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Bill Thayer

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Part I
Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
One Man's Fight
for a Better Navy

Holden A. Evans
[Former Naval Constructor, U. S. N.]

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part I
Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part I

 p9  Chapter II

Escape from the Piney Woods

Life was different now for the Evans family. We dismissed all the servants and moved into the little house. Even our dear Miss Alice, the governess, had to go. The county school was very poor, but it was all that offered. Fortunately for her, my oldest sister, Cora, had just finished college. She was a handsome young woman, with a brilliant mind. She was engaged to marry Mr. Varner, a man of wealth and family living in Tuskegee, Ala.

Father had secured the position of manager in a large sawmill at Bay Point, near Pensacola. He could visit his family at Bluffsprings only occasionally. My mother and sisters did all the housework. I was not yet ten, but I was the only "man" on the place, and to me fell the outside work, which meant the garden and the firewood.

The garden I loved, but the wood was an abomination to me. We bought the wood in loads of small pine and oak logs, and it was my job to cut it up with bucksaw, ax and hatchet. It seemed to me then that no stoves and fireplaces in the world consumed so much wood as ours. Gone were sleepy mornings in a warm bed. It was breakfast at six, then bring in the wood, gather vegetables and do other garden work, then school. After school, the garden and the woodpile once more. After supper was finished, I was ready for bed.

Saturday was important. If I could get ahead with the garden and the firewood supply in the morning, in the afternoon I could go rabbit-hunting with my chum, Leon McLaughlin. We smoked the rabbits out of hollow trees or shoved up forked  p10 sticks and twisted them in their fur to bring them down for Leon's two fice dogs. Cruel sport, no doubt, but I have seen crueler at fox hunts in Virginia and England.

The six‑months' summer vacation gave me plenty of time for the garden and other pleasurable activities, since now I had to cut only stovewood for the kitchen. I planted nearly an acre to sweet potatoes. A good rain came on just after I had set out the young plants, and in the warm sunshine that followed, the vines flourished.

Father came home on one of his visits, and I proudly took him out to see my splendid potato field. He looked it over thoughtfully and reached down to lift a vine. It did not lift. Stimulated by the rain, the vines had stem-rooted at every joint in the newly plowed soil. Father told me I would have to correct that condition immediately or get no potatoes.

It was back-breaking work, lifting every vine and breaking the strong, young stemroots without injuring the vine itself. It took me several days, from dawn to dark, but I completed the task and was rewarded with an excellent crop.

My melon patch gave us more watermelons than we could use. The surplus I sold to the crews and passengers of the railway trains, at fifteen cents and ten cents a melon. One day, when I was down to my last melon, a male passenger — I won't call him a gentleman or even a man — stood on the step calling for it. The train had started as I handed it up to him. I saw the dime in his hand and ran along asking for it. He laughed at me and went back into the coach. I learned something then about the depths to which human beings can descend.

I tried selling bouquets of wildflowers, but the travelers on that railroad did not seem to have many of the finer appreciations. Every penny I earned went for materials out of which my mother made my clothes. When there was no work, I caught some big trout in the millpond. No six‑foot sailfish I ever landed  p11 in the Gulf Stream off Boca Raton ever gave me the thrill I experienced then.

That first summer of straitened existence wore away. Sister Cora was to be married to Mr. Varner, and for the wedding Father rented a house in Pensacola. Shortly afterwards we moved to Bay Point, where we occupied the house of the manager of the mills.

Father's employers were the Piaggio Brothers, members of the celebrated Genoa family. They were in Florida temporarily to add to their already considerable wealth. They recognized Father's ability and treated him with consideration. Bay Point, with its large liveoaks hung with Spanish moss and its sea breezes from every quarter, was such a pleasant spot that one of the Piaggios maintained a summer home there.

For me Bay Point meant an enjoyable acquaintance­ship with young Henry Piaggio. He frequently had me to lunch in the Piaggios' charming home. The first luncheon embarrassed me. I had never seen a meal served in courses and did not know what to do with the numerous knives and forks. Besides, all the conversation was in Italian.

Noticing my confusion, Mrs. Piaggio asked, "Don't you speak any Italian?"

"No, ma'am," I said. "Only English."

The talk at once turned into English, which was gentle consideration for a waif of a boy guest, dressed in home-made clothes. I well remember the delicious dessert — fresh pineapple served in a heavy wine. It was my first taste of any wine.

At Bay Point there was no school at all, but good news came from Tuskegee. My sister and her new husband would take me to live with them, and I could attend the excellent Tuskegee school kept by Professor Fonville.

The Varner home is one of the really beauti­ful mansions of the old South. Recently I visited my relations who still live in  p12 it, and the grand old place seemed to me even more beauti­ful than it was when I first saw it as an eleven-year‑old boy in 1883, which reverses the usual experience of those who revisit the scenes of their youth. It was a populous house then, full of servants and the Varners themselves — my sister Cora and her husband, his brother, Mr. Edward Varner, their sister, Mrs. Alexander, and her son Ted.

When I was introduced to Mrs. Alexander, she said, "I am your Aunt Lou." Nobody ever had a lovelier or kinder aunt. Ted Alexander was my own age, and we began a fast friendship that has lasted through life. Years later, when I was launching a large ship at Baltimore, it was my great pleasure to bring Ted's beauti­ful wife to serve as the vessel's sponsor.

Mr. Fonville was an excellent teacher, and I advanced rapidly in school. My physical condition also improved. It was the first real school I had known, and at first I did not do so well among the boys. I had been brought up with my sisters, played no games, and was not athletic. My only chum had been a Cracker boy in the woods. But Ted Alexander was a natural leader, the most popular boy in school, and the others accepted me as his friend.

But it soon came to an end. Life in the South was still precarious, and during the year my brother-in‑law met financial reverses. My sister could no longer help me. There was better news from home. Father had at length gathered himself together and was making a new, independent start in lumbering. He had no capital, but his ability was known, and his credit was good. He had resigned at Bay Point and, entirely on credit, had bought a small sawmill and ten thousand acres of timber land.

The mill was deep in the woods, 108 miles east of Pensacola and not far beyond the Choctawhatchee River, at a place which the railway, having put in a switch, was calling Bonifay.  p13 Father had already put up a small house there and had moved out the family. I came home in June, 1884, and at once Father had a grave talk with me. He had bought the timber from the railroad at a very low price — $1.10 an acre. They had given him a long time to pay for it; but, on the other hand, the mill machinery must be paid for promptly. Export demand was now good and lumber prices up. While the operation was already showing excellent profits, every penny had to go for the machinery.

I accepted the situation with good grace. There was no school here in Bonifay, there would be no money for some time to send me away to school. I went to work for Father, taking charge of the commissary and keeping the simple books required. I was also the acting postmaster.

The mill continuing to prosper and my own future now somewhat dubious, I decided to learn the sawmill business. I persuaded Father that he needed a real bookkeeper for our accounts and to make the report to the Pensacola exporters of our cuts and shipments. The regular marker in the mill was getting $1.25 a day. Though I was but a boy of 13, I had been around the sawmills long enough to know yellow-pine lumber and its specifications. I told Father I would take on the marker's job for $1.00 a day.

Father agreed and hired a competent man for the store and books. Meanwhile I had provided myself with the heavy lead crayon and was standing beside the mill marker, who was to be moved to other work, practicing rapid marking.

In a small mill the most important man is the sawyer. Upon him depends both the amount of finished lumber obtained from the logs and the total amount cut in a day. He regulates the speed of the mill and the quality of its output, too. On a board before him he has a bill of the material to be cut. As a log comes rolling onto the carriage he must swiftly judge it, noting any  p14 bend, wind-shake, the amount of sapwood, and other defects. Then he must determine how to saw up the log to obtain the maximum amount of timber that will pass the specifications of the bill of material.

A simple example will illustrate. Practically every yellow-pine tree has a wind-shake, which is a split between two annular rings presumably caused by wind action when the tree is young. Suppose we are cutting "deals" — 3‑by‑10's and 4‑by‑10's. If a cut is started the wrong way, every deal will be split, and not a single good one can be obtained. If the cut is started the right way, the defect can be limited to one piece or even be put in the center of a heavy piece, where an inspector will pass it.

The sawyer has only a moment in which to size up the log and make his decision. From the big saw the cut timber falls on the rolls and keeps going past the marker and trimming as we saw until it reaches the yard and is piled. If the sawyer is slow, he slows up the whole gang.

Without a good sawyer no mill can be success­ful. In the middle 80's our sawyer was paid $10 a day and no lost time, while the next highest pay in the mill was $1.50 and the usual pay $1.00 a day.

The marker is also important. Though his pay is not high, a poor marker can be the most expensive hand in the mill. He stands alongside the rolls, a rule in his pocket and a large, hexagonal, black crayon in his hand. As the cut piece drops to the rolls he must judge it, as he is the inspector for the mill. He must mark the piece where defects are to be cut out by the cutoff saw. If it is wholly bad, which means not up to specifications, he marks it for the stock pile. Finally with his large crayon he marks on the piece its dimensions, then records it on his tally sheet.

One defect he always watches for carefully — scantness. A  p15 scant piece is smaller than its required dimensions and is always rejected by its inspectors, even if otherwise a perfect piece of lumber. If a piece is as little as one thirty-second of an inch scant, it will be rejected, whereas one that is as much as a quarter of an inch "full" — too large — will be passed. Material is always cut a little full to allow for shrinkage while it is stacked in the sun awaiting shipment.

Sometimes pieces begin falling scant from the carriage. The saw may not be running true, or there may have been too much overhang on the last block, and the piece on the carriage springs away from the saw. The marker must notify the sawyer immediately of this, so that he may correct the trouble.

Stock — the rejected material — is the bugbear of the mill and of the marker, too. Stock ties up capital and is hard to sell, except at low prices. The marker who sends to stock much material that could possibly pass the inspector, will soon find himself out of a job.

When I look back on it now, I marvel that I, a boy not yet 13 years old, could have filled the position of marker in a mill turning out 15,000 board-feet of lumber a day, yet I did, and acceptably, too. Father was satisfied with my stock piles; and, when the real test came — the official inspection before shipment — the rejections were small.

The mill hours were from six to six, with an hour off at noon for dinner. Everybody had to be on the job a few minutes early in the morning, for it was a hard-and‑fast rule that the saw must strike the log at the blast of the six o'clock whistle. Every evening after the whistle blew, I went to the store for an hour to help wait on the hands. My work week was never less than 72 hours. Later, when the mill had been moved, I added to this a two‑mile walk to work every morning.

Years afterwards, when I had thousands of men working for me, I became convinced that, everything considered, the  p16 best results in industry are obtained from a work week of 40 to 48 hours. However, when in the present day I hear agitators ranting of the dreadful hours demanded of our workers I feel something like a pain in the neck.

Two things occurred during the first year at Bonifay which, I now think, influenced me more than anything else to get out of the piney woods. I sent a hard-earned dollar to the New York World and received the weekly edition for one year. But I longed for more newspaper reading than that. Cheekily I wrote to the Jacksonville Times-Union and the Savannah Morning News, both dailies, offering myself as correspondent at Bonifay. This was funny, since "Bonifay" consisted of the mill, the commissary store and post office, our house, the sawyer's house, and the shacks for the Negro mill hands, and nothing else.

Quite unaware that their correspondent was a 12‑year‑old boy, both papers appointed me, sending me their editions daily in lieu of salary. Their correspondent seldom sent any news but did read the papers carefully every night, no matter how tired he might be.

Then, in the fall of 1884, there was much talk in the South of the World Exposition at New Orleans. It never occurred to me that I might see it. One day one of the Pensacola timber inspectors mentioned that he was going with two of his friends. I inquired about costs and grew excited. I had saved enough money to go.

Father gave consent, I bought a round-trip ticket for $7.00, and joined the inspector and his friends in New Orleans. For a dollar a day we obtained a large bedroom accommodating the four of us comfortably. Breakfast and supper we had together in a small nearby restaurant. For the midday meal each shifted for himself.

The Exposition entrance fee was enormous — fifty cents — and I determined to get my full money's worth. I was at the  p17 gates when they opened in the morning, and it was late in the evening when I left. I saw everything in the Exposition. The first electric street car in the world ran in the grounds, and of course I paid my five cents to ride on it. I studied the latest improvements in sawmill machinery to be able to tell my father about it at home. The Mann "Boudoir" sleeping‑car was on exhibition, the extreme luxury in travel. At the large Corliss engine, with its seven-foot driving belt, I asked so many questions that the attendants grew tired of me. I never did understand the operation of its complicated valves. Today, now that I know something about engines, I am not surprised.

Like a squirrel going unerringly to a store of nuts, I discovered the Heeno Tea exhibit. Here they served a cup of tea with a biscuit, free. I didn't exactly care for tea then, nor have an English wife and long visits to England been able to fix the tea habit upon me since. But by making several visits to the Heeno booth each day, I could save myself the cost of luncheon. Finally the attendants seemed to lose a good deal of their cordiality when I approached. I invested in a package of tea to take home, carefully asking for and writing down the address where my mother could obtain their marvelous brew. This gesture carried me by for the remainder of my visit.

After six days I decided that I had cleaned up the Exposition and that anything more would be a waste of money. I bade good‑by to my friends and returned to my home. But I carried with me the memory of the greatest experience of my life. I had seen a large city for the first time. In the Exposition I had observed a great deal of what the world was doing. I realized now that there were in the world for those who could command them, comforts and luxuries beyond the dreams of those who endured the hard life of the pine woods. I wanted to do something in that bigger world.

Father was sympathetic. He repeated his ambition to give me  p18 a fine law education. The mill was doing well and would in time pay off his debts. After that he could well afford to send me to college. It was a happy boy who took his place besides the sawmill rolls next morning.

By the following January I had saved enough money to give myself a term of four and one‑half months at Fonville's school in Tuskegee. I covered the whole year's course in this one term. It was my own money I was spending now — money represented by calloused hands and wiry muscles that had often ached at night. There is nothing that so miraculously sharpens a boy's intellect as having to work for his opportunities for education.

When I came home in June, 1885, I found another marker at the rolls. I helped in the engine and boiler room and learned the operation of simple machinery. When I was 14 I took a place on the saw carriage, "dogging." There was no mechanical "nigger" then for turning the heavy logs. Two doggers turned them with cant hooks. In a short time I could "throw a cant hook" as well as anybody. I also learned to set blocks and would take the head blocksman's place when he was away.

Bad times set into the timber business; demand off, orders scarce, prices low. Our mill could operate only part time. What little I could earn had to go into the family fund, and my outlook for more schooling grew dim. Some mills kept going, but my father no longer had the energy to get orders against the competition. A man now in his fifties, his health, as we were beginning to realize, permanently impaired by sunstroke, attempting a come-back under a crushing burden of debt — it was a losing struggle for him.

In the fall of 1885 I conceived a brilliant idea. The locomotives then all burned wood, obtaining their supplies from measured racks erected beside the railway by private dealers. When he needed wood, the engineer stopped, filled the tender, and left in a locked box on the rack tickets for the number of  p19 cords taken. Once a month the dealer sent his tickets to the head office in Pensacola and received payment at the rate of $1.50 a cord. I obtained permission from the railroad to erect and operate a wood rack.

The location of my rack was good. We had plenty of suitable wood from old fallen trees and limbs. At a very low price I bought a wagon and a yoke of oxen. There was plenty of labor for cutting wood. By loading, hauling, and racking it myself, I was sure of a profit of 50 cents a cord. I looked forward to the day when I could not only help support the family but pay for my schooling as well.

To assure the railroad of a reliable supply at all times, I loaded the rack itself and then piled many cords behind it for all to see. I reported my rack ready and received a reply that all engineers and conductors had been notified that wood would always be available at the Bonifay rack. I waited anxiously in the little railway station for trade to start. Train after train arrived and went on without taking wood. Only rarely did they stop at my rack.

I asked a conductor why I was being boycotted. He said, "The train crews all want to take wood at Cottondale."


"Well, son," he answered, "you go down to Cottondale yourself and see how to run a wood rack."

Cottondale was about fifteen miles down the line, but I went. The wood there was not so good as mine, but every train was taking it. I soon saw why. Behind his rack the owner had put up a shack, and in the shack was a darky serving hot coffee and sandwiches to the trainmen.

Today this would be called "unfair competition." That subordinates of a customer, who have authority to act, must be treated with consideration was a lesson I learned in business later — learned it so well that a complaint of unfair competition  p20 was made to the Federal Trade Commission against me. This is another story, which I shall reach at the proper time.

It took me several months to sell the wood I had accumulated at my rack. Then, unable to meet the Cottondale competition, I gave it up, my dream shattered.

That next spring and summer — 1886 — the Evans family lived out of the garden. With my wagon and yoke of oxen I sold cantaloupes and watermelons among the mill hands at Caryville, on the Choctawhatchee seven miles distant, where the large mills were still in operation. With the cash I bought essential groceries, such as coffee, sugar, and bacon. It is remarkable, though, how well one can live on young turnip greens, string beans, bacon, cornbread, and coffee.

Late in June we took in a short-time order for heavy bridge timbers. There was a heavy penalty for demurrage, and the mill had to be kept going at capacity to escape it. At that time the Knights of Labor were organizing the sawmill Negroes and had scheduled a rally at Caryville on the Fourth of July. The Glorious Fourth was then only July 4 in Dixie. The Civil War and the carpetbaggers had wiped out any desire to celebrate Independence Day. Some of our hands applied for the day off, and Father refused.

Then the head blocksman, a giant Negro, informed the sawyer that the Fourth was a legal holiday, and he was going to the Caryville barbecue anyhow. The man was sure that his absence would close the mill and give the others the day off, too. The sawyer knew I could set blocks, but he feared that no 14‑year‑old boy could hold out on this man‑sized job for the whole eleven hours. I assured him I could, and Father agreed to let me try.

On July 4 the saw struck the log just as the six o'clock whistle blew. The sawyer had warned me that he intended to drive the mill to the limit. He did, we made the largest day's  p21 cut in our history. When I tumbled into bed that night, I felt that I would never get out again, and I did remain there three days with poultices and liniments before I could work once more.

While I still kept my ambition to shine in the law, the prospects grew remote, and as an anchor to windward I decided to learn sawmill work thoroughly. I could already do anything around the mill but saw and file. The sawyer agreed to teach me to saw but doubted if I could ever learn to file and set a saw.

He began with me when the saw was "running cool," as they say in the mills; letting me handle the levers while he stood at my elbow to direct me. When I was thoroughly familiar with the levers, he let me cut off a slab under his direction. By the end of the year he could leave me and let me do work alone for an hour at a time. But I was still far from being a sawyer. I had discovered that sawing is a highly skilled trade and a good sawyer a great asset.

Business picked up in the spring of 1887. Father decided to move his mill to a better location, two miles away, and increase the output by installing heavier and improved machinery. The American spirit — more output, new machinery, and sad to say, often, more debt. The new mill ran full time, and Father told me I could now keep my wages. He did not need to tell me to save them.

By the end of September I had saved enough to pay for another half-term at Tuskegee. Father sad I should have the full year, as he would send the money in February to pay for the second term. I had been out for two years and had much ground to make up. Professor Fonville took me as a special pupil, saying he would give me all I could take.

And did I take it? I made such progress as to feel sure that I could do three years' work in one and overtake my former  p22 classmates the following June. But with January came apparent disaster. Father wrote that he could not send me the money after all. The mill was not doing well, and his debts were pressing. When Professor Fonville heard the news, he told me to write Father to send what he could and not worry about the rest. I could pay it when I was able. This generosity saved me. The dear professor, who is still alive, may be surprised to know that today I remember the exact amount I owed him when I left him in June, 1888 — an amount I paid him in full with interest some years later. It was $131.30.

But that spring I was having to face hard facts. The lumber business went from bad to worse, Father was harassed with debts, and Mother wrote that his health was poor. With the realism of youth I decided that his fight, brave as it was, would never succeed. Resolutely I put away my long dream of Virginia and Harvard. My only chance of higher education would be in one of the national Service schools, West Point or Annapolis. Without consulting anyone, I wrote to our Congressman, the Hon. R. H. M. Davidson, who had known Father for years, asking for an appointment to West Point.

I should have been surprised but wasn't when reply came back that there was no chance of a West Point appointment but that there might be a vacancy at Annapolis after the June examination, and, if it occurred, Mr. Davidson would give me the appointment. Not until I got home at the end of the term did I tell Father about this correspondence. Father did not think highly of the Navy as a career and urged me to forget Annapolis. He told me I would make an excellent sawmill operator. Besides, he assured me, Congressman Davidson would never appoint me. Davidson knew Father had lost his money and his political influence with it. He would be bound to appoint from some family that could help him politically.

Father was wrong. In July I received a long telegram from  p23 the Congressman telling me that the vacancy had occurred, that he would appoint me, but I must first telegraph him my full name, date and place of my birth, and other essential information. In my wild joy, I was all for replying at once, but now Mother joined Father in opposing this new ambition. Father said he had the promise of a splendid position for me in a large new sawmill about to be built. I agreed to sleep on it over night. When in the morning I was as determined as ever, Father acquiesced.

The message of acceptance I wrote out was a long one. When I took it to the railway telegrapher I was dismayed to learn that it would cost me several dollars to send it. I asked the operator what the letters DH meant, at the top of the Congressman's message. He said they meant "dead head," meaning that the message had been sent free of cost.

I said quickly, "Then send mine DH. If a DH message asks a question, the reply should go DH, too."

My argument convinced the operator, who was not used to taking commercial telegrams.

I was due at once for a series of shocks. I had supposed that my whole future was now assured. I had only to manage my own expenses to Annapolis, and I would find myself thereafter under the financial wing of the Government.

This was far from the fact. When I received the appointment, together with information from Annapolis, I discovered that not only would I have to pay my own way north but would have to put up $191 and some odd cents to cover the cost of my first outfit in the Naval Academy. Furthermore, when I read the scope of the entrance examination, I realized I could never pass it without intensive coaching. The Werntz Preparatory School at Annapolis had sent me circulars, and I knew now that coaching was expensive. I seemed to be stopped.

But Father, having passed his word to me, now co‑operated  p24 in every way to send me. We budgeted the minimum cost down to the last penny. I owned two yoke of oxen and sold them for part of the needed money. Father managed the rest somehow, perhaps at the temporary expense of a creditor.

A slow August trip from Bonifay to Annapolis in a day coach in those days was nothing to contemplate with pleasure. A sleeper was available in Montgomery, but such a luxury was entirely outside my budget. I found a cheap boarding house in Annapolis, Professor Werntz's coaching proved to be excellent, and now my capacious memory stood me in good stead. I crammed so tremendously that month that I passed the entrance examination without difficulty.

When I had made the deposit at the Academy for my outfit, I felt in my pocket. Only some loose change left — less than a dollar. But I was jubilant. My struggle was over, my future secure. No longer would my father have to make sacrifices for me. I was out of the piney woods at last.

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