The Abandoned Ritchie Sawmill
For many summers in my youth, I would go to summer camp and then my brother and I would spend time at my grandmother's cottage and then visit my dad at the camp for seniors where he worked first as a director and later as an assistant director. The camp where my dad worked used to be a camp for kids which I had gone to for a number of years.
One summer, while visiting my dad, my brother and I set out to explore an abandoned Saw Mill that we had known about for some time. We discovered what had happened to the owner and I later wrote this short story...
It was a warm summer day. My brother and I sat on the back porch of my dad’s cabin at a Senior citizens camp, three hours north of Toronto, where he was working as the director. The camp was situated on the shores of Maple Lake. The main lodge was surrounded by a rich forest, walking trails, a dining hall that stood high above the water, and a sandy beach. From the porch where we sat, we could see the lake through the trees. A hummingbird hovered above our heads and drank some sweet nectar from the feeder. Its wings moved so quickly they appeared motionless. “Let’s take a walk, Dave,” I said, “you know, through the back field, to visit the abandoned Ritchie sawmill.”
We had spent summers here as campers over twenty years ago. At that time, it was a camp for kids. Now, the trees were a little taller, the Raspberry bushes a bit fuller, and the old buildings were rotting and on their way back into the soil. The beautiful director’s cabin, on a point overlooking the lake, had been struck by lightning a number of years ago - all that remained there now was part of the old stone fireplace. For many years now, senior citizens have been coming up here for a few weeks each summer. For many of them, it is the highlight of their year.
Now, in our late twenties, there were often flashbacks to when we were campers here. Playing games in the field, learning how to swim, sailing on a windy day, lying on our bunk beds and falling asleep to the sounds of distant thunder and rain on the roof, having cookouts on the island, paddling a canoe to explore the mysteries of the winding river, catching a frog in the creek, and singing songs around a campfire while roasting marshmallows on a stick.
So we headed out and began walking on the old trails that led to the backfield. There were many memories as we walked through spots that I had known so well all those years ago. “Remember the canoe docks down in the bay, Dave?” We stopped for a moment… My cabin mates and I were learning how to paddle a canoe, “That’s it, keep going in a straight line, use the J-stroke, now a sweep and head into the beach,” yelled my instructor as he stood on the dock.
Leaving the canoe docks behind, we walked over a small wooden bridge that led to the old outdoor chapel - rows of wooden decaying benches stood before a stage that was perched up on a platform; the wood was rotten and some of the boards were missing. The chapel, situated high on a hill, was set amongst towering Hemlock trees. We stopped and listened… “All together now,” chanted the rabbi, as he led a hundred youths in a Friday night prayer and song.
The path continued past our old cabins that lay in a heap on the ground. I saw myself standing on the porch… I had a towel around my neck. I was ready to head off for my morning swim lesson. Wet clothes were hung over the railing.
We continued to walk. The trail headed past the basketball court. Grass was growing through the concrete… The sounds of laughter and play echoes. There were kids running, jumping and cheering as another basket was sunk.
Now we were on the path to the field. Dave walked ahead of me. We waved to a few seniors. They carried fresh picked flowers in their hands. I thought, “So this is what happens to little kids when they grow old; after all that life, they come back to the place where it all began.”
The path eventually led out of the woods, and into large hay fields. Golden grass was waving as if to greet us. We walked silently toward the old abandoned Ritchie sawmill. The red barn in the distance, where we used to jump from rafters into a pile of hay, was still standing. The ceramic studio used to be beside that barn… I saw a group of smiling kids coming towards me through the field, holding their pottery. I waved, and, like a mirage, they disappeared back into time.
The old abandoned Ritchie sawmill was always a place of mystery. It was tucked into the corner of this huge field. Behind it was a trail that used to be a railway where my cabin would venture down, in search of old railway spikes.
The sawmill looked like a living museum. The care that Ritchie put into each building spoke volumes about this man. Each piece of wood, caressed by his hands, lay in its proper place. There was a small wooden house, surrounded by a porch. Looking through the glass window on the front door, I peered into his living space: a motionless rocking chair, a wood stove with an iron kettle resting on top, a small table by the side window, and a ladder to the loft. On one side of the house there stood a shed - it was stocked with weathered wood for those cold winter nights. Beside the woodshed was a tiny outhouse with a dated, time-bleached magazine in the slot on the door. Everything seemed to be in such perfect order. “Where was Ritchie now?” I wondered.
“Hey, up here!”
I turned as I heard Dave calling from the second story loft in one of the open sawmill structures. I climbed up the stairs and, standing beside my brother, peered out through the window. The sun was getting lower in the sky; there was an orange tint in the feathery clouds, and the golden hay swayed in the fields. I could just see Ritchie standing here watching this scene after a day on the job. Perhaps a place to unwind, to connect with the beauty, to find one last hope in the dying rays of the sun.
Ritchie had stood here, for a recorded nine years and perhaps more. My brother pointed in silence to the ledge beneath the window, where Ritchie’s fate lay etched into the wood; like the writing on an abandoned grave stone. I read:
June 21, 1981: Hazy and overcast. Sunset at 9:20 p.m. almost directly over Alex Larson’s house when viewed from this window.
June 21, 1982: 9:25 p.m. cold and clear, thin cloud bank on the horizon
June 21, 1983: 9:33 p.m., close, woven, colourful sunset
June 21, 1984: 9:30 p.m. Clear, cloudless and sunny, 68 degrees.
Jack Dryden dropped by at sunset
June 21, 1985: 9:25 p.m. Dull Sultry - overcast and light haze, can’t see sunset, frogs singing
June 21, 1986: Saturday, 8:45 p.m. clouded over and heat haze. Threatening rain.
Sun blocked by cloudbank.
June 21, 1987: Sunday - light hazy clouds on horizon. Looks like rain due soon,
Orange/pink globe on horizon, 9:05 p.m., just to the right of Alex Larson’s farmhouse, 73 degrees.
Calm and humid
signed J.S. Ritchie
June 21, 1988: Home but had visitors and missed the sunset
June 21, 1989: Warm and sultry
Hazy overcast, 78 degrees at 6 p.m., dusk at 9:00 p.m.
June 21, 1990: J.S.Ritchie took his, died, March 21, 1990, at his Swords Road sawmill
Lifting my head, I noticed my brother looking out the window. I followed his glance and saw the warm August sun sinking towards the old Larson farmhouse. We stood there in silence, as if we had known Ritchie for many years: a man with a vision of cutting logs, a tiny sawmill, a little home in the country, and a follower of the summer solstice.
As I looked into the fields, I saw those kids running free, playing games, holding their pottery - proudly molded by their tiny hands. Those little hands that would grow, see, touch, and create so much in life.
My brother and I slowly walked down the creaky stairs. The faint sounds of song from the chapel beckoned us. The birds were chirping from the towering Hemlock trees.
Into the field we ran.
- Signed, R.M. Berger, Dec. 21, 1995 - Winter Solstice