married and moved a few miles away to a home of my own. In time, Daddy passed away and Mom was left to live alone in the little home they had built together some fifty years earlier. Frequently, over the next few years, Mom would tell me about some deed the people at the mill had done for her. The many times they helped her start her stalled lawnmower, moved a heavy wheelbarrow of dirt or carried heavy fallen limbs to the burning pile. She recounted the numerous occasions when one of the employees seemed to just suddenly materialize when she needed a helping hand, always eager to be of assistance to the nice little lady across the road. It pleased me and gave me peace of mind to know they were always watching out for her. Mom knew she could always count on her good neighbors at the mill and often remarked that Daddy was a wise man to realize that very fact so many years ago.