The Night the Sawmill Burned
By William W. "Billy" Mahaffey
One night in the late 1940's the Cummer Sons staff and workers were awakened by the loud sound of the mill's wildcat whistle followed by two more blasts of the whistle. The wildcat whistle was normally only heard on Friday afternoons to announce that pay envelopes were ready. To hear its loud piercing sound in the middle of the night was not a good thing. It was a warning that there was a fire somewhere in our midst. That night we knew from the two whistles that followed the wildcat that the fire was at the saw mill.
Since my father was supervisor of the mill, it was a particularly ominous sound to the Mahaffey household. I was a teenager by then, and when I heard the whistle, I jumped out of bed and put my clothes on. My father and mother were already moving around the house. When my father saw me, he told me, "No, boy, get back in there. You are not going anywhere." My mother immediately followed with, "Jim, let the boy go." Then she quietly drew me aside and out of earshot of my father. She was worried about Daddy, for he had recently had a bad stroke. She talked quietly, but strongly to me as she said, "Don't let him out of your sight. Watch him, and if you see any signs of trouble, get help."
Daddy and I left the house and headed toward the sawmill with my mother's words ringing in my ears. We could not see what was happening clearly from our path, so Daddy told me to run on ahead. I ran on to the edge of the crate mill where I could see quite clearly that the saw mill was on fire. I ran back and reported to him, "It's the mill, and it's gone." Daddy did not want to believe me, but when we reached a clearing where he could see for himself he said, "Well, you are right. It is gone."
The saw mill was gone that night, and its rebuilding became my father's mission. To expedite the process, he drove to places all over the South looking at saw mill equipment. To replace what had been lost in the fire, he bought new pieces if they could be found or used equipment when new was not available. Once he made a purchase, he sent trucks from Lacoochee to pick up the equipment and transport it to the mill site. While few others did, the Lacoochee mill had a machine shop and a foundry. The skilled workers in those shops were able to quickly repair and rebuild the equipment as needed. The saw mill was rebuilt in record time. In fact, there was a lot of bragging about how quickly the Cummer and Sons Lacoochee plant was back on its feet. With my Daddy as ramrod, our mill was up and running even faster than a nearby saw mill where a famous mill builder was in charge!