Pack Up and Go to the Steam Show

by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2016 by Howard Faxon

: I'm an old crippled-up retiree who likes to bid on government auctions. Due to budget cuts Wisconsin auctioned off an old sawmill property. I won, and things snowballed from there.

Tags: Fiction  

I’m always looking for a deal. That’s why I watch the government auction sites. Being from rural northern Illinois and of limited mobility I had a lot of time to pursue my usually fruitless hobby.

Lately some properties had come up for sale which intrigued me. The state of Wisconsin was selling off parks and sections of parks that had the least use or utility. The state forestry was selling off their Wisconsin River unit, broken into three chunks. It interested me so much that I sent away for the terms of sale. It was a rule of thumb to watch the fine print when dealing with the government, and this one was a lulu!

The southern unit of three was about seventy acres in size. It was listed as a historical site and any changes would have to go through a thorough vetting before it was approved. There was a stripped-down sawmill with a diesel donkey engine to drive it, a coal-fired railroad yard engine, two stake-sided gondolas to carry the lumber and an old diesel crane mounted on railroad tracks used for transporting and stacking raw logs coming out of the river and loading finished lumber onto barges for the trade down river. The exhibits were kept out of the weather in a huge pole barn. The stone chimneys, ovens and drying kilns with rail lines for feeding and emptying the lumber were still standing.

The only other modern building on the site was a state-run garage where some road-maintenance equipment was kept and worked on. It had a propane-heated office built into it with telephone service and electricity. Since workers might be sent out to the facility for a full shift there was also a heated restroom with showers. The whole building was heated in zones with overhead blowers to keep active work-spaces warm and to keep the engines of the snow clearing equipment in starting condition as winter took its toll.

The contractual riders were an eye-opener. No buildings could be built without board approval. No lumbering was permitted without board approval. The site could not be sub-divided. Insurance had to be carried on all structures. Upon resale the state had first right of refusal.

Why would I want the damned thing under those terms? First, the price would be low because there was little utility to be had in owning the place. Second, it was fenced off already so it could be inexpensively locked up. Next, the taxes would be minimal as all it was good for was hunting since I couldn’t even build on it. Last, was its location. It was four miles by river or seven miles by road to Wausau. The biggest reason was, though, that I’d be living alone in the middle of seventy acres of unimproved woods without a neighbor to be found.

I would never have thought about pursuing the property but for the fact that the place was to be sold ‘as is’. The diesel road and grounds maintenance equipment and the maintenance shop were listed on the document of particulars. I made my living doing mowing and snow removal for Kishwaukee College, just down the road from me to the West.

The only hang-up I could see was keeping the insurance paid. I investigated with my local provider, giving them all the property keys that I could find. They priced it out by size and function. The garage was 40x80 and 16 feet to the eaves. The exhibit barn was 60x180 and 24 feet to the eaves. It had a center line of poles to hold up the roof. The engines were kept winterized so no fuel was stored in the hall. There was a blacksmith exhibit at one end of the hall but by the pictures it looked as if it had been mothballed for years.

With the place being sold into private hands the risk of industrial accidents and arson went down dramatically. I was given a quote of eight hundred and twelve hundred for the barns, and a property insurance for fenced-off unimproved woodlands of twelve hundred a year. So, it would take me thirty two hundred plus fuel plus electric plus garbage service to operate. I put in a bid of five thousand dollars then sat back to watch the fools that couldn’t or wouldn’t read the contract get themselves into trouble. Hell, I could afford the five grand out of my savings, and my monthly disability checks came out to almost two grand a month. On bad days I rode a wheelchair, and I legally owned a handicapped placard for my pickup truck. I’d been whacked just hard enough with the business end of a bucket loader to not cut my legs off but enough to come THAT CLOSE to losing them in surgery. I was still in AIT in the army when it happened. I ended up with two fake knees out of the deal and really screwed up lower legs. Sitting in the cab of an earth mover, a tractor, a skid loader or a Bobcat was just up my alley.

Several more bids were entered, all at quite a bit more than mine, but were promptly withdrawn after further research was done. Come June first mine was the last soldier standing. I won the competetive bid for the property! Hot damn! I walked a little taller and if I could have strutted I would have. I still had to get there though, and before the snow got heavy. That gave me a deadline of well before Thanksgiving.

Driving around randomly after work I passed a dirty Winnebago bus that was sitting in someone’s back yard for what must have been the fifth time. My back brain knew what I was looking for even if my front brain was too oblivious to see it. I stopped in front of the house, hobbled to the front door and rang the bell. A young woman answered the door. I gave her my best homely grin. “Ma’am, I’d like to buy your camper.” I got the damnedest reaction from her. She looked terrified! She backed away from the door with her hands in front of her chest, as if to push me away.

I put my weight on my crutch handles in my pits and held my hands up. “Easy, lady, easy. I just thought that you had an old camper you wouldn’t mind getting rid of. It’s half-covered by an old torn tarp, the tires are half-flat and it doesn’t look like it’s been moved in years.”

She calmed down a little and invited me in. Over a cup of coffee we talked. I told her about wanting to what amounted to a pre-fab house to sit inside a commercial garage.

She gave me the story on the thing. Her parents bought it well before she was born. They spent every vacation in it, usually down in southern Missouri at Bull Shoals and Lake of the Ozarks. She’d been in college when they took a thanksgiving trip to the Wisconsin Dells. The heater had poisoned them. She’d been alone for the past three years, totally unfit for dealing with it all. She looked pretty lost even after getting it off her chest. “All right, Let’s break it down. Keep in mind I’m still after that camper, though. What’s your plan from here. Where do you want to be in a year?”

“At college in Tampa. I’ve got relatives in town.”

“Do you have a confirmed place to go?”

“Yes. I could lease or buy a place near campus if I had to. Their insurance paid off. It’s all money in the bank right now.”

“That takes care of the next question, will you have enough money to live on while in school. So far it sounds like you’ve got to sell off here and head south. What’s holding you back?”

“I--I don’t know.”

“When do you need to be on campus?”

“August 18th.”

“That’s not long if you’re going to sell the house. Thank God DeKalb’s just down the road and there’s always a market for housing for grad students that want to live off campus. If it was me, I’d be getting the place cleaned up and sell it furnished to a campus housing broker. It’s a decent-sized place to live within five miles from campus on a major highway so winter access won’t be a problem. You’ll be out from under before you know it and on your way south.”

“Sort out what you want to have shipped to you such as favorite furnishings and a bedroom suite, sort out what you want to take with you in the car such as a little bedding and clothing, then let the brokers clean out what they don’t want. They’ll want some places furnished, some un-furnished depending on the market. Now, you still want to get rid of that old camper? It’s either take it along or lose it.”

She shook her head violently. “I’m not setting foot in that thing again.”

I asked again, “What do you want for it?”

She looked me in the eyes. I could see that she’d just crossed the Rubicon from the look in her eyes. “Three thousand as is.”

I goggled. “Is that all? Rather I should be asking if it starts and what the mileage is on it.”

“You’re right. If it starts, three thousand. If not, two thousand.”

I blinked, then stuck out my hand. “Sold. Got any keys? Are there any papers on it?”

We shook, then she brought out an old gray-painted sheet steel file box labelled “Camper”. I opened it to find the original title. It almost qualified as an antique as it was a 1988 model with a single pull-out to expand the living room. “Let me get my truck and we’ll see if we can jump the battery.”

Oh, it tried, but that diesel was over two years old in the tank. It had turned to water, grease and fertilizer in storage. “Nope. It wasn’t winterized before being stored. I’ll bet the water lines are split from freezing too. It’s gonna need new rubber all around and maybe a brake job. I’d get the belts and hoses changed out before taking it too far, and the oil definitely needs replacing.”

“Fine.” She held out her hand. “Two thousand as is.”

I smiled, but I had to complain. “Cold, woman, cold. Deal.” We shook on it. She signed the title, gave me the box of paperwork and we traded receipts. “Do you have an address I can reach you in Florida? I wouldn’t want to short you if I find a cash box on board or something. Also, I’ll write down my address. I really want a copy of your parents’ death certificates. I’ll leave you a hundred bucks for the copies. I have a feeling that the company might want to pay off rather than be faced with a fatality suit. I’ve got some research to do before I put my foot in it, though.”

We exchanged particulars, expecting never to see each other again.

I remembered something about the Winnebago company paying off a lot of wrongful death settlements a while ago. I wondered if I could tie these deaths to it...

Tiny little towns seemed to either have bloody idiots for mechanics or bloody geniuses. My tiny little town was called Malta. Henry at Arndt Auto was a member of the latter group. I called them to come and get the camper with due warning about the heater being a killer. My instructions were to ‘make it trustworthy’, including the generator. By the time they were done it cost me another three grand to get it out of hock. The parts list was nothing short of amazing. I was about broke for the month when it came back to me. I didn’t make anything from the college during the summer. I was living on freezer biscuits, peanut butter and jelly until my government check came in the second week in July. I bought a roll of drawn copper tubing and a handful of compression fittings. I already had a cutting and flaring tool. I set about replacing all the split lines. They were easy to test--All I had to do was pump up the pressure at four A.M. when nobody was making any noise and listen for the hissing. When I finally got it all sealed I applied pressure and left it alone for a weekend. When the pressure held for 48 hours I had a good system. I stripped out all the sheets, blankets and curtains for a good washing. I borrowed a steam cleaner from the college to treat all the carpets. Pretty soon it started smelling fit to live in.

DeKalb, just to the east, offered a legal advocate service. By that time I had the death certificates in hand. I made an appointment to inquire about a corporate wrongful death suit. The fellow that I met with was older. He looked like a retired lawyer, there just to stay active. I was glad to have drawn him out of the pool as he immediately proved his mettle.

After reading my files he closed his glasses and tapped the files with one finger. “I remember this case. It was a kind of double-indemnity. After the first discovery of culpability the company refused to issue any recalls. Consequent deaths were judged avoidable and the court dropped the hammer on them. The dates seem to match up. Let me do a little research and call you back next week.” He took copies of all my paperwork and my phone number.

I found it hard to sleep that week, wondering what he’d find.

Tuesday morning I got a call. “Do you want to sue for wrongful death and mismanagement? It’ll cost you forty-five bucks for the court costs.”

“I’m in.” I recited my bank routing number, account number and a check number to pay him.

I resolved to forget about the whole thing until it was resolved. There was nothing else I could do to influence the matter, after all.

I no doubt put the cart before the horse but I pretty much moved into that Winnebago. I wired shut the gas feed to the heater so nothing stupid would happen.

Just as the hunter’s moon lit up the October sky I recieved an envelope in the mail. I had so put the case out of my mind that the return address caught me flat stupid. Then I caught on. I took the mail inside and sat and the kitchen table. Then I carefully opened the envelope. It held a letter and a greenish-colored computer printed check. It had a multi-colored stamp for an endorsement. I braced myself and read the amount to myself. Twice. Three times. I finally got the decimal point in the right place. The check was for two point six million dollars. I wondered who was screaming. It was me! I settled down enough to call Miss Miller. “Karen here.”

“Karen, this is the guy on crutches from Malta. Remember me?”

“Oh, hi! How’s it going?” Boy, SHE sounded a lot better.

“Pretty good. Actually really good. I had a guy sue the Winnebago corporation for the wrongful death of your parents and negligence in not notifying the owners of a known potentially fatal issue. I’ve got a lot of money here waiting for you.”

“Keep it. The family that I found down here? We hold most of the voting stock in Plum Creek Timber. It isn’t worth it to me to come get it.”

“But ... But it’s over a million dollars!”

“Fine. You earned it, you keep it. Good job in bleeding the people responsible. I’ll always thank you for that.” We talked a bit more as she let me down easy, then hung up.

Well, crap! I went out to eat that night in celebration. I don’t remember much about what I had or how it tasted though. All I remember was all the plans I made for the next day and how they flip-flopped like a fresh-caught carp.

It all came crystal clear as I lay there in bed. After cleaning up and dressing I drove into DeKalb with that check to get it deposited in the credit union. I was a little early so I had a light breakfast. Once they opened I flat out assigned forty percent into an account for the income tax men, since I wasn’t the injured party. I figured that forty percent was what was paid out for a lottery winner so that would do. I talked to the branch manager who unequivocally stated that any money left with the credit union would be covered as if it were under the blanket of the FDIC. I was damned tempted to say, “Prove it.” but I didn’t stir the mud.

I took out two money orders for a quarter of a million each, then arranged for both a checking account and a debit card. I didn’t want to fold those money orders for fear that I’d break them or something. I’d not seen so much cash in one place before. Jesus.

Everything I wanted to keep made it into the camper. I put my pickup on the sales lot and sold the house to the same property broker that I suggested Karen use.

A trip to Janesville got the camper to the dealer that had done all its maintenance, according to the paperwork. I drove up and talked to the manager. When he heard that I wanted the heater replaced under warranty because it had already killed two people he wasn’t very happy. When I started laying pieces of paper on his desk including the legal finding of two counts of negligent homicide he caved. It took some of the sting out of it for him when I had the entertainment system upgraded to include new speakers, a blue ray player and a forty-DVD disc changer. I had the mattresses replaced as well as the driving seat and the recliners. He had a much more efficient refrigerator/freezer in stock that I also bought. He pretty much worked the thing over.

I got it licensed and insured for Wisconsin. 90/52 took me due north to Wausau where the Hampton Inn became my temporary center of operations.

First things first. I hired a car and driver for the day. A visit to the Marathon County Employee Credit Union got those pesky money orders off my hands. Next I got a local cell phone and a copy of the business (yellow) pages. Once established at my new digs no doubt I’d need to get some essential services turned back on such as electricity and get a propane tank filled. Our next stop got me wheels--a low-mileage Ford F-250 diesel.

I had the driver follow me to the Wisconsin forestry site that had sold off the property. I produced my winning bid paperwork and receipt. I was handed the title and keys to the property. Before going out to it I got the both of us fed at a local burger barn, then we explored a few back roads until we found a way to the property gate. The lane and gate were partially covered in leaves, pine needles and cast off limbs. The gate was made of black painted pipes filled with diamond fence mesh and mounted on a rolling track. My keys did the trick and the gate slid back. About a half-mile further down an asphalt road brought two tall yellow limestone smokestacks into view, what must have been a saw mill and two big pole barns, over two hundred yards apart. There was an asphalt parking lot at one end of the shorter building and more paved driveway in front of four big garage doors at one side. It was off to one side and down a short lane from the big clearing. That’s where I went first.

I got out of the car and headed for the office door. It opened easily. The driver followed behind me to slake his curiosity. It was a pretty generic office setup with a counter, a couple of desks and two smaller offices with doors. A light film of dirt everywhere showed that the place had been idle for at least half a year. Probably due to a staffing reduction. I picked up the phone and was met with silence. I nodded. The light switch did nothing. Again, I nodded. It was only to be expected. Without power the heaters wouldn’t work either.

The dim light from the windows showed me a doorway out to the service and storage bays. The light showed through slots between the pole barn sheets and holes where some fool had used the building for target practice. Christ. This needed work, and fast. One thing I did spot on the office wall I liked a lot--a laminated ‘D’ sized plot of the county road system. Sitting on one end of the counter was my best find yet--a cable modem! Yippee! The place was wired for Internet. We left the place as we found it except for my pickup truck parked outside the office doors, and headed back to the hotel. I picked up the camper, released the driver and drove back out to the property where I parked in the lee of the garage building. After I turned off the engine I found that it was quiet as hell. I LIKED it. Well, seeing as how there was a skiff of snow everywhere the temperature had to be low enough to freeze water. Hopefully the water pipes inside had been winterized. I’d find out soon enough. I deployed my little generator to provide power to the camper’s services and called it home.

A cell phone call got the electric account attached to my credit union account. I was promised to have the power restored within 24 hours. The LP-gas dealer was even better--he promised to have the tanks filled by that evening. There were two of them. It being two P.M. already I thought it pretty ambitious but who was I to complain? Another call got the phone service turned on which also got the internet service turned on. I got a two-day estimate on those.

A little snooping inside showed me the heater controls, water heater, electrical panel and the controls for the big overhead garage doors. I sure wasn’t getting those open without power. They were big suckers--sized for a tractor-trailer.

I did a little research with the phone book. I found a local pole barn contractor and gave him a call. He was willing to come out to look at the job of patching the barn, insulating it and sheathing the interior. That was the end of my business for the day. I cooked dinner, ate and cleaned up. Afterwards I felt satisfied enough to have a beer while I thought about whatever might happen next. I made a note to get my insurance issues addressed the next day and get some health insurace for myself. I considered getting a propane-fuelled generator installed so power outages wouldn’t leave me high and dry if a storm took out the lines.

I discussed this last issue along with a couple other matters with the contractor when he arrived. “I’d like this structure sealed, insulated and sheathed inside to make it relatively winter-proof. Also, I’d like windows installed against the wall opposite the large doors that would match the windows on one side of my motor home, and I’d like some ducts & hoses put in to vent my camper’s heater, range and water heater as well. Now, I’ve recently come into some money and have always fancied owning a modular bathing and sauna building. I know that they’re available as an almost drop-in unit. I’ve got plenty of propane available here as well. My last item is a safety issue. I don’t believe that the heaters in here are ducted outside as the building was left unsealed. I don’t want the damned things to kill me from CO2 or CO poisoning. I’d like you to investigate and amend things as required. Be sure to look into cooling for the summer as well as heating for the winter in three major zones. Be sure that one of the options is a straight high-volume draft fan for the open space.”

I recalled that I hadn’t arranged for solid waste recovery. There was a small bricked-in bay set aside for a dumpster but nothing was in it. I ordered a covered unit with a bi-weekly service contract.

I was happy to see the lights flicker on in the work shop and the office. I quickly cut power to the generator and ran a line to the internal circuits. The temperature in the office quickly came up to shirtsleeve conditions, as did that of the restroom. Electric heaters. I had to open the master valve to obtain water service but that was all. The bathroom looked like it was designed to follow the East German Industrial school. I’d ask the contractor about getting it remodelled when he returned later in the week to schedule a start date for the insulation and window job. He promised to bring me some literature on bathing and sauna units so I knew he’d be looking me up.

After he left I settled down to drink a beer and see what I could catch on the camper’s dish. The game I caught was so boring that I dropped off. About four I woke up, stretched, had a shower and went to bed for the evening.

The next day I went to the assessment office to see how they had my property listed on their books. The assessor’s secretary looked it up for me. It was listed as ‘unimproved forest land’. I objected to their classification. Instead it should have been ‘unimprovable’. When the assessor joined the discussion I brought out my contract. Since I could not change it or profit from it the land was worse than owning desert property--I put forth that it was equivalent to owning title to a hazardous waste site. It took a county board meeting to try my case before my tax rate was rationalized. They had me on the fire roles and the road maintenance, which I was glad to pay for. I paid roughly twelve hundred a year instead of over ten thousand. Some folks were grumpy about it but they were ‘hoist by their own petard’. They’d written the stringent land use policies into the contract and it came back to bite ‘em in the ass. Their budget did benefit in their staff reduction by perhaps seven employees so they couldn’t complain too much. What’s the old story? Employees are the most expensive asset a corporation “owns”.

Since it was an inside heated job the contractor tackled my remodelling and HVAC work right away. It promised to give some of his core workers a nice paycheck for Christmas. I paid him to haul in a nice, big chest freezer to sit against the back wall of the garage. The office turned into a nice wood-panelled living room and my new modular sauna/bath was great on my knees when they really hurt.

For Thanksgiving dinner I looked through a newspaper to see who was advertising. The prices made my eyes water a bit as I paid a fifty dollar bill. I wondered how the locals could afford it. I remembered as a kid going to an all-you-can-eat buffet not far north of Wausau for four fifty-six each for four adults. How the times had changed. I used my phone book to call around to all the butcher shops within twenty miles to see who would do a dry-aged quarter of prime beef, some yearling venison and smoked pork for me. I did a lot of my grocery shopping at IGA. It stands for Independent Grocers of America.

Chicken stews got boring and so did roasts made from beef and venison. I knocked togther a windbreak-porch out of fiberglass panels and 4x4s that would hold my Weber grill and a couple bags of charcoal. That and an occasional hit on a pizza parlor made life a lot brighter.

Late in the winter I paid a guy with a slow-flying plane to make a couple photographic runs over the property on a cloudless day--once in the morning and once in the evening. Once developed and blown up to a decent size they showed where the fire roads had been cut. I talked to the fire marshal about how wide the access lanes should be and bugged the forest preserve land use board to get permission to cut back the growth and pull the stumps to clear those lanes. They thought it was a pretty good idea. While the ground was still hard I gradually stripped back the cuts. I left the pulled shrubbery and tree tops in four huge slash piles for deer bedding. After the ground thawed then dried that spring I hand-cast a few acres of high-protein deer forage seed that I bought from Cabella’s.

I had an idea of how to get around some of the forestry restrictions. They said I couldn’t clear cut or harvest the trees for profit. I looked at all that land that the sawmill operation had clear cut for log storage and got an idea. I talked to a guy from the forest preserve to come help me document everything with his cameras.

Bit by bit I cut down eight acres of trees that had been growing unmolested for over a hundred years. I trimmed them and stacked the small stuff to one side near one of the big kilns. Then I drenched the soil with water and used chains to pull the stumps which also went into a kiln firebox.

I ordered a few drums of diesel fuel for the mill’s donkey engine and used a box full of rotary stones chucked into an electric drill to sharpen one of the big rotary sawmill blades. I got the ricks of partially peeled green wood logs loaded in the kiln and, after warning the fire department, fired it up. A couple of steel pipes perforated with air holes helped supply more air to burn everything when the sawmill’s donkey engine was hooked up to an air pump. After a couple of days I was out of fuel. After the fire went out I opened the doors at either end of the kiln to let the residual heat and moisture escape. After a short week the lumber was cool enough to work with. I loaded the sawmill chute and powered up the re-purposed donkey engine. Once I got it running the forestry department guy started filming. I wore ear muffs and a breathing mask. Sawmills are loud and dirty operations, make no bones about it.

I squared off the logs and cut the largest dimensional lumber that I could. I took the logs from one kiln and stacked the finished lumber on pallets in the other kiln so I had the wood under protected storage at all times When I was done I used the slash to do a final slow heating of the finished product and had the forest preserve district haul away the sawdust for their trail maintenance. A half inch thick rotary saw blade makes a lot more sawdust than you’d expect.

I talked to an arborist. (That’s a nursery man that deals with trees.) He gave me some suggestions for planting orchards in apples and pears. I gave him the go-ahead to plant eight foot saplings in a wide grid. Such large starters were expensive as hell but they had a much better chance of surviving transplant shock or being destroyed by local critters.

I felt pretty good about what I’d done so far. I’d set up six deer bowers and planted some forage. I knew that some of it would come back to bite me in the ass as they would smell the orchard. I’d just have to either harvest a few deer or investigate what it would take to set up a wolf or coyote urine dispenser to chase them off. I’d worked with bobcat urine before to keep critters out of a garden. One sniff of that stuff would straighten you right up and make you have second thoughts about the whole deal.

It was the slow season for farmers--early to mid July. The fields were ripening and the early hay was ready for cutting. Vegetable gardens were coming in and the farmer’s markets were showing evidence of a bountiful harvest. I was in town sitting at a diner, savoring a piece of cherry pie made by someone that knew what they were doing and sipping a cup of coffee before I headed out to the local farmer’s market for my weekly lettuce and tomato fix for fresh BLT fixin’s. A guy called out to me: “Are you the fella that bought the old saw mill from the DNR?”

I motioned him over to the table and folded up the newspaper I’d been giving half my attention. “Yep. I’ve been putting some good money into it, too as the state hasn’t been tending to it for several years. It shows.”

Now I had his curiosity up. “Whatcha been doin’?”

I sat back with my cup and put my thoughts in order. “So far I’ve moved my camper inside the garage and vented it, the garage is insulated and wood lined now, I had a sauna put in and the old office has been renovated to be my living room. I talked the conservation board into letting me clean up the fire roads. I piled the brush I cut at the ends of the lanes for deer mangers and scattered seed for forage near ‘em. Hopefully within the next decade we’ll be seeing some trophy deer coming out of there. I’ve stripped a few acres near the sawmill where the logs used to be stacked and planted a small orchard. Yeah, you could say I’ve been busy.”

“Damn! You mind showin’ the place off? I used to play around out there as a kid. About killed myself a few times, too. You found the dump yet?”

“Dump? No! I’d like to see that. If it needs cleaning up then I’ll tackle it. Hell, I’m retired now. I need a few projects to work on. I’ve yet to visit the farmer’s market today and the liquor store, then I’m heading back.”

“Mind if I tag along?”

“Nope. Not at all. I don’t know too many people around here. I figure that it’s about time that I socialize some.”

I picked up a half dozen ripe tomatoes, a couple heads of lettuce, some radishes, onions and potatoes. Down the road a bit I picked up a couple cases of beer and a bottle of bourbon. I’d noticed some auction notices in the paper so I picked up a more current copy to take home. With that big county map on the wall I could find about any property I wanted to.

Roger and I slowly walked around the place. I showed him my new orchard, which was doing pretty well under the arborist’s care. He came by once a month to check on everything. Roger showed me an overgrown area that he said was a big pit filled with rock and busted up timbers with a little dirt thrown over the top. It wasn’t too far from the river. I got the bright idea of digging a channel from the pit to the river and using a high-pressure water hose to flush everything clear. I had a great way to get rid of the buried wood and the brush that was growing--a kiln firebox. Roger and I shook hands and he left, but only after promising to loan me an old picture album documenting the sawmill in operation.

I had a project running around loose in the back of my head. I didn’t know whether to stomp it flat or listen to it. I decided to show up at the next monthly DNR meeting to see what they thought of the idea.

I spent a few weeks at the computer typing away, putting my thoughts to paper and costing out my materials over the web. Buying the water pump would be expensive, as would renting the crane to drop in the concrete caisson once I was done flushing the overbear from the dump.

The garage held a Cat 324 hydraulic excavator and a Ford F550 dump truck with a 12’ bed and a 9’ snow blade. I’d used some late winter down-time cleaning them up with rotary wire brushes and repainting them. The pickup bed and snow blade needed some attention with a welder to add metal where it had either rusted or been ground away. The dump truck needed a heater core, a radiator and a couple pumps but I got it back into commission. Everything got new batteries, fresh belts and had their hydraulics flushed. The service log on the excavator showed that the track body had just been rebuilt the year before. It was in excellent shape.

Somebody had bought a John Deere 4520 tractor with a rollover bar, hydraulic end loader and a mower deck. It was almost new which made me wonder why it was left in the garage when they sold the place.

I wanted to rebuild the place to look like it did when it was a working timber operation. I wrote down plans to build a historically correct site office building out of limestone blocks and clay tile roofing to keep the place from burning down from embers coming out of the smokestacks. The dock would also have to be rebuilt where the logs were pulled from the river and the barges loaded. I’d need to find some rail to extend the local line out onto a pier, and the pier would have to be built solidly enough to withstand the stresses of the railroad engine running over it, the winter freeze-over and the spring ice dams. I’d have to pay an architect to figure out the best way to approach this.

I calculated that I’d need roughly forty limestone blocks of 2’x2’x3’ or 2’x2’x4’, depending on what was available on the market, plus two dump trucks full of heavy road gravel for the foundation, to lay the walls and floor the porch. The floor, roof and office counter were good candidates for the cut lumber I’d produced. I was sure that I could find an old slate blackboard or two for the day tallies. Pot-belly stoves were available for a heater. I did a little research on the web. Since the streets of Wausau were being lit with electricity by 1894 I figured that it was within the bounds of reason that the office had electric lighting rather than kerosene lamps. If no stone blocks were found in the dump then the office would go up for $50,000 dollars. I had no figures on the rail line extension.

I made up some nice covers for my request. I blew up one of Roger’s old prints of the operation and had it printed in sepia as a cover sheet. I set up a four year schedule until completion, then added another year to construct a classroom-type facility out of native dimensional lumber, procured from the open market.

They were skeptical at first, to say the least. As they read further and I talked my way though it they began to come around. The idea of building the office to match the facilities and terminating the rail line as it was used during the site’s operating days appealed to the historians among them, and cleaning up the old dump made the DNR folks all for it. I think what really clinched it was the chance of disposing of a lot of otherwise unusable material dug out during ditch clearing operations. The final phase which set up a lecture hall and a live historical demonstration of an operating saw mill once a month for high school and college students sealed the deal. Their total cost to the county would be for the fuel, lecturers and demonstrators, the latter of which I could train.

First the dump had to go. It was an illegal dump and a breeding ground for vermin. The county historical society had just been given a fire engine pumper that still worked. They let me use it, but it was up to me to figure out how to operate the thing. A trip to the fire department got me in touch with a couple of retired firemen that would do it for me.

I started digging out the channel between the dump and the river. That excavator was the cat’s pajamas. I got the caisson ordered, twenty feet long by fourteen feet wide by twenty feet tall. The concrete company floated it down the river to me on a barge. Within two weeks I got the channel cleared out. Then the flushing operation began. Two weeks later the water coming out of the dump was as clear as it was going to get. I managed to seat the caisson with a chain and the excavator before the winter freeze set in. The dump itself was over the size of a football field. I had no idea of how deep the thing would turn out to be.

I spent a lot of time that winter working with a cheap version of Photoshop(TM) getting those prints copied, blown up, cleaned up and in presentation quality. I even found a picture of the inside of the office! It featured a two-hole pot-belly stove with a couple chairs next to it and a small table. I could just make out the grid scored into the surface in the form of a checker board. One window looked out to the sawmill in the background. It took a lot of work to enhance that little 3x5 photograph.

Once the ground froze the temperature quickly dropped that winter. It hovered around zero for two weeks near Thanksgiving. Then the wind picked up. Tiny little beads of pellet snow fell for days. It squeaked like crazy when walked on. When it hit fourteen below for Christmas and stayed colder than ten below until the middle of January the weather pontificators on TV said that it was the area’s coldest winter in recorded history. The river froze over but I sure wasn’t going to risk my butt testing if it would support my weight.

I turned down the thermostats in the garage building to about forty to keep the water lines from freezing. I lived in the mobile home. Its heavy layer of insulation and smaller volume to heat made it a much cozier environment. The sauna was super-insulated so I spent my time between the Winnebago and the sauna. I only did one load of laundry per week. I didn’t have to worry so much about filling the septic tank with washing water that way.

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