05, Dec 2023 -

On the cutting edge: Son one day hopes to restore father's historic sawmill

On the cutting edge: Son one day hopes to restore father's historic sawmill


TYRE — In 1949, 31-year-old William Evans, with an eighth-grade education, decided to build a sawmill from scratch. In an interview nearly 40 years ago, he said, “Instead of the farmer bringing his logs to the sawmill, I can bring the sawmill to the logs.”

To this day, the invention — a self-propelled portable sawmill — is the only one that his family knows to exist.

Called the “Big Green Machine,” Evans’ Mobile Sawmill sits in disrepair in the backyard of the property of his son, also named Bill. Evans Sr. died in May of 2005. Because Bill is the only other person to have ever operated this unique machine, his dream, along with his brother and sister, is to repair it and once again make lumber and sawdust with it.

In the beginning of this creation, the elder Evans had the help of friend and neighbor Ken Sutterby, and Ken’s brother Ralph, who knew a lot about mechanics and was an innovator in his own right.

Ralph invested financially in the project as well, but as it came close to completion, Ralph became convinced it wouldn’t work. Evans ended up buying out Ralph’s share of the sawmill, but they remained lifelong friends. The original sawmill was completed in the spring of 1951. The first paying job was in June of that year in Fayette, where its use was demonstrated at the 1951 Seneca County Fair. Evans then went on to saw for many farmers, primarily in Cayuga County.

Evans lived in Tyre, with his wife and three children, Shirley, Tom and Bill. Bill, the youngest, worked with his father from 1976-1978, and has vivid memories of his dad improving and operating the machine.

“There was nothing like this in 1951 when he started working with it,” Bill Evans Jr. said. “Originally there was a lot of physical labor involved in operating it. As years went on, my father learned a lot about electric motors and air and hydraulic cylinders, so eventually there was less and less physical labor involved.”

The sawmill is 42 feet long, weighs roughly 14,000 pounds, and was capable of a top speed of 40 mph. It has two separate gasoline engines, one that would drive it on the road, and the other that powered the 52-inch diameter circle saw. The biggest difference between this saw and the modern “band-saw” sawmills is the thickness of the cut. What that means is that when a band-saw is used, you don’t lose as much lumber as sawdust when sawing logs.

“For every four cuts you make with this saw, you would lose a full board with a lot of waste as sawdust,” Bill Jr. said when comparing the saws.

In 1951 when his father would take the sawmill out for jobs, it would actually be driven down the road. It was a self-propelled sawmill and would be driven from farm to farm. It didn’t need to be towed like modern portable sawmills. The sawmill didn’t have a cover. It was open and exposed to all weather conditions, and couldn’t be used every day in the winter. Many moving parts would freeze, depending on the severity of the weather. The first year the Evanses were able to saw year-round was 1977 after they built a cover that completely enclosed the sawmill.

The sawmill was successful enough to support a family with three children, thanks to the money management skills of Evans Sr.’s wife Irene, but because of starting from scratch, it was a very costly piece of equipment to build.

“Our father tried to patent this sawmill in 1951 because there was nothing really like this, and even drove to the US Patent Office in Washington, D.C. to search patent records himself,” Bill Jr. said. “Problem being, all his money was tied up in (building) it. He needed $5,000 to pay a patient layer to do an official patent search and he just couldn’t do it.”

Shirley, Tom and Bill agreed about how it was one of a kind. Their father built another circle-saw sawmill in the late 1980s for the Cummings Nature Center in Honeoye. That one, however, is stationary. Beginning in 1987 he demonstrated that one for the public during their “Harvest Days” on the weekends in October.

Bill Jr. acknowledged the restoration is a “someday” project and will likely be expensive, but he wants people to know about his father’s efforts to make life easier for farmers with wood lots.

Source: Finger Lake Times

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