Shared Stories: Life at the Sawmill

After World War II, Belle Fluhart’s young family lived near the sawmill where her husband worked. Conditions were primitive, but she made the place a home. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Belle Fluhart

I had the ability to take whatever situation I found myself in, do whatever I could to improve it, and be happy and content.  I was able to pass this on to George and Jimmy.  We were a real cute little family.  Always smiling, always happy.

Everyone liked us except Uncle Bert and George’s father, Selden.  Selden loved George and Jimmy, but he never called me anything but “George’s wife.”

We were living in the redwoods in Northern California.  We were out in the woods.  REALLY out in the woods.  

We had no water, no electricity, and no plumbing.  The three of us, my husband George, my five-year-old son Jimmy, and I were living in a 9’ X 12’ tent by the sawmill.  George had dug a moat around the bottom of the tent so that the almost daily rain would run off and down the hill.

I was doing the cooking for my little family, plus George’s father, and his Uncle Bert.  The cook stove was a big black cast iron range, fueled by wood, sitting on the ground with a makeshift wood canopy to shed the rain.

As long as I was cooking for everyone Uncle Bert bought the groceries.  He never took me to the store, just had me make a list.  Uncle Bert’s attitude toward a woman was that she was a work-horse, not entitled to any appreciation, no matter what she did.

A neighbor stopped by to tell me that there was a makeshift, one-room cabin nearby that was only a little better than the tent.   He was a tall man taking huge strides.  I didn’t care how “little better” it was, I was running to keep up with him.  

We arrived at the structure.  It was board and batten on the outside, with nothing on the inside, a roughhewn door, with no porch or steps.  And, horror of horrors – no window!!

But to say I was thrilled was an understatement.  I had brought with me a room-sized rug, our beds, an oil heater, and a travel-trailer-size propane range.  I could make a real nice little home for us here.  George set about building a table to set against the wall and a bench.  

I sent George to fill my 13-gallon propane tank and fuel oil for the heater.

I told George, “I cannot live without a window.”  He came in with a wind-wing out of an old wrecked car, and said, “Where do you want your window?”

I said, “Right here where I’ll be fixing supper.  I can see you walking up from the mill.”  He immediately cut a hole for it and I had a window.

Uncle Bert didn’t see why I wanted a propane range when there was plenty of firewood.
Like the song, “Mama Don’t Allow,” I felt, “I don’t care what Uncle Bert don’t allow, I’m gonna have my propane range any old how.”

I had a Pillsbury recipe for “No Knead Bread” and was dying to try it.  I measured my little oven, side to side, front to back, and top to bottom.  There were two shelves in it.

At the one and only store, 15 or 20 miles away, I bought two very small loaf pans – about the size of a ½ slice of bread.  These would be good for Jimmy’s sandwiches.  I also bought two round pans for rolls and two rectangular pans for coffee cakes.  With careful planning, these six pans could bake a double recipe of the bread.

George had the stove set up, and as soon as George and Jimmy were out of my way, I started my bread.  When they came home, the bread was out of the oven cooling and smelling “heavenly.”

From then on, I baked bread at least once a week.  If I was not able to bake, and had to buy a loaf of bread, both Gorge and Jimmy acted as if I didn’t love them anymore.

My only close neighbor, who lived up on the hill, came and offered to take my now six-year-old Jimmy the 12 miles over the hill to the bridge, where the school bus picked up the students and dropped them off in the afternoon.

She said there may be a time when she could not pick them up.  Would I be able to go for them?  I said, “Sure.”  I had never driven alone, but what’s so hard about that?

Later on, the other mothers marveled that the first time I had driven alone, I knew what to do when I came up behind a slow-moving logging truck.  I had shifted down and crept up the hill behind it. 

I had learned something else that first time driving alone.  I had introduced myself to the other mothers and said that Jimmy Fluhart is my son.

Two of the mothers said in unison, “You’re the one who bakes that bread that is so good that all of our kids are trying to take something good enough to trade him out of his sandwiches.”
I didn’t say anything in front of the other mothers, but when we got home, I told Jimmy that, “I strive every day to provide you with a well-balanced lunch, but if you are going to trade away your sandwiches, I’ll just stop baking bread and you’ll get baker’s bread.”

He said, “I’m sorry, Mommy, I didn’t think about it, but you’re right.  I won’t ever trade away what you send in my lunch.”

I said, “That’s good, Jimmy,” and tried even harder to always bake.  When I did and Jimmy came home, he would come dancing across the yard saying, “My mommy’s making brea-ed, my mommy’s making brea-ed.”

When I baked more often, I tried to give some to my neighbor who took Jimmy to the school bus.  I was always rewarded with some eggs and/or something from her garden.

I was always excited when she included some tomatoes.  I told her. “There are two things that money can’t buy.  One is true love.  The other is a home-grown tomato.”  After that she always included tomatoes in her care package.

I had meant the bread as a gift in appreciation of her kindness to me.  But I was always so happy to receive her care package.