Reaching into Rural America's Past

J.Neils Sawmill


At the beginning of the 20th century, Julius Neils, a lum- berman from central Minnesota, came to Cass Lake and obtained a site adjacent to the lake on which to erect a sawmill. He was also very busy acquiring as much timber stumpage as was possible. He ordered a new bandsaw mill from the Diamond Iron Works in the Twin Cities and also a new Murray-Corliss stationary steam engine capable of producing 340 horsepower, a giant of an engine with a flywheel which had a 15-foot diameter that weighed 10 tons alone! The engine and sawmill were delivered and as- sembled on the site, and Neils was soon producing lumber. The mill had a capacity of sawing 180,000 feet of lumber in 10 hours, with a two-shift daily capacity of 360,000 feet. The mill’s carriage was moved forth and back by means of a 42-foot steam cylinder (known as a “shotgun feed”), and its motion was so fast that it was necessary every hour to change the shifts of the men who rode the 23-foot carriage and did the log setting, due to the extreme stress inflicted upon them.

It was said of Neils that he was an excellent lumberman and that he always kept his equipment in first-class operat- ing condition.

The mill was reputed to be the third fastest one in north- ern Minnesota, production-wise. The mill was in opera- tion at Cass Lake for 20 years and was then sold to the Red Lake Indian Tribe. It was in operation at Red Lake from 1920 until 1956, when it was replaced by a modern, all-electric sawmill.

The original mill and engine were then purchased by the late Alf Elden, a farmer from Oslo, Minn., and he re-as- sembled the engine to operate and display at his annual old-time show on his farm.

In 1997, the LIRPF learned that the engine and mill were for sale, and after some discussion, purchased the equip-

ment from Elden’s son Ole and moved it to the showgrounds. Work began on a pedestal for the engine in 2001, and by October 2003, with the engine now basically assembled on the pedestal, the crankshaft was placed on its journals and the flywheel was assembled onto it. The carriage is presently undergoing rebuilding, and it is hoped that the engine will again be operational in the near future. In 2004, a large boiler was located in Linden, Wash., purchased, and hauled to the grounds to be used with the engine, and a building was erected over the engine. During the Fall of 2005, a concrete floor was poured in the building and half of the building was enclosed.

This mill and engine are believed to be the very last of the large production sawmills of the early 20th century in northern Minnesota’s “Glory Days” of logging and lumber produc- tion.




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