HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
The Sawmill Oiler
By ARNO SURLS WEBSTER
Cummer’s sawmills at Sumner and Lacoochee were large, heavy industrial sawmills. They were designed for sawing large timber and both were constructed in a similar manner, though the mill at Lacoochee had improvements on the technology of the day.
My dad, Bill Surls, began the job of oiler at the Cummer mill in Sumner in about 1916 when he was 16 years old. That year, his father, Jim Surls, died of tuberculosis and as Bill’s older brother, James (Doc) Surls, was in the Army serving in World War I, my dad became the head of the household that included his mother, Elmyra, two sisters, Velma and Edith, and uncle, Curtis (Paddy) Lane and his two daughters, Eva, Martha (Tommie.) Uncle Paddy shared support of the family, but the family looked to a Surls as the new patriarch. This held true even after James returned from the War; Uncle Doc, as we called him, married and lived apart from the nuclear family thereafter.
Mr. R. A. Pope, a supervisor at the Sumner sawmill, took young Bill under his wing and gave him the job of oiler. He also gave him some books to read about the mechanics of the mill. To describe the job of oiler I’ll need to tell you a little about the sawmill.
The construction of a sawmill is basically a large warehouse-sized building with three floors: first floor, power plants and access to the equipment for maintenance, sawyers on the second floor and filer on the third floor.
On the concrete first floor was the steam plant, electrical plant and machinery mounts that secured equipment on the second floor used to move the logs in and out of the mill and where the bottom housing of the band saw was secured. There, the oiler had access to the steam and electrical plant fittings as well as the underside of the second floor machinery.
Near the “ceiling” of the first floor a line shaft ran the length of the building. There was no ceiling, per se, but the underside of planks laid between the rafters on the second floor as a means of getting about. The line shaft was powered by the steam engine at the mill in Sumner, but at the mill at Lacoochee, the steam engine was used to power an electrical generator which supplied the power to the line shaft and other equipment, a more versatile and economical method.
From the line shaft, which was rotated by the steam and electrical plants, many cranks were installed to operate most of the equipment used in the mill. At each of the cranks on the line shaft, either a pulley or belt extended to power a piece of equipment; saws, carriage, conveyor belts, rollers and so forth. Every moving joint required constant oiling or greasing. The oiler’s rounds took about an hour to lubricate each fitting at the Sumner mill but somewhat longer at the Lacoochee mill that had more equipment.
As oiler at the Sumner mill, Bill learned the duties quickly and was conscientious in doing them.
From time to time, usually along with a carnival or small circus, portable skating rinks were brought into Cedar Key, which is only about 8 miles from Sumner; there Bill learned that he loved to roller skate. One day, he decided to try roller-skating to do his oiler job. He found that he could complete one round of oiling in half the time it usually took so he spent the free time studying the books given him by Mr. Pope. The books provided information about various processes at the mill and technical specifications.
Recognizing Bill’s assiduous approach to his work it was not long until Mr. Pope assigned Bill as relief sawyer.
The job of oiler was not a glamorous job, but without it, the mills could not operate. In fact, each of the jobs at the sawmills, like many other businesses, was dependent on each other to produce a product. For my father, the entry-level job of oiler gave him the opportunity to learn about the operations of the entire sawmill and the importance of performing routine equipment maintenance, both of which served him well in his subsequent job as sawyer.