Kevin Pool in truck then from left Bill Pool, Willie Pool, Gary Watkins, Rich Harding. photo by George Bredewater

Bill Pool and the Helmsburg Sawmill

by Bill Weaver

Bill Pool was fifteen when his family moved to Brown County. “All my mother wanted to do was paint pictures and play the piano,” he says of the artist Kaye Pool. “That was the reason we moved here. She was president of the Art Gallery for a few years, secretary, treasurer. She looked after it with the best of her ability. That was her life.”

Brown County has always lived by its trees, whether painted in their glory or harvested as timber. “I knew most of the artists,” he says. “When I was in high school I worked for some of them doing their flower beds. They all had to have flowers to paint.”

Brown County was different then. “More rural. There was quite a lot of farmland. Philip Bessire owned the second-largest apple orchard in the state of Indiana. All the high school kids worked at the orchard after school and I was one of them. One of his boys was in my class and we played on the same basketball team.” This was right before school consolidation turned Broncos into Eagles.

“We could have done better but we did all right,” he says modestly of what was a good team. “We won our sectional and were regional runners-up. Madison beat us in the final game of the regional.”

After high school Pool worked a bit at Arvin’s in Columbus before joining the service in 1962. He was stationed at Kirknewton Air Force Base near Edinburgh, Scotland, as a medic. His very first night the young soldier, “had just got unpacked and settled in when I heard square dance music across the way at the service club. I always liked to square dance so I went over and met Susan. It kinda went downhill from there,” he jokes about the day he first met his wife of 42 years. Together they’ve raised two sons, Willie and Kevin, who work with their father at the sawmill, and daughter, Melanie, a private-duty nurse.

After three years duty in Scotland Bill brought his family back to Brown County, working at the Chrysler plant in Indianapolis. They bought a farm from Charles Richards in order to harvest Christmas trees. “We’d had a pretty good year and I was kinda bragging to Charlie a little bit and said, ‘Someday I can probably quit Chrysler and just raise Christmas trees.’

“Charlie said, ‘Well, you could probably quit there a little quicker than you think, if you wanted to.’

“‘How’s that?’

“‘Well, you can probably buy this sawmill,’ Richards told the surprised Pool. “I’ve had it ever since.”

Pool had never worked in a sawmill before. “I’m a fairly quick learner so we did all right,” he says. “We had several ups and downs, like all businesses have.”

One of those downs came in 1987 when his sawmill burned to the ground. “It caught fire one day when we went home for lunch. By the time we got back it was virtually gone. The fire department showed up and it was too late. Wood burns pretty fast, especially if it’s dry. It was in the middle of the summer in one of those dry years.

“It took us almost a year to replace and rebuild. But we got it fixed up,” he says, as if there was any doubt. “It’s run better ever since.”

Bill Pool’s Helmsburg Sawmill is a full service sawmill. “Sometimes we do our own logging but the last three years we rely on contract loggers bringing logs to us. When the tree comes in here everything is used. Boards, sawdust, slabs, bark, foliage. Nothing’s left. In this day and age you need to take advantage of everything.”

Pool’s specialty is custom work, such as cutting timber for log cabins. “People bring the plans and we take it from there,” he says. “We take them out, notch them, and set them, and supply the materials to do it yourself.

“My sons do most of the cabin work now. I’m not able to lift those logs anymore,” he laughs “They’ve worked here pretty much all their adult life. They probably have as much experience with it as I have. I’d be hard put to imagine this operation without them.”

Having worked with trees from beginning to end product Pool thinks it’s the responsibility of the landowner to get the right contract with the company that cuts his timber. “It’s better in the long run to clear-cut but in Brown County you’re stuck with small tracts. You should take care of it in such a manner that you don’t clear-cut a woods. It’s a lot more pleasing to look at something that has been thinned out or cut in such a way that there are still trees left. Then down the road, in the not too distant future, you can have another harvest. That’s the best of the situation.”