Shenandoah National Park, Sunday, May 31 – Jim Grant was my grandfather. He’s been gone for 42 years, but he lived again today. No, Mr. Grant wasn’t reincarnated in the flesh. His memory reawakened in the form of a newly restored four-foot crosscut saw he once owned.
It was there to tackle a huge blowdown on the Little Devils Stairs trail. The objective was a long dead, 26-inch, double trunk tulip poplar. Venus Foshay, my fellow Hoodlum trail crew member is responsible for that trail and she requested reinforcements. Sam Keener and I answered her call.
Following our safety discussion, my grandpa’s precious saw bounced lightly on my shoulder as we headed down the Keyser Run fire road to the intersection with Little Devels Stairs. Along the way, I thought deeply about what my grandfather meant to me.
I imagined my grandfather hoisting that very same blade to his slender right shoulder.
It would have rested on his black-and-red-checked Filson Mackinaw coat, steadied by is work-gnarled hands swaddled in his trademark deerskin mittens with the green woolen liners that I still have.
The blowdown was a monster.
The smaller trunk was broken off and offered an easy bottom bind cut.
Sam won the trophy photo.
The larger trunk presented tricky top bind for a crosscut saw. It would require two cuts. Normally you can make reverse keystone cuts and roll the billet out of the middle. In this case the proximity and angle of the root ball would force the billet to bind. We knew we were in for an “Oh joy!” day.
After amputating the smaller trunk, we applied muscle to the larger one. To maintain safe social distance we used the saw in single sawyer mode and rotated as our arms tired.
I have at least 10 wedges in my car. I only brought three because the tree was site unseen. We had to be creative to keep the kerf open.
We sawed from both sides to keep the cut level.
The “easy” part was over. This is where the real battle began. We thought we could lever out the billet with a log. WRONG!
While Venus hiked and drove back to the Piney River tool cache to get a couple of rock bars, Sam and I hiked to the bottom of the trail to clear a second blowdown.
Social distancing was a problem all day.
Little Devils Stairs is one of Shenandoah’s picture book hikes featuring several waterfalls, many creek crossing and lots of rugged scrambling. She’s on the trail, by the way. With this many rocks, I’m befuddled why the AT wasn’t routed through this canyon.
Rock bars are all about brute force and ignorance. It’s all muscle.
Sam’s look says it all. Thank heaven she’s a power lifter.
Victory. All that for this.
Here’s the backstory.
I thought all of my grandfather’s tools and gear were lost to history. Family legend was that my mother sold everything when she moved her elderly parents from International Falls, Minn. to her home in Greeley, Colo.
Last October. Location: My brother’s garage in Loveland, Colo.
Me. “Wow! A crosscut saw. Where’d you get that?”
Brother. “That was grandpa’s saw.”
Me. “I thought mom sold all of his stuff when she moved grandma and grandpa out here.”
Brother. “Not this.”
Me. “What do you plan to do with it?”
Brother. “I was going to hang it on the wall.”
Me. “No way. I could use it. I have a friend who restores old crosscut saws. I’ll ask him to fix this up and I’ll put it to work clearing trails. Grandpa would like that.”
Me. “I’ll make a box and ship it today. Where’s the nearest UPS store?” The truth is that I wanted to get it out of there before he could change his mind.
The story added a new chapter today. But, where did it begin?
Who was Jim Grant?
James Earl Grant was my namesake. Growing up, he was “Big Jim” and I was “Little Jim.”
Jim Grant was a lumberjack, teamster and avid fisherman who immigrated from Alberta, Canada to International Falls, Minn. to cut trees for the Minnesota and Ontario paper company, now Boise-Cascade. We’re not sure when.
Born in 1900, Jim Grant was a good and kind man who had lived his life well. A third-grade education limited his opportunities, but he worked hard and made the most of those that came his way. He lived to be 78 before succumbing to prostate cancer.
In reality Grant was my mother’s stepfather. He had once asked my grandmother to marry him, but she declined and later said yes to another man, also a Canadian. Her husband, John Wesley Jordan, died at age 30 of kidney failure in 1930 as the Great Depression sunk its jaws into the Northern Minnesota economy. In those days there was no safety net. She was 30 with three children and they struggled.
After arriving in International Falls with his two brothers, Walker and Clarence, Jim Grant cut and skidded pulp wood in Minnesota’s north woods until he was drafted in WWII. In the war, his age and lack of education led to work as a hospital orderly making beds and emptying bedpans at Camp Carson, Colo.
He loved Colorado and regaled me in childhood with stories of his Rocky Mountain adventures and tall tales of ghost towns like Cripple Creek. Later on when I was stationed at that very same Army post, the first place I went was Cripple Creek where I imagined his stories playing out among the mining relics.
Fortunately Jim Grant was a patient soul who truly loved my Grandmother. When he returned from his WWII service, he proposed a second time to my widowed grandmother and she accepted. He never could have become my hero without that unfortunate chain of events.
After the war, he purchased the saw I now have. It is a Simonds Crescent-Ground, One-Man Crosscut Saw model 223. The aux handle can be moved to the far end allowing for two-person use.
I found the saw in excellent condition, still sharp with very little surface rust. It wasn’t used enough to completely erase its factory markings which is how we know the model and approximately when it was made in Fitchburg, Mass.
The catalog says that this saw “will stay sharp longer than any one-man saw made.” It also notes “Large hand hole in handle permits sawing with mittens or gloves in cold weather.” That would have been practical because most of the timbering was done in winter when the lakes and dirt logging roads were frozen solid.
The light usage suggests he didn’t do much lumberjacking after the war. We know that he found less strenuous employment on the papermill loading dock where he worked until retirement in 1965. Thanks to a strong union, he had earned health insurance and a modest pension that he and my grandmother could live on in their own home for the rest of their lives.
Today Jim Grant’s Simonds model 223 was reborn as a working tool in Shenandoah National Park. When my time ends it will pass to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club where it will enjoy a long and noble life thanks to, and in memory of James Earl Grant, lumberjack.