March 5, 2007
Mallak sawmill one of the last steam run mills in Minnesota
By Linda Scherer
Photographs and memories are all that is left of the once bustling Mallak sawmill business, built on the western edge of Winsted Township near Sherman Station in the early 1900s.
Three generations of Mallaks worked in the sawmill, and ran a feed mill used by area farmers to grind grain used for animal feed. Both the sawmill and the feed mill were powered by a steam engine.
“I don’t know if it is true or not, but dad said it was one of the last steam-run sawmills in Minnesota,” Bernadine Mallak Herzog, now living in Delano, said.
Bernadine was the oldest of the third generation of Mallaks that worked at the sawmill. She is the one with the best memory of her grandfather, Joe W. Mallak.
Joe W. Mallak purchased land where the sawmill was built in 1906. He and his wife, Victoria, had five children, three girls and two boys. Their oldest son was named Joe J. Mallak and he, too, was born in 1906.
“Grandpa was a small fellow, very slight, hard working, with a lot of energy. I think he was the hardest working man I have ever met,” Bernadine said. “He built every building on his farm and I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but his farm was quite a nice farm.”
Bernadine’s grandfather worked as a steam boiler operator in a Minneapolis sawmill for a few years, giving him a good background in how a sawmill works. He would work all week in Minneapolis, and return home by bicycle on the weekends.
A short time after that, he started his own sawmill to do custom log sawing for his neighbors.
Bernadine grew up during the Depression and World War II.
“It was hard times, and my grandfather hired a lot of neighbors. It gave them a job. My grandmother would cook three meals a day to feed the help. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I would stop at the farm after school and help grandma make the evening meal, she said”
The sawmill employed between four to eight full-time workers plus part-time help, because the work was done by hand and the use of horses in those early years.
It would take two men to roll the log up to the carriage, one to ride the carriage as it cut the log, another to haul the cut lumber out of the building and onto piles, and one to do the paperwork.
Leonard Kieser of Winsted remembers coming to the sawmill as a young boy with his father when it was still run by Bernadine’s grandfather.
“My dad brought logs to the sawmill with horses and I would ride along. As soon as my dad would get out to talk, I would run down to the sawdust pile. The pile was the size of a straw stack. It had to be 30 feet high. It was fun to run up it and then roll down, Kieser said.”
The sawdust was used for bedding for cows and chickens. It was also sold as an insulator in the winter to keep buildings and homes warm, and wells from freezing, and in the summer to keep things cold.
When Kieser was older (14 or 15), he worked for the second generation Joe J. Mallak.
As Joe J. Mallak grew up, he worked with his father in the mill, helped on the farm, and did custom grain threshing for neighbors.
He also brought additional helpers to the sawmill business: seven daughters and a son, Joe D. Mallak, who helped keep the mill running after Joe W. Mallak’s death in 1951.
Kieser worked at the mill from 1952 to March 1955. He especially remembers the winter of 1953-54, when they worked the whole winter and never stopped, even when the weather was 30 below.
“It was cold in the sawmill. We didn’t have the clothes we have these days. But when we worked, we worked,” Kieser said.
In the cold weather, the favorite place to eat was on top of the 18-inch fire wall that ran over the boiler, where everyone was able to stay nice and warm.
The boiler fire was never put out, according to Kieser. Most of the lumber sawing was done in the winter so it was a major concern to keep fire in the boiler to prevent anything from freezing up overnight.
“At the end of the working day, about 15 minutes before we were ready to quit, they shoveled about 50 shovel-loads of sawdust into the boiler; covered the whole thing with sawdust, and shut all of the drafts off,” Kieser said.
“In the mornings, Joe would come out and rake around in there a little bit and throw a bunch of slab wood in there. He would open up the chimney and draft and whoosh, he had instant steam, and he might have been there only 15 minutes before the crew would show up.”
The first year Kieser worked in the mill, trees were still cut down by hand. “You should have seen the muscles we had back in those days,” he said.
Kieser said that he was more excited the year Mallaks got a chainsaw, and it meant more to him, than when they got their first tractor.
Logs cut by hand would come in with very rough ends and it was hard to get them into the mill. With a chainsaw, all of the rough ends could be cut off. The other reason the chainsaw was such a help was on larger logs, when the saw was only able to partially cut through the log. Before chainsaws, it was necessary to use a mall and wedge to split the rest of the log.
“There was only a foot of space to the roof of the mill. I had to duck down to get under the roof. It was a tight fit. It was hard to get a good lick at the log because the roof was too low,” Kieser said.
While Kieser worked at the mill, he made 90 cents an hour. He got a 10 cent raise when he became clerk at the mill and started figuring board feet for Joe J. Mallak.
Kieser was allowed to trap muskrat on Mallak’s lake while he worked there, and when hides went up to $7 a hide, he made more money with his trapping than did working at the sawmill.
Kieser said the mill lumber came from a 20-mile radius mostly, but there were times it came much farther. He remembers truckloads of pine from up north.
There was a steam whistle at the sawmill that would signal the neighbors to bring more logs to the mill.
“You could hear that whistle for miles. That whistle was loud, man oh man,” Kieser said
As the logs were dropped off at the Mallak mill, Kieser said the piles were divided by boards standing upright between each pile of logs. The boards would have the name of the farmer. Chalk was used to mark the end of the log with a name and how the log was to be cut.
By Kieser’s last year, the sawmill had slowed down. Carpenters did not like to work with green lumber anymore. Kieser also felt that most of the good trees had been cut down in this part of the country. Most of the good wood was gone.
During his busiest time at the mill, he remembers cutting 3,000 to 5,000 board feet a day, if they had the right kind of logs. The longest log he cut was about 30 feet long.
When the sawmill stopped running at night, Mallaks would grind feed, which could not be ground at the same time the sawmill was running. The feed mill had three different kinds of feed grinders, one grinder was called a hammer mill, which was the first of its kind in the area. It would grind most any kind of animal feed that farmers needed.
Joe D. Mallak (third generation) said he was told it could grind bricks if it had to.
Kieser liked working at the mill, and thought “It was fun working there.” He liked the socializing with farmers who came to the sawmill and liked working for Joe J. Mallak, who Kieser said never lost his temper.
Kieser tells the following story, “He never once swore. One morning we started up and the saw ran into big spikes in the log. The saw blade teeth had to be removed and a brand new set of teeth put in the saw. I don’t think we ran another three or four cuts and we ran into more spikes. He never said a thing. I can’t imagine that, either, because I think I did swear a little.”
Kieser also commented on how Joe J. Mallak’s children worked. “Whether it was in the sawmill or doing farm chores, Joe expected those kids to work, and they worked hard.”
Mallak third generation
Joe J. Mallak’s farm was purchased in 1930 and was a quarter of a mile down the road from the farm that had the sawmill. His land was connected to his father’s.
Third generation Joe D. Mallak remembers it being a daily trip by car to the sawmill, where all of the livestock was kept except the chickens. One or two of his sisters would do the bulk of the chores and the rest of them would saw the logs.
“We never thought anything of it. On a school day, it was nothing to come home from school, have a bite to eat, and go and saw logs from 4 p.m. in the afternoon until 9 or 10 p.m. at night,” Joe D. Mallak said.
Joe learned the ruler upside down and backwards because that was how the ruler was on the sawmill carriage.
“Each log coming through required expertise, so if you were sawing 2x4, from the time you started that log, until the time you were done, you ended up with a 2x4 and not a scrap piece. The saw was taking a quarter of an inch of dust for every cut so that had to be figured into where you started,” Joe said.
Each of the siblings had a job. Margaret was a clerk, who figured square feet, and she also rolled the cut lumber out on the wooden track.
“I remember my dad as being a perfectionist. Everything he did, he did just so. He taught me that a job worth doing was worth doing right,” Margaret said. “Dad was generous, too. There were some bills that were never collected. I also remember the nuns from St. Mary’s Hospital thanking dad for lumber he had donated for their hospital dock.”
Joe D. Mallak was second to the youngest. He and his next older sister, Mary Jo, would be responsible for taking turns keeping the fire in the boiler going. They would alternate by days or by weeks.
“I would try to do as much as I could to do something else outside,” Joe D. Mallak said. “I loved driving tractor and other things besides having to fire the boiler. I would come up with reasons or excuses about other things more important to be done. Things that I would rather do.”
Sylvia was the boiler lady for a while, too. As one of the older children she remembered having a lot of responsibilities. One time, when her dad was seriously injured, she remembered having so many chores to do that she would carry her homework in her pockets and try to do her studying while she was doing her work.
“I never thought of working that hard at the time, but I worked harder my first 18 years than I worked anytime after. My dad taught me that you did not need muscle if you used your brains,” Sylvia said.
Sylvia also remembers having radios in the different buildings because everyone liked music. She practiced her dance steps in the aisles of the barn.
Joe D. Mallak tells how it would upset his father to come home and have one of the radios missing, or even broken, because it got moved.
“My dad took an old television speaker. It was a fairly large speaker. He mounted that on the side of the sawmill. That way they did not have to move the radio anymore. That radio with the speaker was loud enough that our neighbor lady could easily hear it,” Joe said.
Sylvia said her dad was always cheerful, except when it was tax time.
She recalled times her dad would give them money to run over to Sherman Station in the summer to get an ice cream cone that was hand stacked and bring it back to the sawmill. She described it as an ice cream social. She considered it quite a treat at the time because her parents still did not have electricity and ice cream was not something that they could keep.
“Mom did worry a lot about all of us working around the saws,” Sylvia said. “She did support dad and I think they had a very happy marriage. Mom brought a different dimension to my life.”
“She felt education was very important. She even took us to the library in Hutchinson so we would have books to read,” Sylvia said.
Another thing their mother, Irene, valued was her photo albums. “They were one of her greatest treasures. Before she died, she dismantled them and sent pictures to all of her children. I still value the ones that I have,” Sylvia said.
Both the feed mill and sawmill were run by steam engine until 1962, when the engine was replaced by a gas tractor.
The feed mill was used until 1968, when Joe D. Mallak purchased a portable feed mill.
Joe J. Mallak, his seven daughters, and son kept the sawmill running until 1977, when Joe J. Mallak died suddenly.
None of the buildings are left from the original sawmill property.
The sawmill building was torn down in 1982 and all of the equipment was sold. The last original building to stand was a dairy barn, which was destroyed in a storm about 2004.
Information for this article came from interviews with Joe D. Mallak, Winsted; Sylvia Mallak Meyer, Waconia; Margaret Mallak Walshe, Canada; and Bernadine Mallak Herzog, Delano. The idea for this article came from Jerome Thiemann of Winsted.