The Story of Sara-Lil


Speaking of large hunks of metal and thermal mass:
When I was going to grad school, in Detroit, I was, (and still am) a connoisseur of used metalworking equipment.
("....I am the very model of a modern metal scrounger....")

One of the biggest salvage yards in Detroit was a place called Sara-Lil.
(salvage, as opposed to scrap, but if you'd seen the place, you'd realize it was an academic distinction.)

Sara-lil was run by a guy named Harold. (I suspect Sara-lil was his wife.) In 1948, when DeSoto went out of business, Harold bought the factory building down on Warren. (Now deep into the Detroit DMZ.) The factory building had some bays that were 2 stories tall, and was 11+ acres under one sawtooth roof. For the next 50 years, Harold bought and sold used machine tools. For those same 50 years, Harold did not maintain the building in any noticeable fashion. When I saw it in the spring of '94, the city of Detroit had had it condemned, and was threatening to demolish it before simple gravity could. Harold was still gaily selling used machines out of this wreck.

The winter of '93-94 was just savage in Detroit. We had a month (Feb) where the highs were in the -5F range. So in early March, I get a lead on an old screw press down there. (a screw press consists of a press frame, in this case looking like an upside down horse-shoe, with a nut in the top, through which a high-helix screw passes. There is a ram riding the end of the screw, and a flyweight on the other end. The idea is to get the flyweight moving, and then the ram will be forced down by the screw. No real force is applied until the ram meets resistance, at which point the rotational momentum of the flywheel unloads all at once. BANG! Very useful tool to have. This particular one weighs in at 2200 pounds, and has a 5-600 pound flywheel, 40" in diameter. (running on a 4" thick screw that drops at about 1:1.) The initial energy spike as the wheel unloads is just unholy. I'm guessing the initial strike at about 90K PSI. It also stands 7 feet tall with the wheel all the way down. It's easily the largest screw press I've ever seen, by at least 200%.)



A couple of pictures of the ram of the press, after I spent a summer rebuilding it
I eventually ended up moving to California, and had to leave it in mothballs in Columbus.
After it started to crush the concrete floor of the garage,
I sold it off to a friend of a friend in Arkansas who's using it to mint very cool elvish coins.
(you can see photos of it in his shop here.)


I hear that there's a monster screw press to be had by rooting around down at Harold's. So I go down there. It being March, the air temps are still -20F. Somehow the (people) door on this place had become unserviceable. (the roof fell on it, I think.) So they'd taken a super heavy forklift, and bashed a hole in the wall as an entrance. To get in, I walked through a gaping hole in the wall with a chain-link fence as a door, and then walked across the moat.
No really, a moat. The roof mostly was there in name only, so the floor was covered in water. It being Detroit, and also being winter, the floor was frozen 3" deep in ice. Harold's minions had sensibly enough, (for them anyway.) ripped some access hatch covers off some of the bigger machines, and had strewn these on the floor as stepping stones. Once I got in, the place was unreal. It was like something out of Mad Max. Monster machines rusting in piles as far as the eye could see. Great aisles of antique machinery. Lathes 40 feet long, shapers as big as a Winnebago. And then I found....Press Henge.

Over in the tall section of the building, Harold had been squirreling away 100 tonne knuckle presses. He must have had 20 of them. A knuckle press is a monster automotive press. They use it for stamping out entire hoods or sides in one shot. They're about 20 x 30 feet on the base, and two stories tall. The real capper is that they've got a king gear on the top that's about 10 feet in diameter. These machines were all junked, except for the cast frames, because of the storage conditions, but they were still impressive. Just this double row of hulking shapes looming off into the gloom. It really was sort of like an American industrial version of Stone Henge. Harold kept his semi's parked in between the press rows, and they looked positively puny compared to those presses. Given the temp, and the condition of the roof, most of them had ice falls dripping over them, which added to the oddness. Looked sort of like cake frosting, actually.

After about 30 minutes of tramping around on solid frozen concrete, my feet were about to pack it in, so I found my press, under about 3 gallons of ancient grease. Dickered with Harold's minions, and reached an agreement. Ran back to the truck to warm up, with the understanding that I'd take the press out sometime before June. (It'd been there for 20+ years, so it wasn't like there was any rush. Besides, it was frozen 8" deep into the glacier on the floor, and I didn't have an ice-axe with me.)

It gets to be late March. I get a frantic call from Harold: The city's finally (after years) gotten serious about making Harold move and demolish the building, and I've just got to come get the press, right away.
I had spring break coming up in a week, so I said I'd come get it as soon as I could rig up a way to move it down to Columbus. (I wound up paying more to move it than I did to buy it.)

Much scheming later, I drive my truck into the building to load the press onto a flatbed trailer.
(I love my truck, it can tow 5 tonnes.)
This was the first, or maybe second day of decent weather that spring. So, of course, it was the day the roof melted.

Remember that I said the roof was a sawtooth? Well, all the glass was out of it, so the 3 feet of snow and ice on the roof just melted and ran right down the slope and into the building. (Or in some really spectacular cases, avalanched right on in.) Imagine ribbons of waterfall, as far as you can see in the gloom. Of course, the inside of the building still contained several thousand tonnes of machinery that had spent months at -20F. Mere sunlight was not sufficient to do more than cause feeble laughter among the frozen titans. So it's foggy, the roof's raining in in sheets, and as it hits the machines, it instantly freezes, and starts building ice stalagmites back up to the roof. Really wild sight. I tried to take pictures: it was still cold enough in there to freeze my camera's batteries before I could get even one shot. I was in there a few weeks later, when the average outside temp was into the 60's, and there was still snow in some of the deeper areas. The pictures you see here are from that trip. The only time my camera didn't freeze solid.

As I was loading, I went out for lunch, then had to climb back in through the hole in the wall, (as opposed to driving up the dock.) It was sunny and 50ish outside, and as I clambered through the hole, I got slammed with this wind from across the machines, and it's COLD. It was the weirdest thing; it was like wind over a grave, only worse. As a metaphor, it was perfect: the wind over the frozen grave of industrial Detroit. When all the big factories went down in the 70's, Harold bought their gear, and put it into the old DeSoto plant, so these were the machines that built old Detroit, and here they were in this frozen wasteland. When I say thousands of tonnes, I'm not kidding. Each of the knuckle presses weighs 100K pounds, and there were 20 of them, as well as most of a city-block packed solid with other pieces of heavy iron.

This was all in aid of explaining the exact nature of the sensation of that wind through the door. I get the feeling I didn't quite manage it. It was the sort of place that had to be experienced to be believed.



A photo from inside Sara-Lil on that last trip in early May, 1994. A friend from grad-school for scale.



Monster lathe with 20+ foot bed. My friend is hiding in the shadows by the tailstock for scale.
Note that this is early May, and the floor is still frozen. That huge shadow behind her is a shaper.
It's roughly the size of a small winebago. This went on for 11 square acres.