Russell-Akeley Life

Photos submitted to Times Observer The Larimer and Norton bat mill on Cable Hollow Rd. in Akeley as it appeared in the summer of 2017. Photo by Steve Horsley.

Batting For Akeley

White ash (Fraxinus americana) is a major component in a number of forest cover types where moist fertile soil is available, such as the forests of Warren County and adjacent areas of Pennsylvania and New York. In fact, the species have a broad natural range from Cape Bretten Island, Nova Scotia to northern Florida in the east, and from eastern Minnesota south to eastern Texas in the western portion of its range.

While white ash is a common component of the Allegheny Plateau forest, it typically is outgrown by faster growing species including black cherry, red and sugar maple. Among ash species, white ash is the most often used for commercial purposes, including furniture manufacture, tool handles, oars and baseball bats. You probably know where I am going with this. For the last half century or so, white ash has had commercial importance to an industry in Akeley.

Irv Norton worked for the bat maker, Adirondack, until just after World War II. In 1946, he and partner, Dan Larimer, a country store operator, started a bat mill on the west side of the Conewango Creek in Akeley, hoping to take advantage of the increasing interest in baseball.

Needing more room for their enterprise, the Larimer and Norton mill was moved to its present location at the lower end of Cable Hollow Rd. in 1950. The Larimer and Norton mill became the chief supplier of “bat blanks or billets” (unfinished ash cylinders that later would be further milled into bats) used by the Louisville Kentucky-based Hillerich and Bradsby, maker of Louisville Slugger bats.

Freight cars on the Penn Central siding in Akeley are waiting to be loaded with pallets of bat blanks from the Larimer and Norton mill that will be shipped to the Hillerich and Bradsby plant in Louisville Kentucky in this 1973 scene. Photo by Steve Horsley.

Hillerich and Bradsby subsequently purchased the Akeley mill in 1954 (Photo 1). They also owned plants in Ellicottville, N.Y., Troy, N.Y., Galeton, Pa., and Hancock, N.Y. All but the Galeton mill is now closed.

By the late 1980s, the Akeley plant was the largest one making only bats. In that time period, the Akeley plant produced 12,000 to 15,000 billets per week. The company always has catered to Major League players who were “fussy” about the bats they used and were always looking for uniformity of growth rings in the ash wood used to make the professional bats they used.

Larimer and Norton and Hillerich and Bradsby always have paid particular attention to the quality of wood used in bat making. White ash seems to have the most spring of all the hardwoods; it has the best combination of weight, strength, speed and spring. The typical ash tree has enough top grade wood to make two or three professional bats. These professional bats represent about ten percent of all bats made. The remainder of the wood can be used to make lesser quality bats, frequently sold in retail stores, presently about 80,000 bats per year.

In the mill, 40 inches long by three-inch diameter billets are made in two ways. Appropriate length logs either are bored with a special saw designed by Irv Norton, producing cylinders of wood, or sawed from logs cut into square lengths, then turned on a lathe. After initial shaping, the bats are kiln dried for about a month, then reshaped, because the drying process makes them somewhat oval.

Weekly shipments of about 10,000 finished billets are shipped to the Hillerich and Bradsby plant in Louisville, Kentucky, where final shaping of the bats on electronically-controlled lathes occurs.

Dates of Emerald Ash Borer Infestation in Pennsylvania. Source: Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Shipping from Akeley was by rail until Conrail abandoned the line through Akeley (Photo 2). Afterward, they were trucked to Warren for loading in freight cars. Presently, billets are trucked from Akeley directly to Louisville Ky.

During the 1970s, the advent of the aluminum bat reduced production of wood bats from about 7.5 million bats per year to about 1.5 million bats per year. The decreased production was in lower quality bats; top quality professional bats continued to be made as usual. One difference between wood and aluminum bats is that the wood bat has a “sweet spot” of about eight inches to produce a solid hit, while with an aluminum bat the “sweet spot” is about 18 inches. Professional teams use only wood bats. Efforts to convert professional bats to aluminum have been unsuccessful.

More recently, a new threat to the white ash wood bat has occurred. In 2002, the Emerald Ash Borer (Argillus planipennis), an insect that bores holes in the stem of white ash trees, was discovered in the Detroit, Michigan, area in packing material originating in China, Korea and Japan. In the past decade and a half, the insect has spread throughout Michigan and Ohio and into Pennsylvania and New York. The insect initially reached the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas in Pennsylvania and the Buffalo and Rochester areas in New York. In the past few years, Emerald Ash Borer has reached virtually everywhere in Pennsylvania and New York (Photo 3). In other states where the Emerald Ash Borer has gotten a foothold, virtually 100 percent of the white ash trees were killed. Larimer and Norton uses white ash timber at its Akeley and Galeton PA mills. The insect is a good flyer, but to date, it has been aided by careless transport of infested firewood, nursery stock or green lumber into an area. Jeff Eckman, who has managed the Akeley mill since 1984, says that when white ash trees are gone, they will switch over to other species for bat making. The Galeton PA mill presently uses maple and birch for most of its production.

About two years ago, Wilson Sports purchased the “Louisville Slugger” brand name from Hillerich and Bradsby. Hillerich and Bradsby is the only bat makers for the Wilson Company, and Larimer and Norton are the only billet suppliers for white ash bats. Unfortunately, the white ash tree in our area is about to go the same way as the elm, which also was devastated by an exotic insect.

Postscript: About 20 years ago, my wife and I were en route to the Panhandle of Florida. We stopped overnight in Louisville. In the morning, we decided to visit the Hillerich and Bradsby plant to see the finishing process on Louisville Slugger bats. One of the displays was a video on a screen that was about 20 feet long and 10 feet high. It showed a scene described as white ash trees in the mountains of a Pennsylvania forest, with a large ash tree in the foreground. A forester walked into the scene toward the ash tree, paint gun in hand, and sprayed a mark on the ash tree to indicate that it had been selected for bat production. Then he turned around, facing the video audience. The forester was Russell-native Joe Tarr, who was Larimer and Norton’s forester.

Thanks to Jeff Eckman, Manager of the Larimer and Norton bat mill in Akeley for his help with history of the mill and to Bob Long Research Plant Pathologist, at the USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station lab in Irvine for data on Emerald Ash Borer.

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ROAR November Meeting

Quotes are being received for the first phase of the sidewalk project ROAR would like to complete in 2019.

So far, the first of three desired quotes have been received for 88 feet of 4-foot-wide sidewalk. The new sidewalk would start where the current sidewalk ends and continue to the curb on Main Street. Two more quotes still need to be obtained.

ROAR members aided the township in clean-up of the walkway leading up the west side of South Main Street, then toward the Russell Elementary School. Grass and brush were cut, leaving a clear pathway for school walkers.

The ROAR Committee is combining with the Russell Lioness, the Russell Volunteer Fire Department, the Boy Scouts and the Russell United Methodist Church and area businesses to host a “Hometown Christmas” Saturday, Nov. 24, beginning at 3 p.m. with lighting of the Christmas Tree.

Then, follow the luminaries that light your way up Liberty St. to Main St. and enjoy the snowmen on your way. At 4 p.m., come to the Russell United Methodist Church for hot soup, cider, hot chocolate and cookies. The Conewango Clippers and the Chautauqua Shores will provide music and Santa will make a visit. The Russell Volunteer Fire Department will present their new equipment.

A “Make a Snowman” contest will be held in conjunction with the Hometown Christmas in the gravel parking lot of the Russell United Methodist Church. Contestants can use any media to make the snowman.

For additional information, call Sylvia between 7 and 9 p.m. at 757-8040 for more information. The tree lighting ceremony will take place at Larimer Field and the Hometown Christmas will be held at the Russell United Methodist Church.

Supervisors Report

The reconstruction of State Street in Russell is nearly complete. The street has been milled and a base coat applied. A seal coat will be applied next summer. Drainage work along the street is almost complete. There are some sections of drainage that still require fill work, which will be done this spring. Lawn and sidewalk repairs along the street also will be completed this spring. The supervisors are trying to develop a long-range plan for the reconstruction of all roads and streets in the township. This plan will help ensure that roads are routinely assessed and rated for reconstruction or routine maintenance based upon this rating. It is anticipated that the plan will provide for major upgrades to paved streets on a 10 to 15-year cycle. Funding for the plan will come from township funds with supplementation by grants, where possible.

Efforts continue to prevent groundwater infiltration into the sanitary sewer system. The infiltration leads to higher processing costs at the North Warren treatment plant. The township also has completed the paperwork necessary to enter into a pilot project to convert 25 street lights from sodium vapor to LED. LED lights provide brighter light at a lower cost. Once installed, the township will seek feedback on the lights from residents before consideration of replacing all street lights with LEDs.

The supervisors have developed a tentative budget for the fiscal year 2019. The budget is available at the township office for review and comment by residents. After the review period, the township budget for 2019 will be approved at the January Supervisor’s meeting.

At their November meeting, the supervisors discussed the relatively large number of residents that owe a significant amount of past due to water and/or sewage bills. It was decided to seek legal options available to the township to recover payment from the past due accounts. Also, the Supervisors are continuing with efforts to deal with property declared as a nuisance or blighted.

The Pine Grove Township supervisors meet the second Wednesday of each month at the Town Hall on East Street in Russell. The meetings begin at 7 p.m. Residents are welcome at all meetings and if anyone wants to address the supervisors, he/she can be placed on the meeting agenda by calling the township office at 757-8112 or emailing pinegrovetwp@verizon.net. Also, minutes of monthly supervisor meetings are placed on the township website once approved. The website is pinegrovetownship.org.

Fire Department Report

The Russell Volunteer Fire Department responded to a total of 15 alarms, 10 of which were calls for emergency medical services (EMS) and the other 5 were general alarms. Only two EMS calls were dropped during the month, giving the department an 80% response rate. The department also is on pace to respond to a record number of calls for calendar year 2018. The department is to be commended for their service to our community with a limited number of volunteers.

Pine Grove Lions/Lioness Club

The Lions/Lioness Club will be distributing all the groceries needed for a complete Thanksgiving meal to 20 families across the club’s service area, which covers Pine Grove, Elk, Farmington, Freehold and Sugar Grove townships and Bear Lake Borough. They also will do the same for the Christmas holiday. The Lions club will also be assisting the Pine Grove Lionesses in placing Christmas decorations at Larimer Park for the community to enjoy. They also sponsor community projects, such as kindergarten eye screening, and a scholarship for a senior who lives in one of these communities, as well as helping community members in times of illness or disaster.

Russell Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary

The Russell VFD Auxiliary is made up of 27 active members who work together for the betterment of the Russell Fire Hall and Firemen. They range in age from folks in their twenties to folks in their eighties. Meetings are held on the fourth Thursday of every month (except November and December) at 7 p.m. New members are always welcome.

The auxiliary raises money for the purchase of items needed by the fire department. They have two rummage sales each year- in April and September. Members also have an Election Day bake sale and a craft show in November. The auxiliary also caters for weddings and funeral dinners at the fire hall.

Some of the recent purchases the auxiliary has made for the fire hall include, a new industrial stove and a contribution to the purchase of the Department’s Utility All-terrain Vehicle. The auxiliary also has worked with the Warner Park Committee for improvements at the park.

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