Willoughby: Manpower transitions to machinery | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Manpower transitions to machinery

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Men at the Ben Bow chromite mine in Montana prepare mine props with a SKILSAW — 1944.

Throughout childhood I witnessed my family’s transition from human-powered work. At every scale, small to large, machinery gradually dominated most enterprises.

In 1937, Skil patented and marketed an electric, seven-and-a-quarter-inch, hand-held circular saw. But two of my uncles did not embrace the timesaving tool until almost 1960. I remember Frank Willoughby renovating his home, a building that later housed La Cocina restaurant. He constructed a stairway to create living space on the second floor. The project called for a plywood cutout to fit each step. Over and over again, Frank’s muscular frame drove a sharp saw through plywood as smoothly as a quilter cuts cloth.

Elmer Johnson, another of my uncles and son of longtime Pitkin County sheriff Otto Johnson, constructed a long wooden toolbox. It held his carpenter tools and carefully secured three saws. He owned a SKILSAW, but he preferred to use his handsaw for a precise cut. He could cut three-quarter-inch plywood by hand almost as quickly as he could with the electric saw. Those smoother, straighter hand cuts probably taxed his middle-aged body.

My father remembered the many years when miners worked exclusively by hand. With pick and shovel — and occasionally a little dynamite — men excavated the foundation site and footings trenches for the Midnight mill in the 1930s. They improved the road up from Castle Creek to the mill site using teams of horses and hand shoveling, but finally bought a small bulldozer for winter use. The bulldozer moved ore down the mountain from the mine, brought in supplies, and thereby replaced a team of horses.

Noting the success of the small dozer, the mine owners bought a larger one. My father used it to build roads, including the one on the backside to the top of Aspen Mountain. Later he used the same dozer to construct access roads to tower sites for the first chairlifts.

Father began his stint at the Midnight mill as a high school student, when he worked weekends and summers. Ed Grover Sr., his mentor, trained him to make mine props. To do this, he cut down trees with an ax. Then he dragged the trees to the mine camp with a horse. In camp, he cut different kinds of timbers with a handsaw and shaped them with an adz. This work timbered hundreds of feet of tunnel.

Later, in small sawmills, miners cut timber with a large circular saws powered by streams, steam or electricity. Underground, final adjustments still called for muscular shoulders and a sharp saw blade.

Will Meyerriecks’s book “Drills and Mills” compiled figures about the production of mine timbers. Some mines erected raw tree trunks. Others relied on 12- or 16-inch thick posts, sawn on four sides. Square sets, common in Aspen, came in standardized lengths with ends shaped to fit 90-degree connections (see photo). When assembled, the sets formed stackable cubes that would fit odd spaces. Meyerriecks reported that in 1903, one man could saw a collection of 12-by-12-inch square sets into a cube, by hand, within 90 minutes.

Technology transformed history, but mechanization did not touch every man. Fewer than 100 years ago, father wrestled ore from mines in Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona by hand sawing mine timbers. Although he eventually accepted an electric drill, I never observed him with an electric saw in his hands. I like to think that muscle memory and comfort served him just as well as any motor-driven machine.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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