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Steam-powered sawmill restoration boosted by grant

The Minnesota Historical Society recently awarded the Lake Itasca Region Pioneer Farmers (LIRPF) a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant of $45,000 to support the LIRPF's J. Neils/Red Lake Sawmill Restoration Project. A construction crew was scheduled to begin Aug. 27 on the canopy, which will protect the sawmill.

The J. Neils/Red Lake Sawmill Restoration Project is one of both future and lasting value because, when completed, it will make it possible for the LIRPF to display and also operate for visitors this historic and legendary piece of northern Minnesota's logging history.

In its time, this sawmill was one with very high lumber production, having the third-fastest daily production of all the mills in the vicinity in the early 20th Century.

When completely restored, the sawmill will be the only one of its type left in existence which employs a log carriage that is steam cylinder ("shotgun feed") controlled.

It is also a project of significant interest to the locality, as the LIRPF grounds at the north end of Itasca State Park lie near the center of the area which once saw epic logging/lumbering operations by a number of very large concerns.

These included: Red River Lumber Co., Nichols and Chisholm, Wild Rice, Shevlin-Hixon, Crookston, Bemidji, plus a host of other, smaller companies.

The J. Neils Lumber Co. purchased a new band saw mill from the Diamond Iron Works in Minneapolis, and a new Murray-Corliss 340 horsepower steam engine at the turn of the 20th Century. Upon delivery, this equipment was set up on the western shore of Cass Lake. The mill was in constant use there for more than 20 years.

In the early 1920s, Neils moved its operations to the western part of the United States, and sold the mill and engine to the Red Lake Indian Tribe. The mill was in use at Red Lake until 1957, when it was replaced by a modern, all-electric mill.

The original mill and engine were then sold to Ole Elden, an Oslo farmer who re-assembled the engine and operated it at a threshing show at his farm for a number of years. Some time after Elden's passing, the engine and the (completely disassembled) mill were purchased by the LIRPF and moved to their show grounds by Itasca State Park in 1997, where the task of reassembly began a few years later.

The mill and restoration project are both unique.

"It is wonderful to see so many communities and local organizations benefitting from the Historical and Cultural Heritage Grants," said Britta Bloomberg, deputy state historic preservation officer. "Minnesotans should be proud of the unprecedented opportunities these grants provide for organizations to preserve and share our history and cultural heritage. The impact of projects supported by the Historical and Cultural Heritage Grants will be felt throughout the state for many years to come."

The Historical Society will award a total of $6.75 million in such grants to non-profit and educational organizations, government units and tribes during the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years for projects of enduring value for the cause of history and historic preservation across the state. Grants are available in three tiers: small or "fast track" grants of $7,000 or less, mid-size grants between $7,000 and $50,000, and large grants of more than $50,000. For grant details, including application deadlines, visit

The Minnesota Historical Society is a non-profit educational and cultural institution established in 1849. Its essence is to help illuminate the past as a way to shed light on the future. The Society collects, preserves and tells the story of Minnesota's past through museum exhibits, libraries and collections, historic sites, educational programs and book publishing.

The sawmill project has been made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on Nov. 4, 2008. The grant to the LIRPF was administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.