Milling Around

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

Center that is scheduled to be built near Winona with funding from members and a matching $1 million grant from the Conservation Department. The center will house a museum, displays and working exhibits that will allow visitors to see Noah's mills and steam engines working as they did in the past.

"The Heritage Center was the perfect place to put my collection," says Noah, whose arthritis is forcing him to slow down just a little. "When the Heritage Center gets up and running, I can go visit my collection, and they can do the maintenance work."

Even though Noah is giving up custody of his forestry artifacts, that doesn't mean he will close up his tidy work shed behind his house. Noah is keeping his two Model T's and a 1941 tractor-the ones with electric starters so he doesn't have to crank them. He still plans to restore some old grist mills he has collected and to pursue another hobby-canoeing.

Many of the items he generously donated to the center, but a few he sold. With the money he received, he bought a custom-built canoe made from western red cedar. He stores it in the shed with his old skis and snow shoes from Yellowstone. "If something is made of wood, I can't help but want one," Noah says. Now that he has all that space and more time on his hands, perhaps his collecting days are beginning again.

The gauge read 60 pounds of pressure, and Russ Noah eased the throttle valve open, bringing the old steam engine to life. As the hiss of escaping steam settled to a rhythmic thump and the flywheel reached a speed that suited Noah's critical eye, he engaged the feedworks lever of the sawmill and moved back in time to the early 1800s.

This 1800s up-and-down sawmill is one of only a handful of this type in existence. The mills were so named because they had a vertical blade that moved up and down as it cut into a log.

The up-and-down mill replaced the earlier pit saw simply by substituting mechanical power for manpower. With a power source that didn't tire, the up-and-down mill had the capacity to temporarily furnish the lumber needed for an expanding nation, until being replaced by the faster and more efficient circular mill in the 1860s.

Up-and-down mills usually were constructed on site from available materials. If an entrepreneur had the saw blade beforehand, he was fortunate. According to legend, the saw blade for a mill on the upper Jacks Fork River in Shannon County was smeltered on the spot from iron-bearing ore. Some early mills relied on the tension created by a bent tree sapling to help raise the saw blade for the downward cutting stroke, but many were water powered. Steam was used as a power source in later years.

Noah's mill began with the purchase of the saw blade from an elderly man whose ancestors had been in the milling business in Ohio. The blade's owner recalled stories of the mill his grandmother told him as a child. The saw's teeth were in poor condition, and Noah painstakingly hand filed and reshaped the teeth to uniformity.

With the blade in hand, Noah persuaded Jim Rector, a local old-time tie hacker, to shape the structural timbers using a broad axe. Noah studied the small amount of reference material available on the history of up-and-down mills and designed one to his liking. His 6-horsepower stationary steam engine dating to the late 1800s keeps the mill running at 30 revolutions per minute.

The production of up-and-down mills was low by today's standards, but a vast improvement over the muscle powered pit saw. In eight hours an up and-down mill could produce 200 board feet of lumber, while today's small mills can saw 1,000 board feet. In the time it has taken to read this article, the blade in Noah's mill is only half way down the length of an 8-foot log, advancing at 1/4 inch a stroke.

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