Forests, Fields, and the Falls: Sawmilling

Lumbering Current page Sawmilling Farming Flourmilling Map of Minnesota with the sawmilling area indicated by a star on the Minneapolis St Paul area. Glossary About this project Primary Sources Activity Ideas Tips
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As the image develops, we see Melvin in the foreground as he and a crowd of boys runs down Lowry Avenue towards the river. We see streetcars passing on Washington Avenue ahead. And at the end of the road, the sawmill that is their goal.
North Minneapolis was a great place to be a boy. A kid was always aware of the adventures possible along the river, and there was always the aroma of freshly cut pine lumber from the Northland Pine Company Sawmill.
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A bird's-eye view of the neighborhood.
Washington Avenue was the chief commercial street. There had long been numerous sawmills, sash and door factories, and other wood-products factories on both sides of the river from St. Anthony Falls.
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commercial (adjective): Of or pertaining to commerce or business.

People from all over the city rode the streetcars to work.
The boys are now running across Washington Avenue, crossing behind a streetcar that's in the foreground.
Workmen are getting off the streetcar, carrying their lunchbuckets.
Our Lowry Avenue stop was where the mill hands got off the streetcar. They were a familiar sight in their denim work clothes and heavy boots and, of course, carrying their metal lunch buckets.
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mill hands (noun): The workers in a mill.

The boys continue on until they reach the sawmill. We're looking up from a kid's-eye-view at the sawmill with a large, stern looking man guarding the way. He smiles and they run up the building's stairs. More info
Occasionally we were permitted to venture onto the catwalk that overlooked the whining, thrumming scene where logs were cut up into lumber.

catwalk (noun): An elevated walkway.

thrumming (noun): The sound or action of something that hums or vibrates.

The boys look down on the sawmill from a catwalk.
First, the log came, dripping, up from the river on an endless chain-lift runway.
The chief sawyer supervised every cut of the log. He was the most important man in the process, because his know-how produced the highest yield possible from every log.
When it was "dogged" to the carriage, the log was driven into the whirring bandsaw that made the initial cut.
Then with lightning speed it reversed its motion back to the starting position, flipped the log and fastened it in place, and rode it to the next cut.
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sawyer (noun): One who saws timber, especially in a sawpit.

yield (noun): A product; the quantity of something produced.

carriage (noun): A part of the machinary that wheeled the log forward toward the saw.

In a series of steps, we see the carriage move the log through the spinning bandsaw. A section of bark drops off and the carriage zooms straight back. Giant arms flip the log and the carriage moves through the saw again. Finally, the log has become a giant post that is now cut into 2" boards.
We wondered how the setter on the carriage kept from getting thrown from his place on the shotgun return ride.
Equally amazing was the way in which the steam-operated clamps turned the log and held it in place while it was being sawed.

shotgun (noun): The front passenger seat in a vehicle, next to the driver; so called because the position of the shotgun-armed guard on a horse-drawn stage-coach, wagon train, or gold transport was next to the driver on a forward-mounted bench seat.

A sawyer calls out as a tree falls.
Throughout the sawmill, leather belts drove the machinery. Everywhere belts flapped wildly as they moved from pulley to pulley.
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The boys look down on a conveyor belt of boards being sorted for trimming.
As we continued on the catwalk we watched the boards move from that saw to the next saws that trimmed them to the desired width and cut them into standard lengths.
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The boys continue on outside to the lumberyard. In the saw shop the boys crowd around Mr. Borgen who is filing a giant bandsaw blade: maybe 2 feet thick andapparently many yards around.
Moving continuously and given only an occasional assist by a mill hand, the lumber was processed until it emerged from the huge factory shed, stacked in neat piles, and loaded onto the narrow-gauge trucks.

narrow-gauge trucks (noun): Railroad tracks that were close together.

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My pals and I knew how the men piled the lumber, reversing each course so the pile could breathe and the boards dry out evenly.
Cliff Borgen's father worked in the saw shop handling the big saws that required regular sharpening.
Those saws seemed to sing as they vibrated in response to the file.
I could see that working in the big mill was exciting.
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...Transition: Melvin's standing on the corner of Washington and Lowry. A horse-drawn wagon passes, carrying barrels of flour.
Same scene, 8 years later. Melvin is a solid teenager on the corner. Now a pickup truck passes carrying bags of flour. More info
Eight years later.
All throughout my boyhood, I never tired of exploring the wonders of my neighborhood. As I grew older, however, the neighborhood began to change. The vast forests were gone that had made Minneapolis the lumber capital of the world. Now the mills were silent.
The teenaged Melvin sees billowing smoke...
One summer day I saw a huge column of smoke rising high in the sky. The sawmill around which so much of my boyhood had centered was going up in smoke.
Melvin runs through the streets to the fire.
I ran as hard as I could go.
Melvin watches the building in flames.
Not until I was at the powerhouse and fire barn corner could I actually see the fire.

powerhouse (noun): Any source of power, energy, or strength.

fire-barn (noun): Fire station where fire engines are kept.

Men from engine house no. 18 were hard at work fighting flames that still burned fiercely.
Their faces were grimy with sweat and dirt. I dared to ask questions. "The mill is gone," they said.
Men in the standard fire helmets and long thick coats pump water onto the flames from their gleaming red wagons.
The fire department's steam pumpers throbbed as they pushed water through the hoses winding their way to the big nozzles flooding the flames with water.
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throbbed (verb): To pulse with a steady rhythm.

nozzles (noun): Short tubes, usually tapering, at the end of a hose.

Transition: the mill is in ashes ...
What had been a raging mass of flames gradually subsided into many small fires scattered about the immense yard.
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subsided (verb): Worn off.

immense (adjective): Gigantic, very large.

Melvin turns around and heads home, his head dropped.
Such a sad sight, I thought. The Northland Pine Mill was gone, and with it, like a wisp of curling smoke went my boyhood, except for so many memories.
The end.