Life In My Tuscan Village – Chapter 16: Working at the Furnicular

San Romano is located in the Apennine region of Tuscany a very hilly area with magnificent views of the surrounding mountains.  

This region was heavily populated with chestnut trees which provided our village with plentiful chestnuts each season.  Chestnuts were a main food staple for the village and not only provided food and flour, the lumber from these trees was also in great demand and used to produce tanning oil.

In the late 50’s, my father organized a business with a group of men living in the village and called the group: “La Diavola”, meaning “The devil” (in the female gender).  Their job was to cut chestnut trees, transport the cut lumber to the main roadway for trucks to pick up and sell the lumber to a nearby tanning oil factory.

My father would meet with property owners that owned parcels of land with chestnut trees in very un-accessible locations and basically not used for cultivation. Here the chestnuts would simply fall to the ground and eventually rot away into the soil.

By counting the available trees and assessing their size, my father would then make an offer to the owner in cash for what he felt was a fair price. If agreeable, he would then assemble his group of men and begin cutting down all of the trees in a very systematic way and get the lumber ready for transport down to the main drivable roadway.

As a young boy, I would tag along and watch the men cut down the trees. Using simple axes, each tree would be cut down by two men. Each man armed with his ax, would swing at the specified base of the tree and take turns on each swing in a very precise order. I remember the sound; it was as if the men were playing a song or church bells, each swinging in harmony, chipping away at the tree’s base. The tree would fall in a specified area as planned and make a thunderous noise.

This would go on for days until all the trees were cut.

Once cut, the trees would be cleared of the smaller branches, they would be sawn in shorter pieces of approximately 4 to 5 feet increments and then split in several equal or nearly equal pieces. The sawing was done using a very long saw with handles at both ends and operated by two men. In order to split the hard chestnut lumber, the men would use steel wedges and wood “mazzi”.

The “mazzo”, (singular for mazzi) was a wooden hammer with a long handle. Mazzi would be made in the village by the men using olive trees as the lumber of choice. The olive tree is a very strong and solid tree and it can take lots of abuse.

The men would find a suitable piece of lumber, cut it into shape. The shape of the “mazzo” is round about 6 to 8 inches in diameter and approximately one foot in length. It would be properly cleaned and polished, each end inserted with a steel belt to prevent it from splitting when in use, a hole would be drilled at the center of the length side and a sleek long wooden handle forced through it.

The “mazzo” would then be used in the same fashion as the ax. Using steel wedges, each man would take turns hitting the wedge into the wood using the same rhythmic process as used with axes while cutting the tree down.

The rhythmic sound of the “mazzi” hitting the steel wedges could be heard throughout the surrounding hills and in the village; it was the sound of hard labor.

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, my father gave me a job with the group. My job was to weigh each piece of the cut lumber and record it. Since these pieces were from 4 to 5 feet long and came from trees 24 to 40 inches in diameter or larger, they were very heavy. Wanting the money, my father would pay me regular wages of 1,000 lire for a 10 hr. day, the same as the men he hired as extra laborers. In the late 50’s early 50’s, 1,000 lire was equivalent to approximately $1 to $1.10.

I worked very long hard days, neatly stacking the lumber near the funicular where it would be then transported down to the roadway and placed on trucks.

My fascination was the funicular, the method of transport used to get the lumber from the top of our hills and mountains down to the drivable roadway.

Before I was born, my father had been a part of the group that installed the funicular along those hills and up to the top of the main mountain.

The funicular had two main linear stretches with one switching operation at approximately the center of the main valley.

A funicular is a transportation system operating strictly on gravity. It consists of steel cables stretched in a linear fashion along a hillside or a mountain. It is made with 4 cables; 2 larger cables are set on the top rail and are stationary and in a pulled tensed position. These upper stretched cables are held by wooden structures located along the hillsides and placed at strategic locations. The other 2 cables are smaller and much looser and placed directly below the stretched cables. These looser cables are the traveling portion of the funicular. These cables are connected to a flywheel at the top and a flywheel at the bottom thus making them one continuous cable. The flywheels are the center of operation for the funicular and are equipped with a braking system.

The brakes are made of a very wide softer steel belt that fits directly above the flywheel and are basically part of the flywheel as one piece operation.  A long steel handle operates the brakes and because of the great leverage provided, they work very effectively.

The other device that makes the funicular a great transportation system is the “congegno”. The “congegno” is made with a steel wheel that fits precisely on the upper cable. The body of the “congegno” is made with a flat steel bar with a middle slot and a movable end piece that rotates at the base and clips exactly into the slot. Once clipped, the two flat steel plates hold the lower steel wire in place by friction. Below the movable steel piece there is an eye hook set to hold a steel rope.

When the lumber was weighed, piled and ready for transport, my father would assemble all the men and additional laborers and put the funicular in operation. It would take a minimum of 14 men to operate the approximately 20 mile funicular system.

At the top of the mountain, one small group of men would put together equal bundles of lumber, tie the steel rope around it and hook the pile on to the “congegno” eye hook. The congegno would be ready and sitting on the upper cable and the flat steel bar would be hooked around the lower moving cable held by friction and ready for transport.

My job was to operate the flywheel braking system at the middle operation installation, “the Intermedio”  Here the loads would come down from the top of the mountain, the first straight section of the cables, once at the base, I would stop the funicular, un-hook the steel plates holding the lower cable and with the help of my uncle Lino, slide the load along a semicircular steel track that would stretch along the system and connect to the lower funicular section of the track making a  90 degree turn.

We had to push all of the loads manually and re-attach all of them on to the lower track for the final descent to the base at the roadside. The lower group of men would un-hook each bundle of lumber, release the rope and pile the lumber on to a transport truck. The empty “congegno” would then be hooked back up to the return line and sent back to the top for re-load.

The middle section operation was called: “Intermedio di Seminaio” The word “Intermedio” meaning “the middle”.

The operation of the funicular was a marvel to see.

When a load was ready at the top, a special signal would be given by tapping the upper wire loudly so we could hear it down at the Intermezzo, miles away. Once we heard the signal, I was given the go by my uncle to carefully open the brake system and slowly allow the funicular to start moving. The men at the top would push the first load down the slope and gravity would quickly take over. The operation was very delicate because a sudden quick stop of the flywheel could result in jerking of the congegno and a possible un-hooking of the bars holding the traveling cable firmly together. If this would happen, my uncle would yell and we would run for our lives since the free load would now speed down the upper stretched cable out of control and directly heading toward our Intermezzo location. My uncle would run and place a large piece of lumber at the top of the track in order to save the facility and let the load fall on the side. We would then run and take shelter behind large chestnut trees and wait.

I vividly remember the high pitched sound of an accelerated load coming down the hill. This load, many times would hit other loads in its path and a chain reaction would bring down two, three and sometimes more loads. When the load hit the base at the Intermezzo it was like a bomb explosion. Once stopped, my uncle and I would check the equipment, pile the lumber back on to the congegno and get it ready for the lower transport.

I loved operating the braking system because it gave me the power of being in charge of the entire operation. Thinking today why my father or uncle would give me such an important task, it was simply the easiest and less strenuous. Once I mastered the operation, I was the trusted operator.

I remember one day working the operation at the Intermezzo and after having pushed the load to the location for the lower transport, I was simply waiting for the lower steel rope to stop so I could attach the load. My uncle was operating the braking system at that moment. As a young lad and always screwing around, I was having fun holding the flat steel plate up and against the fast traveling steel rope.

The sparks created were my own fireworks show. I look back now at the risks we took, no protective gears, no glasses.  One steel spark hit my eye and a small steel piece of rope got embedded into my pupil.

That night I could not sleep nor close my eye. It took my father, mother, and friends an entire day to convince me to go to the doctor. The doctor ended up sending me to a specialist and he removed the piece of steel with a needle after numbing the eye. I remember being very scared and worried I would not be able to see, but it all went very well and the eye healed 100%.

The funicular system has always fascinated me. Here we had a true transportation system that ran entirely on gravity and required no fuel of any kind. Those memories will always stay with me; they shaped who I am today.

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