Family Traditions: Restoring a Portable Sawmill

Fifth generation sawmill tradition still going strong.

| March 2008

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.