Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Revamping a Southern Appalachian icon, Chapter 4: The Tree

Photos by Jack Betts, Rocky Knob Writery LLC

The National Park Service and its Blue Ridge Parkway staff faced a big problem when it came time to rebuild the waterwheel at Mabry Mill, one of the most popular stops on the Parkway and, some believe, one of the most photographed spots in America's park system: Finding a big source of big timber.   Not only did the Parkway need a certain kind of rot-resistant, tough wood, but it needed it in big dimensions -- 15-inch wide planks and big square balks of lumber strong enough to hold up the heavy wheel during its endless poundings and stress when the mill is in operation.

White oak was the answer, but where would they find it? As it turned out, by the side of the road.

"I called four or five sawmills that I knew personally, and none of them could do it. They couldn't stop their production runs to do it," recalls Jack Trivett, a specialist at the Historic Preservation Shop near the Cone Manor outside Blowing Rock, N.C.

But Trivett remembered a huge 75-foot white oak that had fallen just off the Parkway in the E.B Jeffress Park, about 100 miles down the Parkway from Mabry Mill.  It was an enormous tree, a blown-over giant still anchored to its root system but pitched down a steep 50-degree slope.  It would be dangerous to get out, and Park Service officials were reluctant to try it out of safety concerns.  But the tree held the kind of timber the Parkway needed to restore the waterwheel and other elements at Mabry Mill -- and it wouldn't put additional strain on the Parkway budget to harvest some of it.  The tree, after all, was still in good shape, but if the Parkway didn't take any of it for the restoration, the tree eventually would deteriorate.

"I knew about this tree," Trivett said. "It was down a couple of years but still in good shape. The wood was still wet, and that was what we were after."

Getting sections of the trunk out would require a lot of power.  The crew chained a big backhoe to a big BRP truck to provide the traction, and Parkway employees sawed out sections to drag back up to the road and load on a truck.  The Parkway brought in its arborist, Plant Ecologist Chris Ulrey, for advice on dealing with how to retrieve the tree.  Ulrey said he took at look at a cross-section to determine its age, and a surprise emerged. "This was a very slow-growing tree with tight growth rings," he said.  He gauged a section of those rings and made a calculation: The tree was roughly 400 to 500 years old -- "Not less than 400, and possibly older than 500,"  he said. If the tree was more than 500 years old, it meant that this white oak could have been a seedling when Christopher Columbus first came to the New World.  The tree had been growing all that time, and now was about to provide the big timber for Mabry Mill's waterwheel.

Steve Marmie points out the white oak rings

Once they found the tree, the Parkway then had the task of cutting it up into usable lumber. But this was an easier solution. The Parkway had previously gotten help from Glenn Bolick's lumberyard just south of Blowing Rock in the Blackberry community.  It's a traditional yard, with a big old mill powered by a big old GM Diesel, and using the chain-and-ratchet gizmos and big circular saw blades that loggers have used everywhere for more years than they can count.  No computer-guided technology here, just the experience and judgment and sawmill savvy of Glenn Bolick. Bolick, by the way, is not only a logger but also a noted potter, storyteller and musician who, his daughter Janet said, plays the guitar "and piddles with the banjo and the fiddle."
Jack Trivett and Steve Marmie consult with Glenn Bolick about their cut list

On a cool, foggy late February day, using the same backhoe that fetched the tree sections out of the Jeffress Park, Trivette picked up the first section and put it on the rails that move trunks to the carriage that will pull the timber through the saw. Steve Marmie used a cant hook to help position the tree.
Bolick and Marmie hold cant hooks, the contraptions that loggers used to move logs around

Trivett and Bolick discuss where to make the first cuts

Bolick sharpens his 52-inch saw blade

After getting the timber on the carriage, it was time to start making sawdust. Bolick ran the timber-laden carriage through the mill for its first passes, pulling off the first planks that were unsuitable for use in the Parkway project and throwing them aside.  Bolick's son Jeff grabbed the planks and relieved the pressure on the saw blade as the carriage moved along.There was another surprise at one point: Some barbed wire was embedded in the trunk, and the saw had to be resharpened.

After removing the outside lumber, cutting the usable planks began.  Trivett helped pull the planks off the mill and stack them nearby.

Sometimes they were cutting 1-inch planks, sometimes 3-inch stock

And sometimes they cut the big blocks that would replace the worn-out blocks holding up the outside axle end of the waterwheel.

Next on Rocky Knob Blog: pulling off the bad wood and putting on the good, in Reconstructing a Southern Appalachian icon, Chapter 5: Not quite reinventing the Wheel


  1. Great description of the process, Jack! Please keep it coming! Photos are terrific. Should submit to some of the local press...Roanoke Times, Floyd, Stuart, etc.

  2. Nice start guys...I went through the website and I found that you made decent point for Keep up the topic that everyone can choose one of the best. Thanks