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Brian Wayne Wells
(As published in the January/February 2006 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine)
Food, clothing and shelter are well known as the three basic requirements of human beings. Agricultural is generally concerned with the production of the raw materials i.e. plants and animals, that become the food for mankind. To a lesser degree, agriculture also is concerned with the production of raw materials for clothing for mankind e.g. cotton and wool. To a still lesser degree, agriculture may be said to be involved in one of the most basic building materials used in providing shelter for mankind i.e. wood. This is especially true in recent days when forests are replanted after harvest in preparation for another harvest of trees in the future.
Just as the development of the mechanical thresher/separator revolutionized the threshing small grains, so too did the sawmill revolutionize the lumber industry. In the early days of the settlement of the upper Midwest of the United States and Canada, homes were made from logs. However, a log house had a tremendous tendency to shrink or “settle” over the years. This settling was especially pronounced in the first couple years after the construction. Settling meant that windows and doors would not remain square and, thus, tight fitting doors and windows were impossible in traditional log homes. Only frame-built houses would allow for tight fitting windows and doors. As civilization came to the Midwest with more people settling in the towns and on the farms of the Midwest, the frame house became the rule in home construction.
This tremendous growth of frame house got under way in the period following the War Between the States—the golden age of American agriculture. This boom in frame built housing created a vigorous demand for sawn lumber. Thus saw mills sprung up all over the Midwest. Usually, these sawmills were located at the falls of a particular river. This would allow the sawmill to use the power generated by the falling water and a water wheel to power the saw. Additionally, the river would be used as a transportation medium for the logs as lumber camps cut the native timber of the watershed up river from the sawmill and floated the logs down the river to the sawmill. The water might be captured by a dam on the river just above the sawmill to provide a reservoir of water to power the sawmill through any dry spells. This “mill pond” above the sawmill also served as a storage place for all the logs that came floating down the river.
The wood most in demand for building construction was pine. Pine is a straight grained, light but strong wood. It is easily worked with a handsaw and/or a plane. Furthermore, it tends to maintain its proper dimensions and shape,once it had been properly seasoned. (Robert C. Nesbit and William F. Thompson, Wisconsin: A History [University of Wisconsin: Madison, 1989] p. 297.) However, pine was not available in all areas of the United States.
Because of these desirable characteristics, pine could be transported a considerable distance and compete economically with any lumber found locally in any hardwood community. (Ibid.) Any person that has tried to hammer a nail into a “native” hardwood board will recognize why this is true. Pine tree forests were discovered to be most abundant in two belts of land in the United States. First was the wide belt of land that reached from New England through the Great Lakes area, with Lake Erie representing the southern most fringe of this belt, and extending on to present-day northern Minnesota. (Ibid.) Secondly, there was the Southern pine wood belt which started in eastern North Carolina (Hugh Talmage Lefler & Albert Ray Newsome, North Carolina: The History of a Southern State [University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1973] pp. 100-101.) and arched to the south and including nearly all of South Carolina (David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina: A Short History [University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1951] pp. 3-4.)southern Georgia ( Kenneth Coleman & et al. A History of Georgia), northern Florida (Charlton W. Tebeau, A History of Florida [University of Miami Press: Coral Gables, Florida, 1971] pp. 42 & 52.), southern Alabama and southern Mississippi (Nollie Hickman, Mississippi Harvest: Lumbering in the Longleaf Pine Belt 1840-1915 [Paragon Press: Montgomery, Alabama 1962] pp. 3-11].
Lumbering of the northern pine woods began in Maine and followed the virgin forests of this band of land westward. The market for all this lumber was south of this belt where civilization in the form of towns and farms arose along the upper Ohio River valley during the early nineteenth. The cities of Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Louisville and Evansville were all build with pine wood harvested from the northern pine woods.
The state of Maine had originally led all other states in the United States in the production of timber. However, as time went by, the virgin pine in the forests of Maine had been depleted of trees. In the post-civil War boom in industrialization and building, the state of Michigan became the new leader among the states of the union in logging. Logging itself changed during this westward migration. Sawmills establishments started in the west tended to be smaller in size and there were more of them. By the 1880s the small sawmill had definitely “arrived.” Every little settlement in the west had at least one sawmill—usually more than one. Michigan led the states in lumbering until the 1890s, when Wisconsin moved into the lead for the first time. By this time, the lumber industry was big business and could strip a lot of land of their trees in a short while. By the turn of the twentieth century, the logging industry had moved to Minnesota by and large. Minnesota’s pine forests were not as thick as Wisconsin’s forests. Still timber production in Minnesota passed up the production of Wisconsin in the early years of the twentieth century.
As has been noted in other articles, Minnesota is shaped so as to appear on a map as a “tall” state which is wide on top and wide on the bottom with a narrow “waist” in the middle. This waist is a significant dividing line for a number of reasons. South of the waist is where most of the agricultural production is located while north of the waist is where most of the famed “ten thousand lakes” of Minnesota are located. The great pine woods of Minnesota are also located in the northern part of the state. To the south the forests are filled with deciduous hard wood trees rather than the soft woods—pine trees. The waist of Minnesota forms the boundary between these two different, distinct forests. Located in the waist, right on this border between the soft woods and the hard woods is the County of Mille Lacs. The town of Princeton, Minnesota, is the largest community in Mille Lacs County and is located on the southern boundary of the county. Surrounding, the town of Princeton in the southeastern corner of Mille Lacs County was Princeton Township. Within Princeton Township lived a particular farmer.
Our Princeton Township farmer’s father had settled the farm where he was now living. His parents had immigrated to the United States from the province of Botnia, Finland, where they had struggled unsuccessfully to make a living at farming. When the family first arrived in the United States, our Princeton Township farmer’s father worked in the lumber camps. At first, he had worked with the crews felling trees. However, in later winters in the lumber camp he had been working as a teamster with the horses that were used in the lumbering camp to transport the logs to the river. The logs would be tied together in a raft and floated down river to the sawmill.
Much as he had liked working with the horses, our Princeton Township farmer’s father had not liked the long months of winter isolation away from his family. Besides he had always wanted to get a farm of his own and work the land for himself, which he had been unable to do in Finland.
Saving as much money from his work as possible, our Princeton Township farmer’s father had finally moved their growing family to this farm. Basically, his parents had struggled all their lives to hew this farm out of the woods. Both his father and mother knew how to read Finnish. (Because of the strong educational system in Finland, the Finnish immigrants to the United States were, percentage-wise, the most literate of all immigrant groups coming to the United States.) English, however, was another story. His father continued to struggle mightily to learn English. He learned to speak it sparingly but was never really successful in reading English. His mother rarely even tried to speak anything but Finnish. However, both of his parents had insisted that our Princeton Township farmer speak English at every opportunity as a child. Nonetheless, their home remained largely Finnish speaking. His real exposure to English came when he entered school. His parents had insisted on him attending the small one room school in the neighborhood as long as he could. He had received the equivalent of a sixth grade education. That was the extent of the young teachers own knowledge. Whenever, he was at home and a English speaking neighbor came by, his father wanted his young son to stay nearby to help with the conversation. However, to satisfy their desire to read, the family subscribed to a locally published Finnish language newspaper.
Meanwhile our Princeton Township farmer had grown up. As a young man our Princeton township farmer obtained employment at a small sawmill located in northern Mille Lacs County on the Rum River. After a few years at the sawmill he had returned to the farm periodically to help his parents with the farming operation. Later as his parents had gotten older and needed more help on the farm, he had moved back to the farm permanently. In the interim, our Princeton Township farmer had married a local Princeton girl.
Moving back to the farm and living under the same roof with his parents, had caused some stresses in the relationship between he and his wife and between he and his parents. His new wife had not gotten used to the family’s practice of taking saunas. She felt it was a slightly pagan ritual.
The family fired up the sauna only during the cold weather seasons. Sitting naked inside the sauna, the body would begin to sweat profusely. When hot enough, the sauna bather would emerge from the sauna into the cold night air and roll in the snow. The body would be so hot that the bather would not even feel the cold air or the snow as they rubbed snow over their body or laid down into the snow itself. Since retuning to the farm our Princeton Township farmer had found the saunas to be a comforting memory of his childhood. Usually a fire would be started in the small wood stove in the sauna before the evening milking. When darkness fell and while the evening chores were still being completed, the women of the household would sauna first. After cooling off outside by rolling in the snow, they would warm up one more time and then head for the house. There they would take a conventional bath in a metal tub placed in the center of the kitchen floor. They would use the hot water from a kettle on the wood stove in the kitchen to heat the bath water in the metal tub. The idea of a sauna was to clean out all the pores of the body by heating the body until the body was sweating profusely and then quickly cooling the body to require the pores of the skin to close quickly. This, it was felt, would rid the skin of a great deal of impurities and bacteria. At any rate, it sure made one sleep well at night.
Following the evening chores the men would take their turn in the sauna. Sometimes to cool off after the initial warm up in the sauna, our Princeton Township farmer’s father might slip on a pair of boots and take a lantern and go to the barn to check on the cows one last time for the night. Our Princeton Township farmer’s mother often teased that he would scare the cows who were not used to seeing him naked in the barn. In reality while in the barn the warmth from the sauna would begin to wear off and his steps would be hurried as he left the barn and headed back to the sauna with the lantern in hand. After so long outside, it felt really good to get into the hot environment of the sauna again.
Our Princeton Township farmer’s wife did eventually try the sauna, but often she confined her bathing to just the tub inside the kitchen. Living under the same roof did cause some stresses, but this situation improved immensely when our Princeton Township farm and his father had added another wing onto the two-story Scandinavian-style house. He and his wife and their two daughters had lived in the west wing of the house while his parents lived in the older east wing of the house.
Being located on the boundary between the softwood forests and hardwood forests of Minnesota, Mille Lacs County was covered with both hardwoods and pine trees. On their farm, our Princeton Township farmer and his father always knew that there was value in the some of the trees on the farm. There was always a demand for softwoods. However, there was a plentiful supply of this wood. Although the price varied from time to time, the wholesale price of sawn spruce wood was worth around $19.00 per thousand board feet. Usually, the wholesale price of wood declined in the spring when the rivers thawed and the logs cut by the lumber camps all winter began to make their way down various rivers around the nation to the various sawmills. The lumber camps operated only in the winter time. Thus, as the logs were sawn during the summer months there were no other logs to replace them in the inventory. Therefore, as supply of logs dropped, the price of timber usually rose gradually throughout the summer, fall and winter until the next spring.
However, at the beginning of this year, 1904, the price of spruce had risen to $20.50 per thousand board feet and the price had remained there for the whole year. The price of some hardwoods was even more dramatic. Whereas, the price of plain white oak was usually around $35.00 to $38.00 per thousand board feet, since August of 1901 there had been a steady increase in the average monthly wholesale price of white oak without any downturns whatsoever. By January of 1902 the price had risen out of its normal range. In March of that year, the price rose above $40.00 per thousand board feet and kept on climbing to $42.50 in October of 1902. Last year in July of 1903 the price had reached the record high of $46.50. Rather than being a temporary spike in the price followed by a decline to the normal range, as might have been expected, the price of white oak had remained at this high level ever since. At these prices, our Princeton Township farmer began to wonder if timber did not have a better future than did the usual farm products they were growing. Especially, considering the wet growing season which had flooded out the crops just the year before, in 1903.
Recently, he had heard that the old sawmill where he had worked up on the Rum River, was remodeling and getting steam power. A new J.I. Case Company stationary steam engine and boiler would replace the old waterwheel to power the circular blade saw.
Located on the Rum River the saw mill had, in recent years, fallen behind in production because of the antiquated equipment the mill still used. The mill could no longer keep up with the supply of logs that were coming down the Rum River. The old sawmill was losing business to the competition from other more modern sawmills that had sprung up in the community. Now under new management the sawmill was being renovated and slightly relocated. A new building was being built next to the old mill. However, the new building was located back a bit from the bank of the Rum River. Because the steam engine would provide so much more steady power than the old water wheel, the new management of the sawmill was also investing in a newer and larger circular saw manufactured by the F.J.L. Blandy Company of Zanesville, Ohio.
The new Blandy saw was a “double saw” having an upper or top blade as well as the lower (head) blade. Two blades working on the same cut on the same log at the same time. This would mean that the new saw would be able to handle logs in excess of 30 inches in diameter. This was important because hardwoods were making more frequent appearances at the sawmill and some of these hardwood logs were very large in diameter.
The current Scheidler & McNarmar saw in the mill had a 56 inch blade. The Scheidler & McNarmar saw could not accommodate a larger blade. Thus, the sawmill was limited to logs which were no larger than 30 inches in diameter or less. This had been fine when pines and other softwood logs had occupied a predominate amount of the business of the sawmill. However, as the virgin softwood in the area had been logged off, hardwood logs had taken over. The new Blandy saw would be fitted with a 60 inch circular blade and would handle logs up to 34 inches in diameter with the head blade alone and with the new optional top blade the new Blandy saw would handle even larger logs. Therefore, with the new Blandy saw, the sawmill would be able to handle a wide variety of the hardwood logs that were now making up its business. The new management of the sawmill felt the new saw powered by steam was going be a vast improvement over the old sawmill and the waterwheel in the old building.
He had heard the news about the changes and improvements under way at his old place of employment. However, our Princeton Township farmer had not given the matter much thought until one of his neighbors approached him, in the summer of 1904, with some questions about the condition of the old Scheidler & McNarmar saw that the sawmill was attempting to sell. This neighbor was aware that our Princeton Township farmer had worked at the very same sawmill and assumed he might be very familiar with the operation of this particular saw.
The neighbor had been sounding out the farmers of the neighborhood, to see it a group of them might be interested in joining together to purchase the old Scheidler & McNarmar circular saw and using it in their own neighborhood to supply themselves with their own lumber and to make extra income by sawn lumber rather than un-sawn logs.
The old saw had been made by the Scheidler & McNarmar Company of Newark, Ohio. This partnership had been incorporated and had begun making circular sawmills in the 1850s. In 1881 the partnership had dissolved and each partner set out on his own with his own individual competing company making his own circular model of sawmill. Both companies, the Julius J.D. McNamar and the Scheidler Machine Works were both still located in Newark, Ohio. Our Princeton township farmer was intrigued by the idea of purchasing the old circular saw. Over the years, improvements had been made to the sawmill. The old 56-inch blade with 60 fixed teeth had been replaced by a new blade with 60 Goulding replaceable bit-style teeth. Replaceable bit teeth was a recent development in sawmill technology, having been introduced only fifteen (15) years before in 1889. If an ordinary saw blade with fixed teeth cut into the blade itself ever struck a metal object while sawing logs and broke a tooth, the entire saw balde would have to be replaced. However, if a saw blade with the replaceable Goulding bit-style teeth ever struck a metal object while sawing logs, the replaceable teeth might break and have to be replaced, but the entire blade would not need to be replaced.
Even our Princeton Township farmer’s father was excited about the plan to buy the old sawmill. It was the old lumberjack in him coming to the surface again. In the years since his work at the lumber camp, his memories of the work there had taken on a “golden hue” that had never been present while he was actually working in the camps. A few years ago, his father had been led by his memories of the lumber camp, to purchase a “big wheel” log carrying skidder.
With logging usually done in the winter, the skidding of logs from the site where the tree was felled the site where they would be loaded onto sleds for transport to the river, was accomplished with relative easy over the snow or ice. However, when a log needed to be skidded in the summer or on ground absent of snow, these big wheel carriers with wheels ten feet in diameter were very handy. Between three to five logs would be straddled by the big wheel carrier. Once in place the long 16-foot tongue of the carrier would be allowed to detach from its horizontal position and rise to a vertical position straight up in the air. Several log chains would be wrapped around the logs and wrapped around the heavy axle of the big wheel carrier. When the horses whose harness was attached to the upper end of the tongue were given the command to move ahead, they pulled the tongue back down to its horizontal position. As this occurred, the heavy axle of the carrier revolved and wrapped up the log chains and raised the logs off of the ground—usually high enough to clear any stumps that might be in the way along the path the big wheel carrier was to take.
Our Princeton Township farmer’s father had purchased his pair of big wheel carrier in order to carry trees out of some remote location on the farm to the sawmill or at least to a central location up in the yard near the driveway. Over the years, however, the pair of big wheels had just laid around the farm unused. They just took up room on the farm homestead without being of any use to the farm operation. Now, however, his father had renewed hope that the old big wheels would be put into profitable use.
One major problem for the neighborhood group seeking to buy the old sawmill, was to decide upon a power source. Water power was, of course, out of the question and a steam engine was far too expensive for them to consider purchasing. A cheaper alternative had presented itself, however.
The J.I. Case Company manufactured and sold to the public a sweep-style horsepower. The Case sweep-style horsepower could be configured for a 5 team, a 6 team or a 7 team operation. Our Princeton Township farmer was aware that despite the fact that one unit of horsepower was based on the work performed by a 1,500 pound work horse. However, not all of the horses owned by the farmers in the neighborhood were work horses. Indeed, a typical horse for general use around the farm was in the 1,100 pound class of horse. A horse of this size would develop only ⅔ of a unit of horsepower. When the “draft” power of the horse was transferred into “brake horsepower” by use of a treadmill in order to power a stationary machine like a thresher or a sawmill, the brake horsepower of a 1600 pound horse would increased to 2.13 horsepower at the belt pulley of the tread mill. The brake horse power of a 1,100 pound horse would be increased to 1.33 horsepower. The horsepower of a single animal in a sweep-style horsepower was less than the power obtained in a treadmill. However, the advantage of the sweep over a treadmill, of course, was that the power of many horses could be combined and converted into brake horse power for powering a stationary belt-powered machine. Considering the horses owned by each of the farmers involved in the sawmill operation, our Princeton Township farmer figured that the Case sweep would develop between 20 and 28 horsepower.
Currently, the Julius J.D. McNamar Company, was offering their new Model No. 2 Standard Single Saw Mill to the public. This Model No. 2 saw was the direct descendent of the old Scheidler & McNarmar saw our Princeton Township farmer and his neighbors were purchasing.
Thus, when the Julius J.D. McNamar Company advertised the Model No. 2 requiring a steam engine of only 16 hp. to 25 hp. for adequate operation, our Prinston Township farmer and his neighbors knew that the old saw they were purchasing would use the same amount of horsepower. Because this modern No. 2 Standard was nothing more than a newer version of the old Scheidler & McNamar saw they knew that the Case sweep, with its capacity to produce 20 to 28 horsepower, would supply more than sufficient power for the old Scheidler & McNarmar Company saw.
Furthermore, with his past experience at the sawmill, our Princeton Township farmer knew that once the saw blade was up to speed, it was only the rate of feed of the carriage, or the speed at which the blade was forced to cut the wood, that determined the horsepower requirements of the circular saw. Our Princeton Township farmer knew that, whereas sawmills with ample power could be fed at a rate that would allow the blade to saw anywhere in a range from 6 inches to 12 inches for every revolution of the blade. However, for sawmills with less power available the rate of feed could be slowed to a range of speed from 1 inch to 3 inches for every revolution of the blade. Our Princeton Township farmer knew from his past experience working with this same Scheidler & McNarmar sawmill that the sawmill was built to deal with small power sources. The patented variable friction clutch on the Scheidler & McNarmar allowed for a rate of feed that ranged from only ¾ of an inch up to a maximum of only 5 inches per every revolution of the blade. The secret was to keep the carriage speed slow and the sawmill could be powered by very little horsepower. After all, in his past employment at the sawmill, it was the water wheel which had supplied power to the saw. He knew that the water wheel did not supply a great deal of power.
Case offered their sweep-style horsepower to the public for the price of $260.00. An optional emergency brake was available for an additional $6.00. Thus, the price of the sweep-style horsepower was within the economic reach of the neighborhood ring of potential owners. It certainly seemed as though the planned purchase of the sawmill could be made and could be put to profitable use by the ring of neighbors.
Our Princeton Township farmer and his father liked the idea of purchasing the old Scheidler & McNarmar saw as a group, together with the neighbors. It was a natural tendency. (Figures would later reveal that Progressive Era [1900 to 1917] a greater percentage of the Finnish immigrants were involved in the cooperative movement than the members of any other immigrant group.) In this case, however, our Princeton Township farmer and his Finnish-American neighbors were not alone. Given the current price of hardwoods, there proved to be a great deal of interest in the neighborhood among neighbors of all immigrant groups, about purchasing the old sawmill. It was felt that the purchase of the sawmill, the new Case sweep and any additional costs of getting the saw operational would be more than justified by the current high price of hardwoods. So the group of neighbors, ended up purchasing the sawmill as a group and they transported the sawmill back to Princeton Township. By common agreement, they decided to store the sawmill on the farm of our Princeton Township farmer. Where they hoped to get the sawmill set up and running for the coming winter.
The Case sweep they ordered arrived in Princeton at the train depot aboard a Great Northern Railway train headed north out of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota). The Case sweep-style horsepower had the ability to be set up for operation with five, six or seven teams. The seven-team configuration required the longest wooden arms attached to the transmission unit in the center of the circle followed by the teams of horses. Because in the seven-team configuration the circle covered by the teams of horses was larger and the horses had further to walk to complete one revolution around the sweep, the speed developed by the sweep in the seven-team configuration was reduced from the speed of the sweep in the six of five team configuration. Thus, the sweep and the sawmill had to be tested on a few occasions that fall of 1904, to see that the speed developed by the sweep would keep the saw blade running at the optimum speed of between 400 and 500 revolutions per minute (r.p.m.). Only a few adjustments and modifications were necessary to attain this goal.
Our Princeton Township farmer was thrust into the position of authority when it came to the setup, adjustment and operation of the sawmill. This came about by unspoken common consent among the neighbors. They all recognized that our Princeton Township farmer knew important things about the operation of the sawmill. Just one example of this was the fact that he knew that the blade must be gauged with a straight edge. To be gauged the blade had to be removed from the “mandrel”—the axle to which the blade was attached.
Gauging with the straight edge would reveal any “lumps” or “twists” in the blade which would have to be removed by hammering the blade on an anvil. The blade was hammered on an anvil to stretch the blade at certain locations to eliminate these imperfections. However, the blade was not hammered to a perfectly flat state. Our Princeton Township farmer knew that for the blade to be absolutely “true” in operation, the blade had to have a slight dish shape. He knew that when the straight edge was held up to the saw blade, the center of the blade should “fall away” from the straight edge on one side and, of course, the center of the blade should “bow out” on the other side. As our Princeton township farmer knew, hammering was done to the center area of the blade to stretch the center area of the blade and create a slight “dish shape” to the blade. At this point the blade was said to have had proper “tension.”
Every circular saw blade, when in normal operation, would heat up around the outer cutting edge of the saw than in the center. When heated during operation the outer edge would then expand. If the blade has entirely flat rather than slightly “dish shaped,” the center would not expand at the same rate. Our Princeton Township farmer knew that this uneven heating of the blade would tend to cause the blade and the cutting edge to buckle.
In the words of his former employer, the saw blade would begin to “wobble around like a wet noodle.” Proper “tensioning” of the blade to make the center of the circular blade to create a slight dish shape to the blade would allow “room” in the center of the blade to absorb the expansion of the outer edge. During sawing operations, a properly tensioned blade would lose its dish shape and become perfectly flat and run perfectly true.
Our Princeton Township farmer knew these types things. It was the knowledge these things that made the other farmers in the neighborhood ring defer to him on matters concerning the sawmill—even though most of the other farmers were older than him.
The autumn of 1904 was especially long and mild. The true killing frosts really only occurred during the nights of November 6th and November 9th. However, daytime temperatures remained generally above freezing until the Saturday after Thanksgiving–November 26, 1904. Following Thanksgiving the temperatures remained basically below freezing day and night throughout December of 1904. The ground froze and, thus, sawing of lumber could begin in earnest in December.
Operation of the saw powered by the sweep required a substantial crew of workers and seven teams of horses. After the horses hitched to the arms of the sweeps they were told “giddap” in unison by the seven teamsters driving them. The horses seemed to work well together. The teamsters were kept busy walking fast around the outside of the circle holding the reins of their respective team of horses.
Two people worked with cant hooks to roll a log up the small incline and onto the carriage of the sawmill with the butt end of the log nearest the blade. The log was pressed up against the “headblocks” of the carriage and held in place by the log “beam dogs.” The winter of 1904-1905 was a typically cold Minnesota winter with a couple of very cold spells. One cold spell, which occurred in the second week of January, 1905, was memorable because temperatures plunged below zero every night during that week starting on Sunday January 8th and extending to the following Sunday January 15, 1905.
However, the worst cold spell of the entire winter occurred from January 21, 1905 until February 15, 1905, when the nighttime temperatures and some daytime temperatures remained below freezing for the entire cold spell–sometimes reaching in excess of -20 degrees below zero. Cold temperatures made the cast iron headblocks of the sawmill very slippery. Thus. the men working with cant hooks had to work with great care as they rolled the logs up into the carriage and making sure the logs were secured carriage by the beam dogs.
Then our Princeton Township farmer, standing at the controls, engaged the variable friction clutch on the carriage drive. Our Princeton Township farmer knew that the rate at which the log was fed into the saw blade was the whole secret of operating the saw successfully. The log had to be fed into the saw blade at a rate that would not bog the blade down to a speed less than 400 r.p.m. In order to stay above 400 r.p.m., our Princeton Township farmer would fine tune the rate of feed to match the conditions of each log. Usually a softwood log could be fed into the saw blade such that each tooth on the blade would chip away 1/8 of an inch of the log. In hardwoods, however, this was dropped to 1/10 of an inch and for frozen logs the rate of feed was reduced still further. While at the controls of the sawmill, our Princeton Township farmer, kept an eye on the size of the chips that were being created by the blade. He wanted recognizable chips and not saw “dust.”
Sawing lumber went well in November of 1904. It was a warmer than usual Halloween and the warm weather continued throughout November with one day in the middle of the month reaching 70°F. Only at Thanksgiving did the cold weather set in. Our Princeton Township farmer and his neighbors did manage to sell a great deal of the lumber that they had laying around their farms. They had even harvested a few additional trees on their farms and these logs had been sawn also.
After the crop harvest was completed on their own farm and the ear corn was stored safely in the corn crib, our Princeton Township farmer and his father had a chance to travel up to the wood lot and fell a few of their own trees for the sawmill. They would work a great deal of the morning with there two-man hand saw just to cut the notch on the side of the tree facing the direction that they wanted the tree to fall. Then they would work on the reverse side of the tree to cut toward the center of the tree until it started to make cracking and popping noises as the tree started to tip over. They would then make sure to “high tail it” away from the stump of the falling tree to avoid any “kick back” and/or roll, like the tree might do once it hit the ground. Felling trees was a dangerous job and a person had to careful. The job of felling trees was known as a “widow maker” job. All of this work in the woodlot on their farm brought out the lumberjack in his father, however.
Furthermore, to haul the logs from the wood lot located on a hill at the furthest point of the farm down to the sawmill, they were finally able to use the old big wheel log carrier that his father had obtained years ago. The big wheel carrier with its 10-foot wheels worked well carrying the logs over the ground which even by the first week in January 1905 was still not covered by a significant amount of snow. Our Princeton Township farmer’s father was very happy to see one of his original ideas finally come into fruition. All of this timber was sold on the market and had provided extra income for the family that winter. It certainly was nice to sell the sawn lumber directly rather than selling unsown logs to another sawmill. In effect, their little sawmill had cut out the middle man and allowed them to make more profit on the direct sales of their lumber. This was especially welcome because corn prices had turned down in December. Usually corn prices ranged from a normal high of 60 cents a bushel to a normal low of 45 cents per bushel. The monthly average price for December 1904 was only 46 cents per bushel. However, in January of 1905 the price fell out of its normal range to a monthly average price of 43 cents per bushel. To our Princeton Township farmer it looked as though the corn would have to remain in storage in the corn crib until summer. He might just as well sell as much timber as he could in the interim.
It seemed that the whole country must have had the same idea to sell timber while the price was high. The price of white oak declined and was down a whole dollar and a half to a price of $45.00 per thousand board feet as a monthly average for the whole month of January 1905, as all this wood came onto the market. However, the second week in January 1905, brought the first cold spell of the winter, as noted above. Also as noted above, since Thanksgiving, just a month and a half earlier, the weather had turned cold and the ground had frozen solid. It snowed some and because of the cold weather the snow began to accumulate on the ground. Every snow fall merely added to the snow already on the ground. The snow kept coming on a regular basis until by mid January there as an accumulation of 10 inches on the ground. It was a “closed winter” in Minnesota. Even so the sawmill remained in operation, sawing up logs from the neighbors.
The closed winter which shut down a great deal of the white oak timber production in Minnesota caused an increase in monthly average price of white oak back up to $46.50 per thousand board feet for the month of February. The winter weather abated in late February and suddenly turned unseasonably warm. A couple of days in late February reached high temperatures in excess of 55°F or more. By now some of the neighborhood ring was doing some custom sawing of timber for other neighbors who were not part of the ring. The members of the sawmill ring were able to make some extra income prior to the spring field work.
The price of white oak remained high and then in June started to rise still farther. It rose a full $1.50 to the monthly average of $48.00 for the month of June. The monthly average kept on rising. It reached $48.50 per thousand board feet in November, 1905, $49.50 in February of 1906; $51.00 in May of 1906; and $53.00in February of 1907. The next month of March, 1907 the monthly average wholesale price of white oak reached $55.00 per thousand board feet. In May of 1907, the price reached the unbelievable high of $61.50 as a monthly average for the whole month of May. Only in June of 1907 did the price of white oak recede to a monthly average of $57.50. Eventually, the price returned to a normal range only in June of 1908. It was a long five-year run of high prices for hard woods.
Because of the timely investment in the sawmill and the in the brand new sweep-style horsepower, our Princeton Township farmer and his neighbors were able to take full advantage of the this five year stretch of high lumber prices. Just like diversification of food crops on a diversified farm, the timber on the farm of our Princeton Township farmer and the farms of his neighbors helped provide some diversification and protection against the dips in prices of the regular farm products. The Case sweep had played a big part in making the investment in the sawmill profitable for our Princeton Township farmer and his neighbors.
Production-wise the timber industry reached its peak in the state of Minnesota in 1905. The largest portion of this lumber production was, of course, the production of pine and other marketable softwoods. As noted above, the hardwood industry carried on at a high level of production for some time in Minnesota after 1905. Nationwide, the tremendous increase in the number of small sawmills that had accompanied the logging of the virgin forests of the Northern United States. However, the logging industry was gradually becoming a centralized business and, thus, there was a reduction in the sales of small sawmills. Indeed, this reduction in sales of sawmills, persuaded the J.I. Case Company to cease all production of sawmills in 1920.
However, in the 1980s, there was a renaissance in the interest of the public in the restoration and preservation of old far machinery was really capturing the imagination of people. This interest in old farm machinery extended to sawmills. Restored sawmills seemed to be popping up everywhere. In the fall of 1980, a sawmill originally manufactured by the Melanounek-Deutsch Company of New Prague, Minnesota was discovered by Glen Michaels and Bill Wintzany, both members of the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association. The sawmill was estimated to be 100 years old at that time and was in a location near St. Clair, Minnesota. The sawmill was purchased by a group of members of the Pioneer Power Association. This group of members would be responsible for the restoration of the sawmill and the operation of the sawmill at the August show each year. The minutes of the meeting of the March 26, 1981 meeting of the Pioneer Power Association reflect that a motion was made and passed to spend $500.00 to have the sawmill restored and setup on the grounds of the Pioneer Power Association. Pioneer Power member Steve Helkeson, offered at the same meeting to transport the sawmill to the Pioneer Power grounds. The minutes of the May 28, 1981 meeting reflect the fact that the sawmill was indeed on the grounds of the Pioneer Power Association by that date. Additionally, a group of members, including Loren Lindsay and Jim Schultz, were already working furiously to get the old Melounek-Deutsch sawmill into operating order before the August, 1981 Pioneer Power show. The sawmill was fitted with a 50 inch blade. (This 50 inch blade is now called the “head saw” when in 2003 a second [40 inch] blade was added to the sawmill as an upper saw blade. This upper blade allows the saw to cut bigger logs than can be handled by the head blade alone.) Jim Schultz remembers that in 1981, the sawmill was finally ready to operate only a couple days prior to the August 1981 Show. The sawmill was demonstrated for the first time at the 1981 Show. In recognition of the beautiful restoration of the sawmill by the members of the sawmill crew and in light of the successful debut of the sawmill at the 1981 show, the membership of the Association decided at their March 25, 1982 meeting, to “feature” the sawmill at the August 1982 Show. Later following the successful 1982 Show, the Association voted, at the September 23, 1982 meeting, to approve construction of a permanent 36 foot by 54 foot shelter to house the sawmill under a roof and out of the weather and elements.
Interests in sawmills had also spurred restoration throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s of the historic Geldner family sawmill located on the site of its original construction in Cordova Township near the unincorporated settlement of Beaver Dam in central LeSueur County, Minnesota. The Geldner sawmill is not a circular sawmill, but actually dated from an earlier time when straight saws were powered by in an up and down motion by mechanical means to cut boards out of logs. This mechanically powered up and down straight saws known as a pony saw. The Geldner sawmill was dedicated in an open house ceremony held on October 17, 1982. Currently the Geldner sawmill is open each year from May until September and during this time sawing demonstrations are held every second Sunday of the month during these months.
In the early 1980s, Dave Urban, then of Mankato, Minnesota, bought a sawmill originally manufactured by the Howell Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He completely restored the sawmill. Most wooden parts on the sawmill were replaced with metal parts. All of the track for the carriage of this sawmill was made from the pipes salvaged from a steam boiler originally located in the Armour Meatpacking Company packing plant in South Saint Paul, Minnesota.
This Howell sawmill was placed on some heavy duty truck wheels for easy transport from location to location. A new 54 inch blade was obtained for the saw in Vinton, Iowa in about 1983. Eventually, this sawmill was sold to Bryan Jewison of rural Elysian, Minnesota and then sold to another party in northern Minnesota.
In the mid-1980s, Bill Witzany of rural LeSueur, Minnesota, who had been instrumental in obtaining the above mentioned Melounek-Deutsch sawmill, purchased another sawmill by himself. This sawmill was made by Curtis & Company of St. Louis Missouri.
This particular sawmill was unusual by the fact that the carriage was moved along the rails by a rack and pinion form of locomotion rather than the more typical cable and pulley arrangement.
Bill set this sawmill up in one of the buildings on the old John Nussbaum farm located on the Sibley County side of the Minnesota River just across from the town of LeSueur. (This saw can be seen in operation on the Nussbaum farm during the Christmas holidays of 1992 on the second hour portion of Tape # 2 of the International Harvester Promotional Movies. An Oliver tractor was powering the sawmill on this particular occasion.) In about 1999, this sawmill was sold to Randy Voss of rural LeSueur. The sawmill was moved to the Voss farm and set up again. A new 52 inch saw blade with carbide teeth was obtained for the saw and also a permanent power source, in the form of a 150 horsepower Detroit Company diesel engine, was also obtained for the sawmill.
Although the sales and manufacture of sawmills was considerably diminished after the 1920s. There were some sawmills made after the 1920s. In 1986, the present author attended the dedication and first public demonstration of the sawmill which had been recently rebuilt and restored on the grounds of the Mississippi Agricultural Museum, in Jackson, Mississippi. (This dedication and demonstration was captured on VHS video tape and is also included in the Second Hour portion of Tape #2 of the International Harvester Promotional Movies.) This particular sawmill was originally manufactured by the Corley Company of Chatanooga, Tennessee and bears the serial number of 7-B-168. The first digit—7— refers to the fact that the sawmill was manufactured in 1947. The letter “B” in the serial number refers to fact that the sawmill is a Model 395 sawmill. The number 168 refers to the fact that in 1947 this particular sawmill was the one-hundred sixty-eighth sawmill built by the Corley Company in 1947. This particular Corley sawmill is powered by a Model 471 Detroit diesel engine. Prior to coming to ther Agricultural Museum the sawmill was used in Jefferson Davis county in Mississippi. The sawmill was donted to the Museum by Howard Berry of rural Jefferson Davis county.
The trend toward restoration farm equipment and sawmills spurred interest in the old J. I. Case Company sweep-style horsepower that had been used to power the sawmill on our Princeton Township farmer’s farm. This Case sweep had long before been replaced by another, more consistent, power source for powering the sawmill. The sweep was left unused and had become obsolete as a source of power. It was left unused for years and became deteriorated in condition. By the 1980s, the Case sweep-style horsepower was basically a pile of cast iron and metal parts. At an auction sale in the Princeton area, the sweep, or what was left of the sweep, was offered for sale. It looked like the end of the road for this old sweep that had played a role in the hardwood timbering industry of the Princeton, Minnesota area so many year before. It would probably be sold for scrap iron. However, one person, in attendance at the auction that day, saw the value of the old sweep as a historic item of the past. That man was the late Dan Zilm, a farm equipment collector and restorer from Claremont, Minnesota. (Dan Zilm and his beautifully restored Fordson Model and mid-1920s Belle City Company semi-mounted one-row corn picker are pictured on the back cover of the September 2001 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.) Although not a horse raiser, Don Zilm saw value in the preservation of this sweep-style horsepower and he purchased the sweep and took it back to his home and then restored the sweep into its five team configuration with 12½ foot arms and brought the sweep to the grounds of the LeSueur Pioneer Power Association in rural LeSueur, Minnesota sometime prior to the 1992 Show. Each year at the August Show on the Pioneer Power grounds, the sweep was set up and usually belted to either an 1898 Case wood frame thresher 24 x 42 owned by Dave Preuhs of LeSueur (the sweep can be seen powering this wood frame thresher at the 1992 LeSueur Pioneer Power Show in the second hour portion of Tape #1 of the International Harvester Promotional movies) or a 22 x 36 inch all-steel Case thresher owned by Dave Petersburg of Owatonna, Minnesota. The sweep is powered by the teams of work horses brought to the annual show by Donny Pfarr and others horse raising members of the Pioneer Power Association. (Donny Pfarr and his Percheron horses are the subject of a prior article carried in the November/December 2005 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)
In 2003 Dan Zilm began to express the desire to donate the sweep-style horsepower to the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association. He wanted to do so only with the provision that the Association vote to set aside a permanent location on the grounds for the Case sweep-style horsepower and vote sufficient funds to build a roofed shed to house the sweep in its new permanent location. With a permanent location under a roof to protect the sweep from the weather and elements, the sweep would not need to be set up each year in order to be a part of the field demonstrations at the annual show. However, the by-laws of the Pioneer Power Association prevented the Association from “owning” any of the exhibits. The Association preferred that the exhibits be owned by individual members of the association. To get around this requirement of the Association, David Petersburg and his wife, Carmen, of rural Owatonna, Minnesota, stepped forward to purchase the horsepower sweep from Dan Zilm in July of 2002. Later that fall in November of 2002, Dan Zilm passed away.
As noted above, David Petersburg is a long time member of the Pioneer Power Association and had long been associated with the operation of the sweep-style horsepower. David and Carmen and their sons, Justin, born in 1972, and Erin, born in 1974, operate a small farm in rural Owatonna. They raise Belgian horses on their farm and currently own and care for six Belgian horses on their small farm. In recent years they have been organizing a bi-annual horse plowing day which is held on a neighboring piece of land adjacent to their farm in mid-October of the odd numbered years. This is a bi-annual event because the farmer that operates the adjacent farm plants corn and soy beans in rotation on piece of land that is used for the horse plow day. David and the other horse farmers/breeders that participate in the horse plow day prefer to plow the land with their horses while following the soybean crop years rather than when the land was planted to corn. Thus, because the farmer adjacent to the Petersburg farm who farms the ground on which the horse plow day is held rotates his crops in the field from corn to soybeans each year, the horse plowing day hosted by the Petersburg family is held once every two years–on the odd numbered years.
Thanks to the dedication of the late Dan Zilm, this particular sweep-style horsepower will be seen and enjoyed by generations of people born long after the heyday of timbering in Minnesota when this particular sweep was used. Thanks also to the dedication of modern-day work horse farmer/breeders, who rarely realize any financial gain in keeping alive the practices of horse farming, for future generations of attendees at the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Show. Attendees will be able to actually see the Case sweep in operation powering threshers at the annual late August show. The Case sweep-style horsepower had more significance as an exhibit at the August 25-27, 2006 Show as the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association. That year, the Le Sueur Pioneer Power Association hosted the national summer convention of the J.I. Case Collectors Association at the annual 2006 Show. The sweep-style horsepower was one of the attractions that created excitment at that show.