Sawmill Woman- My Story for Women’s History Month

I came of age in the late 1960s/ early 1970s in the Bay Area of California.  It was the age when women started to wake up from their subjugation in the so-called mans’ world. So began a rebellion of women demanding equal rights and opportunities that continues to this day. 

In 1976 I headed up to Alaska for a summer job that morphed into a 10-year stay.  Alaska was a perfect place for an independent, outdoorsy kind of woman to break down barriers.  Nobody blinked an eye if you built a cabin, commercial fished, mushed dogs, hunted, and the like.  Then in 1978, I met with my biggest obstacle- working in a sawmill as the only woman.  This is my story…

Sawmill Woman

The 6 1/2 mile mill, Wrangell, Alaska

On the first day of my new job, I drove the 6 ½ miles out the road with a lump in my stomach. My ’63 VW bug purred around the last bend and the sawmill came into view, a hulking, half- rusted sheet metal structure belching a billowing plume of steam from a tall stack. Shrieks and clanks of machinery inside clashed with the placid water of the canal and the misty islands beyond. This was not exactly in my life plan to work at a sawmill but there were no other options to be had in the small Southeastern Alaskan island town of Wrangell. It so happened when I needed a job, the 6 ½ mile mill needed an employee and a woman at that.

It was the fall of 1978 in Wrangell, Alaska.  My summer job as a crew leader with the Young Adult Conservation Corps had come to a close. I needed a job to tide me over until early December when we would be moving south to Montana. I was 23, fit, strong, and filled with fond memories of working in field camps with my teenage crew.  We built hiking trails in the woods that included constructing primitive bridges, boardwalks, and stairs with chainsaws, pulaskis, hammers, and nails.  It was the kind of work that covered me in sweat and dirt-filled sawdust at the end of the day but gave us all a sense of accomplishment.

Two years previously I moved up to Fairbanks, Alaska from northern California after graduating from college with a degree in Natural History and a minor in botany.  I would be working as a field technician, a seasonal position at the Institute of Northern Forestry, a research arm of the USDA Forest Service.  Following that job, I worked as a research tech.  at the NOAA lab in Juneau.  Alaska had been a dream of mine since I was a child. I was eager for adventure and the freedom that living in the far north could offer a woman who felt at home carrying a backpack trekking through untrammeled places.

My adulthood was unfolding with the Women’s Rights Movement in the background.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been pioneering anti-gender discrimination legislation at the Supreme Court level.  Women all over the country took to demonstrating for equal rights in the streets.  I grew up in petticoats as a child.  Then in my 20s I cast off my bra, quit shaving my legs and underarms, and believed that I was entitled as well to the same privileges offered to the world of men. Coming of age at this time was a curious mix of Barbie meets Rosie the Riveter.  Lawsuits were emerging when companies refused to hire women.  The mill where I applied had no women employees.  I would be the first.

 Wrangell is located on Wrangell Island tucked in the southeastern Alaskan archipelago of islands south of Juneau and Petersburg and north of Ketchikan. It’s in an environment of silvery waters and thick forests of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and cedars that grow down to the rocky, kelp-covered tide zone.  Clear cuts and muskegs punctuated the forests.  Ravens dark as midnight were ever-present, clucking and squawking among the trees in their secret language.  I often sighted bald eagles spotting fish from high perches. When the weather was sunny there was no place more beautiful to be than Southeastern Alaska.  Then fall brings a curtain of precipitation that shuts tight in the waxing darkness, often dropping more than an oppressive inch of rain a day.

Located on the northern tip of the island, the town was small with one main street. The paved north end had the main sawmill, hotel, bar, and post office.  The lower end, occupied by City Market, the sole grocery store, was unpaved, often muddy, and full of potholes. There were a few stray dogs that roamed there, looking suspiciously related, with their black and white markings.  A small fishing fleet was moored in the harbor with some derelict vessels that were permanent homes to some residents. Rickety houses were built in a line on pilings over the tide flats at that end of town one of which I called home.  It was the yellow one, the door right off the street, quaint at first sight,  a challenge to live in.

Wrangell Harbor

The house that I shared had little insulation, with a floor of single wood planks covered in linoleum. The wind blew in over the water stealing the heat quickly from the floor and finding every crack in the walls.   The dated oil pot burner stove in the kitchen did a poor job of heating anyway let alone this cracker box of a house on pilings.  When you flushed the toilet, you could spy the tide flats below.  High tide was the sewage system. Low tide could be a stinky affair.

The town had two bars, one in the hotel, the Stikine Inn, and the Brig down the street. Drinking and playing pool provided entertainment to the loggers, mill workers, fishermen, Forest Service employees, and other Wrangell residents when they weren’t out fishing or hunting.  That was about it for local amenities.

At that time there were only 12 miles of road on Wrangell Island, not counting logging roads.  If you wanted to go somewhere else you had to go by floatplane, boat, the Alaskan Ferry, or the Alaska Airlines jet that serviced Wrangell twice a day, the northbound and the southbound.

On my first day of work I was given a hardhat and then a quick tour where once majestic trees from the forests, mostly hemlock and yellow cedar, were transformed into lumber to be exported to Japan.  In Japan, the lumber would be converted into finished products like furniture and then exported back to the US.

Loggers would fall the trees, chain, and then drag them by machinery into the saltwater. There the logs would be amassed into immense rafts.  Tug boats would tow the rafts where they were anchored outside the millpond.  Individual logs would be guided in by men in yellow hard hats. They would nimbly hop from log to log in spiked boots to guide them in with a thrust and pull of a “picaroon”.  This was a long tool that looked like an ax but with a steel end in the shape of a slim hawk’s bill that could easily bite into a big piece of wood. Though I envied their gymnast-like skills, these men were out at times in snow and rain with gale winds challenging their balance on the floating logs. Eventually, the selected log would be grabbed by a hooked chain conveyor that angled down to the water and then pulled up into the inner workings of the mill. 

Photo courtesy Rance Timber

The first stop was the debarker where the log was rolled around blades to remove the bark and protrusions on its exterior.  Then it was conveyed to the main saw room.  This first saw was massive as many of the logs were 4 to 5 feet in diameter.   An operator stood in a separate control room with a Plexiglas window while a moving carriage thrust the log back and forth into the screaming saw blade.  These initial cuts would cut the log into several dimensional sections. From there the log would clank and into the finishing saw room.  There, a much smaller blade would cut the log down to 4’ x 4’ rough-cut timbers, which was the finished size for this mill.  In a matter of minutes, a forest giant would be converted into long beams. Later they would be loaded onto an imposing freighter, the size of a football field bound for Japan.  There these timbers would be cut, planed, and kiln-dried to smaller dimensions according to their future purpose.

The saw rooms were a frightening place to walk through. The main saw room was the worst. As the massive log carriage heaved back and forth the saw shrieked as bit into the flesh of the wood- or maybe it was the log that screamed for mercy. 

It’s forever etched in my memory when I was shown the bathroom during my initial tour of the mill.  To get there we had to walk through the frightening hell of the main saw room. Then to my dismay, since I was the lone and first woman employee on the premises, there was no women’s restroom.  I would be sharing the facilities with the other men.  To sort of make amends they had replaced the door of the farthest stall with one that extended almost to the floor.  It had a fresh coat of canary yellow paint with crudely painted red letters that said “WOMAN.” 

Pixabay photo

After the tour, I was shown my job, which was working on the “green chain.  This is where the green lumber, cut to its finished dimension was transported out of the bowels of the mill on a wide chain conveyor to be sorted.  In most cases, lumber is kiln-dried before being shipped, but at this mill, the lumber was shipped green. These 4 x 4 x 20 foot waterlogged beams were heavy, averaging around 100 pounds.  My job was to stand by the green chain as it exited the mill and watch for jams.  The hemlock and cedar timbers should stay parallel like soldiers at attention. For some reason, they often would get in a jumble like a pile of French fries in the spot where I stood.  I would signal to Ed, the green chain operator who sat in a small enclosed control booth about 20 feet away.  Ed would stop the chain and then I would hop up on the timbers to sort out the mess with a picaroon. To get these 20 foot waterlogged 4 x 4 timbers weighing in at around 100 pounds, I would whack each offending one embedding the picaroon deep into the flesh of the wood. Then I would muscle it into submission until it lay flat and parallel. The process was repeated until the jumble was sorted.  This could take anywhere from a few seconds to five minutes depending on the severity of the mess. I would hop off, give Ed a thumbs up and he would start the moan and clank of the green chain up again until the next tangle occurred.

A green chain – courtesy Rance Timber

This would turn out to be about as stimulating a job as watching grass grow.  For 8 hours a day, I would stand in a cacophony of clanking machinery watching a river of wood go by waiting for a mishap. The sheet metal structure welcomed the drafts and chill of the SE Alaskan winter.  I was grateful for the heat lamp above me and the occasional tangles of wood that would keep my body moving and spare my brain from monotony.

I don’t know how Ed did it, sitting in that control booth for so many years that he cracked the red vinyl upholstery of his seat.  The wood floor beneath his feet was worn smooth from his shoes.  He embraced the life of a millworker seemingly without complaint, a 50ish man with a wild forest of eyebrows that a bird could nest in.  I was impressed by the gray hairs extending from his nostrils a good half-inch like the bristles of a brush.  He like the other workers jumped at the chance of overtime.  Money was the object here.  Mental stimulation and creativity were not in the vocabulary.

I was there for the money as well but I had options.  I was a child of the Bay Area suburbs, college-educated that somehow missed the flock flying south for the winter. This was not my chosen path or default path as with most of the locals here.  When my time was up, I would be out of there.

At the end of the first week, I was exhausted from standing all day, wrestling unruly timbers. Performing tasks meant for a lumberjack left its impression on my muscles. Physically I grew stronger, my aches and pains of the first week were left behind. After a while, I could hop up on the green chain, whack my picaroon into the offending timber, and hoist it into parallel submission as well as any man.  Occasionally, a cadre of diminutive managers from Japan in their white hardhats would tour and gawk at me muscling wood beams while they made their rounds of the mill.

Then there was the mental tedium of being bored.  I’d had tedious jobs before but here my life was dictated by a production line.  How does one make life bearable in a job like this? This became a personal challenge- making time go by.  I approached my workday minute by minute, quarter-hour to quarter-hour, break times to lunchtime.  I’d play songs in my head, make goals for the future, and wallow in memories. Then I thought of the millions of people around the globe working in mindnumbing jobs their entire lives.  Buck up.  The day would pass one way or another.

But no matter what mental and physical gymnastics I could perform, bottom line, I hated my job.  Besides the actual duties I performed, I was “it”, meaning the only woman.  There was no female to partner kibitz with for support.  I always had the feeling I had broken into some exclusive men’s club on a technicality.  There was no comradery, no friendly greetings nor conversation to be had there.  None of the men called me names or were rude, but they were not friendly.  I was ignored.  When I had to venture through the guts of the mill I was aware of eyes upon me.  I relished the privacy of my full-length woman stall with the bright yellow door. 

The only person that expressed any kindness was Bill, the millwright.  A millwright was the person tasked with the repair and maintenance of the mechanical and physical infrastructure of the mill.  Bill was a middle-aged family man that recognized me as a person, not an alien invader. He took the time to inquire as to how things were going. When I asked if there was another spot to take my breaks other than the girlie calendar clad break room with all the other employees he graciously offered his shop area downstairs as he was off servicing the machinery during breaks.

Hardly a palace, his workshop offered a quiet refuge.  I found a seat among the wooden workbenches infused with decades of oil and grime.  Industrial fluorescent lights lit an array of wrenches, pliers, hammers, and screwdrivers that hung on the wall.  There was one outdated girly calendar with the model in one of those ridiculous poses you would see on the tire flaps of big trucks.  No matter, I was grateful for this hideaway to down my sandwich, sip my tea, and escape for a few minutes in my book.

The weeks went by as thousands of timbers passed in front of my eyes.  I bided my time for when this tedium would end.  As luck would have it, Bill informed me of a job that was recently posted that I could bid on.  The job was for yard clean-up. It was off the production line, outside driving a Cat 966 front-end loader to pick up wood debris that had escaped from machinery and trucks.  Until that time, I was unaware that I could “bid” on another job.  I lacked seniority but I bid on it anyway. To my utter astonishment, I got the job.

Cat 966 – courtesy Rance Timber

In a few days, I bid good riddance to the tedium of the green chain and was off to the mill yard to be “trained” for my new position.  The Cat 966 wasn’t hard to miss.  At 12’ high and over 50,000 pounds, it was a school bus yellow monster on tracks.  There was a ladder to get up to the cab. 

I was barely greeted by Harold, a gruff middle-aged employee in a beat-up hard hat and a beer gut that drooped over his jeans.  I could sense right off that he wasn’t keen on our little training session.  It didn’t surprise me. Undaunted I climbed the ladder up to the cab and took a seat while he stood beside me giving me heavily edited instruction. He pointed out the pedals and levers.  “This is stop, this is go, this is reverse.  You raise and lower the bucket with this lever.  Slide off the bucket if you need to use just the tines.” Harold then pointed to the corrugate steel mill building.  “See where the building is bashed in on the bottom?”  I nodded.  “Don’t do that.” The entire base of the mill building was bashed in from those who previously held my job.  He pointed out where I was to deposit the scrap that I  would collect in the bucket of the loader, a bin that fed a conveyer to an incinerator.  “The dump is that way,” he said with another point of his finger.  “That’s about it.” Then he exited the cab down the ladder leaving me to it.  There was not to be a driver’s test after this five-minute training.

“Alrighty then,” I thought as I was left alone with my new yellow partner whose tracks were taller than me.  “Let’s get to know each other.”  Never in my life had I driven anything so huge.  It was intimidating but I was determined to get over my nerves. I was not going to be adding any dents to join the others in the base of the mill building.  My worse fear was the other guys watching me waiting for a good laugh.  After I familiarized myself with the controls of the Cat and did some basic maneuvers, I chugged out to the dump to practice out of view.

The dump was a nice change of pace. Looking beyond the rusted metal scrap was an open view across Zimovia Strait to the gray-blue shape of Woronkofski Island.  Here I was only in the company of gulls.  My nerves relaxed.

A similar view

Driving the loader wasn’t hard.  It was just a big slow monster on steel tracks.  The tricky part was picking up wood scrap and being on target with a giant bucket.  I would have to sight in on my target, move forward, lower the bucket, scoop up the pile of debris and then tilt and raise it before I drove away.  Since I didn’t have a clear view from the cab I had to scamper up and down the ladder to make sure I was on the mark.  After I gained some confidence I clattered back to the mill yard to do the real thing.

There was no production line to keep up with so I took my time being accurate.  I never got completely adept at picking up scrap with one try but I did not add any dents to the building. I picked up every piece of scrap wood I could find, 40 hours a week, starting when the mill whistle blew and ending at 4:pm when it blew again. 

 Even though it was a total relief to be released from the green chain and to be out in the fresh air, this job was boring as there was not all that much to do.  When I was desperate I would head out to the dump to kill time. The dump, with its wild open view, away from the din of the mill became my refuge.

In December it was time to move off the island south to Montana.  On my last day at the mill, there were no fond farewells, good lucks nor waves of goodbye except from Bill, the millwright.  I thanked him profusely for his kindness which made my time there tolerable.  I knew the others breathed a sigh of relief when I left- as did I.

I performed my jobs at the sawmill at least and maybe better than any man- but it didn’t matter.  Being a woman made me something less and I knew it was going to be a long time for deeply ingrained attitudes to change.  My immersion in the blue-collar world was finished.  It was valuable to me to experience the day-to-day life of a factory laborer to give my sheltered eyes some perspective. Call it real-life grad school.

I held other jobs where as a woman I was a minority.  Those positions frequently held an element of performance anxiety always trying to prove my worth to the men. Eventually, when I became a teacher, I didn’t have to contend with that challenge anymore.

Then as the years passed, I started noticing more and more women at the wheels of heavy equipment, as pilots on commercial aircraft, and at the helm of boats.  Such a sight always puts a smile on my face.  I hoped life was better for them. Maybe I played a small part in breaking down the barriers for women in traditionally male-dominated fields? Maybe the 6 ½ mile mill in Wrangell by the time it shut down years later had a separate bathroom with a sign on the door that said, WOMEN.

A picarroon that hangs above my front door

Sketch by the author

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3 thoughts on “Sawmill Woman- My Story for Women’s History Month

  1. What a story, Alanna! You were brave to take on such a job at that time. I can’t image what it must have been like. I had girlfriends who worked in canneries in Alaska just to make a quick buck back then. It was hard and boring work, also dominated by men.

    Liked by 1 person

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