Last week the fully restored Sturgeon’s steam powered saw mill held their first open house of the year. This old beauty is a lovingly restored working saw mill. They open at ten and close at two, hardly enough time to see it all. Set under a grove of Redwood trees, the small pocket canyon is a step back in time. The first display is a steam “Donkey” a boiling, hissing mass of iron. It was used to haul giant logs out of deep ravines where oxen could not. The cable used to haul the logs up is so big, a regular sized person would have a hard time getting a hand all the way around the line. The spool is the working part and looks like grandma’s spool of thread, only bigger, much bigger.
The docent spoke of the method used before chain saws, for the first time I understood why the Spring Board holes put sawyers so high up on a stump. The men would cut a hole in the side of a tree, insert a Spring Board and climb up to cut the next one. When they arrived at the sweet spot, they sometimes built a small deck to stand on. The two men would then begin the cut with a giant push-pull saw blade. It is hard to imagine the amount of pushing and pulling it took to fell a tree. Teams of men would then repeat the process on the ground, first they cut off all the limbs, then slice the tree into logs, wrap a chain around it, hook it up to a team of giant oxen and haul their prize to the saw mill. San Francisco burned down five or six times since the gold rush of 1849, each time the city would be rebuilt, primarily of Redwood and Douglas fir. This kept up the demand for Redwood at a steady pace.
The main mill is a gigantic shed with space under the floor for the steam engine that uses a belt-drive up through the floor that powers the machinery. Standing in a safe spot, visitors watch as the mill hands work the logs through the process. The volunteers work with a true love of the old equipment and are happy and willing to explain every step.
Local boys, Gavin Lee, age ten and Gunnar Taylor, age eleven, were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. The mill boss invited the cousins to pull the rope that blew the steam whistle calling the mill hands back to work after a lunch break. The boss said the whistle could be heard for twenty miles on a clear day. Volunteers open a food line with burgers, dogs and other delectables, not free but reasonable.
There are Redwood boards stacked around the mill yard as examples of what the finished product looks like and for visitors/customers to take home a board with some history attached.
On site there is a fully functional blacksmith shop, they work constantly, heating, hammering, pushing and forming the cold steel of their trade into finished goods. Visitors can meet the blacksmith and ask questions.
To get more information go to their web site: www.sturgeonsmill.com. You will find details of the mill and the weekends they are open to the public. The mill is near Occidental, the drive is forty-five minutes and easy to find, the price is also reasonable, Free!
Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is the former president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association. Look for his column in The Community Voice each week.