Monday, September 12, 2011

Steam powered sawmill

Last week on Labor Day my family drove north to the two-hundred acre Erickson family homestead in Whittemore, Michigan to use a ninety-five-year-old machine. At least my brothers, grinning like little boys, operated the old invention, while I employed a much more recent machine to snap over five hundred digital photos. 

Our friendship with the Erickson family began with academics--Glen Erickson taught Betsy's A&P biology class, and Julie and Mandy Erickson (Glen's daughter-in-law) graduated from an accounting program together. But no textbooks were involved last Monday. Instead the event depended on the basic components of fire, water and a bunch of metal and wood. The Ericksons hosted their annual sawmill day, showcasing an old steam engine and sawmill. 

Driving north on the expressway we spotted lines of campers and vehicles hauling boats headed the other direction. We pulled off the main route and passed farms and then the huge tracks of land covered with rows and rows of trees, so characteristic of the northern part of Michigan's lower peninsula. Finally we turned onto a two-track and followed it through trees to a clearing. In the middle was a pavilion protecting the old sawmill. A belt stretched from the sawmill to an old steam engine nearby. Behind yellow caution tape, spectators sat in lawn-chairs to witness the occasion. 

Logan was the fireman for the day. He pumped water and fed wood into the engine. Glen Erickson, wearing a striped engineer's cap and obviously the big boss for the day, kept one eye on the pressure gauge and the other on the activity under the pavilion. Glen's son Jaron supervised the sawmill operation. Aaron and Brian, and a few of the Erickson's other family members and friends, helped to load the logs and then sort and stack the rough-cut lumber. By the end of the day, they had accumulated a pick-up truck load of rough-cut lumber. 

The steam engine, originally used to power a threshing operation, was manufactured around 1916 by the Rumely Company of Battle Creek, Michigan. Rumely and Advanced later merged into one company. According to Mandy, Glen and Jaron spent the Saturday before Labor Day cleaning the equipment and pressure testing the engine. 

On the other end of the operation, connected to the steam engine by a belt, was a 1940 A22 Belsaw. The once portable sawmill has cut thousands and thousands of square feet of lumber. Jaron's great-grandfather earned half of his livelihood from the sawmill, which he ran during the winter months. The sawmill was built to be powered by a tractor, but for the last couple of years, the Ericksons have used the much quieter (and more interesting) steam engine as a power source during the annual event. 

Around thirty people gathered to watch or help operate the steam engine and sawmill. Glen and Jean Erickson's grandchildren had a fabulous time and all missed their naps. Some of them toddled across the uneven ground, while the older ones chased their cousins or scrambled for a ride with an aunt or uncle on the Gator. But one little grandson confirmed that the steam engine tradition will continue to the next generation. He spent hours balancing on the operator's platform with his Grandpa. When the steam engine slowed he begged, "Grandpa make it go chuga-chuga."


  1. Really liked the chuga-chuga ending!

  2. How neat! I really enjoyed this post, Amy . . . both your vivid description of the day and the excellent photos. That would have been really fascinating to see!

  3. nice composition...words and photos. I had to chuckle at myself when I recognized Aaron with only the bottom half of him in the photo.

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    1. Thank you Amy for your great pictures and wonderful article

  5. It's wonderful to see that the tradition continues. Thanks to the Ericksons