Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Last Sawmill in La Farge

There is an empty lot now, covered with snow.  The buildings that once housed the workings of the sawmill have been dispersed – scattered with the four winds.  (Actually, one of the buildings was torn down, while the others were trucked off to other sites.)  The cement piers that once supported the conveyor that moved the logs from the trucks towards the debarker are all that remain of the last sawmill in La Farge.
            This past summer, sawmill operations shut down at Schroers Hardwood Lumber on north Mill Street on La Farge’s west end.  Lumber had been produced at the site since the early 1950’s and the Schroer operation had been active there for forty years.  But all things must end, so Russ and Sharon Schroer decided to close the sawmill and sell off the machinery and property.
            In September an auction was held to disperse the sawmill buildings, machinery and vehicles.  A large crowd was on hand and the bidding was lively.  An out-of-state buyer bidding on the Internet bought most of the mill’s machinery.  More local buyers purchased the other equipment and buildings.  Within a few weeks, the inner workings of the mill had been disassembled, loaded onto semi trailers and hauled away from the Kickapoo Valley for good.  The buildings were all gone by the end of October.  One of the buildings was torn down by the Amish, the materials salvaged for future use.  The main building did not go far and is now used for storage at its location in the southern part of the village.  The lumber mill’s office building resides on Weister Creek for now. 
            And so it was that the rich history of saw mills in La Farge perhaps came to an end in 2013.  The village has had at least one working sawmill in operation since its very beginning in the 19th century.  La Farge actually became a thriving town because of the sawmill operations and the lumber that was produced from them.  Perhaps we should pause and look back at that illustrious history of when the sawmills and lumber businesses made La Farge the most dynamic town on the Kickapoo.
            When the railroad line built along the Kickapoo River reached La Farge in late 1897, it created an immediate boom in the small town’s economy.  As the northern terminal of the branch line that connected to the main railroad lines at Wauzeka, La Farge became a very busy place as various products came and went on the railroad.  Lumber was one of the chief products that were leaving La Farge on the new railroad.
             There was already one sawmill, the Seely mill operating on the Kickapoo on the northern end of the hamlet, when the railroad reached La Farge.  Charles Seely, the son of founder Dempster (who had passed away in 1895), built a new dam on the Kickapoo River during that time (downriver from the site of the previous dam) to provide better power for both the gristmill and sawmill that he owned.
 Dempster Seely had built the first dam and mill at the site on the river in the 1860’s.  His lumber mill flourished for the next thirty years as the abundant stands of white pine were felled and sawn into lumber.  The Kickapoo River was used extensively in Dempster Seely’s lumber operation, which was one of the largest in the Kickapoo Valley.  The logs were floated to the mill at Seelyburg, where waterpower from the river ran the sawmill.  Much of the sawn lumber was used locally, but some was floated down the river in long rafts to other markets.  By the 1890’s, most of the northern Kickapoo’s pine trees were gone.  With the new railroad extending the line to his mill in Seelyburg, Charles Seely had new markets for hardwood lumber, which was still abundant in the area.
  In 1897, the same year that the railroad arrived, the Hammer brothers from Hillsboro opened up a second sawmill in La Farge.  Located along Mill Street to the south of the railroad terminal, the Hammer Brothers’ mill specialized in the making of heading bolts.  Later the mill was expanded to include both a stave and heading production factory.  In the winter, which was the best time to harvest lumber from area farms, it was not uncommon for sixty or seventy wagonloads of lumber to come into La Farge on a good day.  In the winter of 1897-98 over 2,500 cords were delivered for heading bolts at $1.25 per cord.  The mill also bought white oak heading bolts in 15-22 inch lengths for eight cents per cord foot.  The heading mill produced 236,000 pieces in one two-week period in April of 1898.
In February of that year, the Hammer Brothers’ mill and factory had gone to around-the-clock operations to meet the production demands for finished lumber.  They used a whistle to signal the start and finish of the 12-hour shifts and lunch hours for workers.  It is believed that the present whistle (siren) times used in La Farge originated from that early lumber factory whistle schedule.
With the two mills in La Farge operating at peak efficiency, the demand for buyers for lumber soon was needed.  Lumber brokers came to the new railroad village to purchase products to ship out to various markets in the Midwest.  Lumber brokers would travel to the rural areas around La Farge, purchasing sawn lumber from mills operating at Dell, Weister Creek, Warner Creek, Buckeye Ridge, North Bear Creek, South Bear Creek and other locations.
By 1898, the partnership of Knutson & Johnson was the biggest lumber broker in La Farge.  They had followed the railroad line north from Soldiers Grove in 1897.  Buying the property to the east of the railroad depot on the corner of Mill and Main Streets (the present site of Nuzum’s), Knutson & Johnson had a lumberyard that often took in 25,000 board feet of lumber in a week’s time.  The lumber brokers averaged a boxcar shipped out every week on the nearby railroad and in June of 1898 sent out a train with thirty carloads of lumber.
The demand for suitable hardwood lumber gave the farmers in the La Farge area a ready market for most of the timber they were clearing to create fields for crops.  Hauling of the logs had to be done in the winter when bobsleds could be used to glide over the frozen, snow covered roads.  Winter cuts of timber also made for the best lumber because of the absence of sap in the logs.  As the wagonloads of logs were coming into La Farge, the timber delivered to the mills was called “Kickapoo wheat”.  Each spring, the lumberyards of La Farge would be piled high with logs ready for the spring and summer cut of lumber.
La Farge’s retail lumber business changed in May of 1899, when John E. Nuzum returned to town.  Nuzum, owner of a successful lumberyard in Viroqua, had first opened a yard in La Farge located north of Belcher’s Hotel on State Street in 1897.  The following year he sold the La Farge lumberyard to Levi Millison and left the village.  Returning in 1899, Nuzum in partnership with M.D. Chase purchased Millison’s business and bought out the other retail lumber business in town owned by the Minor brothers.  Nuzum combined both businesses into the La Farge Lumber Company, which opened on the western end of Main Street, near the Hammer Brothers mill and the railroad depot.  Levi Millison was made manager of Nuzum’s new La Farge operation.
In October of 1899, August Kriigel bought out the La Farge lumber business of Knutson & Johnson.  Kriigel was well known in the lumber trade in the northern Kickapoo Valley.  Living in the Rockton area, Kriigel had earlier worked for Van Bennett at the Rockton mill and for Dempster Seely.  By the time that he purchased the La Farge business, he was the largest lumber broker in the area.  In August and September of 1899 he shipped forty-two carloads of lumber out of La Farge.  Within a year of his purchase of the La Farge business, Kriigel would expand his operation by becoming the Kickapoo Valley representative for the Brittingham & Young Hardwood Lumber Company.


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