Box 153 Rathdrum, Idaho 83858
The grand old all steam sawmill in its picturesque setting at Nespelem, Washington, is gone. The residents are no longer awakened by the wail of the morning whistle. All that remains is memories and a large concrete gravestone on which the great steam engine once stood.
The mill was built at Conconully, Washington, in the year of 1910, but our story begins in 1934 when Mr. Duncan and the late Mr. Wyett moved the mill, saws, timbers, spikes, belts, nails, planking, shafts, boiler, engines and all from Conconully to Nespelem. During construction Mr. Duncan once called one of the crew, Mr. Davis, over to him. Mr. Davis put down his tools and made his way across the unfinished sawmill to where Mr. Duncan was laying plank. 'Look here,' says Duncan, 'I found a nail that has never been drove before.'
The Wyett-Duncan Mill ran steady for many years until the sad day in 1961 when fireman Roy Richardson (a veteran of 20 years with the company) blew the 5 o'clock whistle and shut down the graceful 14 by 18 Ames side crank steam engine.
For the next six years the old mill was idle. Parts were sold and stole. E. T. Jones of Riverside, Wash., bought the feed engine. Then along came an old stubborn sawmiller and die-hard steam man, L. T. Starkey. He purchased the old mill, renewed the lease on the ground under it, hired fireman Richardson and the two of them rolled up their sleeves and went to work. The 11,000 brick dutch oven under the 72' by 18' H. R. T. had been partly knocked down by the vandals and over 1,000 bricks thrown into the pond. Starkey's mother, up for a visit, retrieved, cleaned and relaid the bricks almost single handed. While the men overhauled and patched up the rest of the mill, the sidewalk superintendents came around every few days. The town buzzed with rumors, the pessimists preached that the mill would never run again. The modernists preached that the mill was obsolete and inefficient and was not practical.
July 1968, two months after Starkey moved on the property, the mill was ready to saw. Lack of logs was the only holdup.
August 1, 1968, 5 a.m., the Nespelem residents, including the pessimists, were blasted out of their beds by 3 whistles blown simultaneously, 8 a.m. the Soule twin feed engine borrowed back from E. T. Jones of Riverside, fed the first log through the double circler rig. Starkey ran the mill with five men including himself. He sat and sawed, Richardson fired, oiled, and run the pond, an edgerman and two men tailing the mill. Steam power in the Nespelem Mill cost 38 cents per 8 hour day, including all maintenance and a $20.00 a year boiler fee. The power plant nearly ran itself. After the mill was running a few minutes, the sawdust feed set, dampers adjusted, the 1' injector turned on, the water level wouldn't vary an inch by noon or the steam pressure 10 lb. Fireman Richardson was fireman by title only, as he simply checked the steam plant every 15 minutes or so, you might say in his spare time, so his wages can't be charged to power in all fairness. Actually, he was the pond monkey.
The mill had a live deck and a mechanical nigger, both belted to the powerful balanced valve Ames. The carriage was equipped with air driven boss dogs, hand bull dogs and hand set works with spring receed.
Starkey sawed an average of 2100 board feet per hour, and the old slab factory spit out lumber for total sawing cost of $9.00 per thousand board feet including labor, power, oil saw teeth, rent, belts, repairs and taxes. Match that with your so called modern sawmill!
Besides making Starkey a very good income, the old mill gave good entertainment. Things never got dull too long. One fine day everything was running very smooth, when the expansion joint in the main steam pipe blew apart. Boy! if that didn't make things fly!! The air was full of sawdust, rafter splinters, steam, Indians and 14 sheets of roof tin. One big Indian ran down the middle of the track and made a record broad leap that cleared carriage, log and end of mill, and ended with a great splash in the pond.
Another dull week was ended when the governor pulley came loose on the 5 by 7 vertical engine that drove all the conveyers. The pulley spun off the governor shaft and the engine run wild. When Starkey got to his pet engine, it was rotating at a terrible pace. Before he could shut it down, the nipple between the governor and valve chest broke and the steam pipe wrapped itself around the trusses, governor and hidrastatic lubricator still attached unhurt.
Then there was the time Starkey decided to dredge part of the mill pond with ditching dynamite. He drained the pond and planted 5 cases of dynamite in nice neat rows, then set if off at 8 p.m. one night. The resulting explosion really done a good job of dredging. However, it also shattered a few windows on the west side of town and sent a sunken log whistling into the air that came crashing down on the poor old Nespelem sawmill. All good things must come to an end sooner or later; this includes romantic old steam sawmills. The Nespelem Mill sawed its last log on the 18th of May, 1970. It was a sad day for all concerned for many people had come from far and wide to see the steam driven landmark run.
If the old mill would saw so cheap and make a profit for its owner, then why was it shut down and dismantled? That is a good question and here are some good answers.
No. 1 Timber was very hard to get in the Nespelem area, the bulk of the logs Starkey sawed came from Curlew, 80 miles away.
No. 2 Labor was very poor class, mostly Indians. Starkey went through 23 men and in the 2 years he ran, he never had a full crew Monday morning. Some Mondays no one showed up at all except for fireman Richardson a white man as dependable as the engine.
No. 3 Vandals would sneak into the mill at night and bust light bulbs and the glass out of oil cups and toss loose sawmill parts, saw teeth etc. into the pond, and leave 'nature's calls' on drivebelts.
No. 4 Thieves stole tools, gasoline and even lumber.
No. 5 The mill was on leased Indian ground which could not be bought and could be only leased 2 years at a time and each 2 years they raised the rent.
No. 6 The mill yard was cramped and only big enough and there was no chance to expand it.
No. 7 There was a land corner stake under the head rig, so part of the mill was on two other pieces of ground that wasn't in the lease. This never caused any trouble, but could have.
No. 8 The log pond was another Indian lease, and it was fast silting in to a point where mechanical dredging was necessary as the authorities informed Starkey that there was to be no more dredging with dynamite. Also, logs were forbidden to be bucked in the pond for fear of killing the fish, so they had to be bucked in the yard which further cramped it.
No. 9 The mill was built on wooden mudsills which were rotten. Many of the mill's timbers were rotten, the high speed steam carriage drive literally shook the old rickety mill apart. Many long hours were spent installing sister timbers and braces trying to hold the old mill together against the powerful steam drives.
Starkey stayed long enough to prove his point. He shut up all the pessimists and modernists, for the ancient steam mill ran right through the lumber crash in the late spring of 1969, and on through the summer and fall, while the so called modern mills folded up right and left; and it continued to run into the winter until the log pond froze over. The next spring the old plant was sawing again, but the end was in sight, because Starkey had decided to move his operations into Idaho where timber was much easier to obtain and the ground under the new mill would be his. So Starkey spent the best part of 1970 dismantling and hauling the old mill to its new setting 6 miles northeast of Rathdrum, Idaho, a tremendous and tiring task at best which he tackled single handed.
It is doubtful that the Nespelemites or anyone that met him will ever forget Starkey, the sawmiller, a rugged individualist that has made and spent, or lost a fortune and has been flat broke at least a dozen times. Handmade, sixteen inch top logging boots, stagged off trousers, and wide black suspenders are his trademark. In his late twenties, with greying temples, he lives alone in his cozy ex- W. I. & M. railroad caboose spotted on his land over-looking the new mill sight. At the time of this writing, January 1971, the heavy duty Ames engine, boiler, and other machinery and timbers lay covered with snow at the new setting.
When spring breaks, construction will start, and by fall of 1971 the mighty and handsome Ames engine will be proudly throned in its spotless new tile and glass engine room, its 7' flywheel silently delivering steady, dependable, low cost steam power to the new Swiss watch, or rather sawmill. An 8' steam shotgun will propel the 700 lb. carriage at lightning speed, a 7 by 12 two drum steam donkey will be perched on the hill above the mill to dump logs into the pond. A 24' gauge steam locomotive will shuttle the mills cut about the track infested yard. A 15-40 case steam traction engine will furnish any belt or draw-bar power needed around the property. The new line shaft machine shop will be driven by a beautiful pop-bottle 5 by 7 vertical engine.
So it will be a great and mighty stand of the reciprocating steam engine, a small remnant of the age of iron machines surviving in the age of trash. A few proud and noble well kept engines performing their daily work in a small world of their own, unthreatened, and unmatched by what passes for progress.
How long will it run? Be assured that this highly efficient and extremely competitive little steam driven mill will saw as long as there is timber available in northern Idaho.
Iron men are always welcome, so be sure to drop in if you ever get near. Simply drive to Coeur d' Alene, Idaho, get on Hi-way 95 and head north. Ten miles north of Coeur d' Alene is Garwood, I mile north of Garwood is a cross road, turn left (west) 1 mile in is a jog and hill, on top of the hill a driveway to the right (north) take it, you are there.