Family Traditions: Restoring a Portable Sawmill

Fifth generation sawmill tradition still going strong.

| March 2008

  • New54-inchblade.jpg
    Left: A new 54-inch blade works well on the 100-year-old sawmill.
  • Donniebelting.jpg
    Left: Donnie belting up the Geiser sawmill to Melanie Sharp’s Mother’s Day John Deere.
  • Duringrenovation.jpg
    Above: During renovation, spring 2007.
  • Cuttingwooden.jpg
    Above: Using his left hand, Donnie releases a wooden lever to unlock the mechanism and drop it away from the saw’s blade, bringing the carriage forward, and then toward the blade to reverse the carriage, setting it up to cut the next board. After each successive forward-and-backward run, he ratchets the log toward him with a lever on the opposite side of the log, cutting lumber into particular widths.
  • GeiserPeerless.jpg
    No. 3 Geiser Peerless sawmill circa 1910.
  • DonnieSharp.jpg
    Above left: Using a peavey, Donnie Sharp levers a log onto the sawmill’s carriage, where it will be held solid with two or three steel dogs.
  • GeisersawmillParts.jpg
    Above: The Geiser sawmill’s working parts consist of an iron disc and two friction wheels. One wheel makes the carriage (which holds the log) run into the saw. The second wheel is the reverse: It simply backs the carriage away from the blade. An oak handle is used to move the friction wheels into the iron disc. When the wood handle is released, it unlocks the lever, allowing it to move left or right. This action moves the friction wheels into the iron disc.
  • LogtongsOld.jpg
    Above: Log tongs that belonged to Donnie’s grandfather, Louie Sharp, are still used today.
  • Clutchhousing.jpg
    Above: The mill’s original clutch housing.
  • 820dieseltractor.jpg
    Above: For now, Melanie’s John Deere 820 diesel tractor powers the Sharp family sawmill. Donnie hopes some day to restore a Case steam engine that’s been in the family for decades, and power the mill with that.

  • New54-inchblade.jpg
  • Donniebelting.jpg
  • Duringrenovation.jpg
  • Cuttingwooden.jpg
  • GeiserPeerless.jpg
  • DonnieSharp.jpg
  • GeisersawmillParts.jpg
  • LogtongsOld.jpg
  • Clutchhousing.jpg
  • 820dieseltractor.jpg

Wearing a sheepish grin, Donnie Sharp admits he has "wanted a sawmill ever since I was a kid." The fact that several family members had owned and operated portable log-cutting rigs was a likely stimulus for Donnie's youthful yearnings. But only recently has the dream become a reality for the rural Fair Grove, Mo., man.

After instigating a friendly horse trade a couple of years ago, Donnie gained most of the apparatus needed to completely restore a Geiser No. 5 portable sawmill with variable friction feed in exchange for a promised paint-job on an old Diamond T truck owned by his dad's cousin, Charles Sharp.

According to what Donnie could make out on the weld-patched clutch housing after scraping away layers of caked grease, the mill was patented Feb. 1, 1887, by the Geiser Mfg. Co. of Waynesboro, Pa. The parts Donnie obtained were actually leftovers: The best pieces were used by his cousin when he set up his own sawmill operation more than 30 years ago at his farm with a mid-1950s era Case LA tractor as the power unit.

Beginning with Donnie's great-grandpa Waldron, three generations of Sharps hauled portable sawmills around the area, setting them up near stands of oak, hickory, ash, hackberry and walnut. In those early operations, logs were felled and "snaked" in with horses or mules to be cut for framing and siding lumber. When a mill was set up, neighboring landowners often hauled in additional logs from their own woodlots.



True collectors of antiquated contraptions, Donnie and his wife, Melanie, typically concentrate on their tractor restoration business. But family ties made the sawmill restoration project a labor of love. They worked enthusiastically, dragging rusty levers, gears, pulleys and crumbling wood from the dark interiors of a tumbledown chicken house and transporting them home.

George Sharp, Donnie's great-uncle, spent his entire life working with sawmill equipment. Before his death in 1975, he dry-stacked a stockpile of large-dimension ash and yellow pine. Originally cut from 14-foot long beams (each 16-by-16-inch), the pine lumber had been salvaged years earlier from a Kansas City demolition site. When Charles Sharp gave Donnie the big timbers along with the mill, he sweetened the deal considerably.