Steam, Smoke and Sawdust. Sturgeon’s Mill Brings a Vital Piece of Northern California’s Logging History to Life in Sebastopol

Written By: Brytann Busick
Published: August 5, 2019

Just 7 miles off the Pacific Ocean, nestled beneath towering redwood trees, is a picnic ground, office, blacksmith shop, working sawmill, and layer upon layer of history covered in sawdust.

Sturgeon’s Mill is powered by steam, a dedicated volunteer crew, and a strong desire to preserve an important piece of Sonoma County’s history. It gives visitors the opportunity to experience the historic sawmilling processes in action. The mill is a place where “limbing”, “bucking”, and “skidding” are commonly shouted phrases and where visitors learn the difference between wood and lumber, a cant hook and a peavy, and about the jobs of the sawyer, block setter, and the trim saw.

Each year, the mill is “steamed up” for four weekends and the public is invited to come and enjoy the sights and sounds of the old sawmill turning out lumber like it did when Tom Schaeffer’s Great Grandfather was at the helm.

Sturgeon’s Mill represents a true slice of early 20th-century technology, commerce, and work ethic. The antique mill serves as a reminder of our industrial past.

Schaeffer, Great Grandson of the mill’s founder, said that Sonoma County was once called “The Redwood Empire” and that there were at least 20 sawmills in western Sonoma County.

“My Grandpa always said that we used to have a sawmill in every canyon back in his day,” Schaeffer said. “Redwood was king.”

Sturgeon’s Mill serves as an anchor to our county’s past and a bridge to the future for elementary students studying California history, sawmilling enthusiasts, or those who wish to celebrate Sonoma County’s diverse history.

Museum visitors have the opportunity to step inside the sawmill at designated times throughout the day and talk to crew members as they stand at their work positions and answer questions about their jobs, the milling process and the equipment that was developed at the height of the industrial revolution.

In addition to exploring the mill, guest can visit the blacksmith shop, eat a hearty lunch, follow the wandering paths in the historic “Woodland Gardens” adjacent to the picnic grounds, and watch Jim Lerum’s shire horse—which you might recognize from Ag Days or Love of the Land—demonstrate how horses were used to drag and maneuver heavy logs.

As visitors explore the site under a canopy of towering redwood trees they are instantly transported back in time and Schaeffer said he hopes they feel an appreciation for the blood, sweat, tears, and hard work our ancestors supplied to form the foundation of Sonoma County and beyond. Much of San Francisco was built from lumber hewn in Northern California counties.

“We average 800 or 900 visitors per weekend,” Schaeffer said. “Father’s Day is our big weekend. We’ve had up to 1,500 people on the weekend. We don’t charge admission or parking and run solely off donations.”

He said that profits go towards restoration projects and equipment maintenance.

What makes Sturgeon’s Mill so unique? It is not made up of collected pieces of equipment and tools. Instead, nearly all pieces — from beams to saw blades — are original to the mill started by Schaeffer’s Great Grandfather, Wade Sturgeon in Coleman Valley in 1914.

The mill used ox teams, horse teams, and machinery from the old Korbel Mill in Guerneville to mill lumber that was used throughout the North Bay. In 1922, the logs ran out in Coleman Valley and the mill was moved to its present location.

“They packed up the old mill, piece by piece, loaded it on wagons, and transported it to its current location,” Schaeffer said.

In its hay day, Sturgeon’s Mill had 12 men working in the sawmill, a total of 25 employees and could cut 15,000 feet of lumber per day.

In 1943, Sturgeon and his partners, John Donati and J.W. Gonella sold the mill to partners Ralph Sturgeon and James E. Henningsen.

The mill provided lumber to the local market and great quantities were used in agriculture. The mill would sell retail in any quantity. There are endless chicken houses, barns, fences, and homes made with Sturgeon’s Mill lumber. Schaeffer said that San Francisco was rebuilt twice with lumber from Sonoma and Mendocino Counties after fires.

Eventually the mill’s technology could not compete. The big circle saws cut a 1/3-inch kerf, which lost a lot of lumber to sawdust. The newer technology of band sawing was faster and cut a much thinner kerf. The mill closed down in 1964 and Jim Henningsen passed his interest in the mill to his son Harvey and Ralph Sturgeon passed his interest to his son Bob Sturgeon and daughter Essie Doty.

Schaeffer said that it’s amazing that Sturgeon’s Mill survived to present day because WWII claimed most of the metal from sawmills for the war effort.

Remarkably, in the early 1990s, Sturgeon’s Mill came alive again after lying dormant for nearly 30 years.

The Sturgeon’s Mill Restoration Project was started and sought to put the abandoned sawmill and the almost 100-year-old accumulation of rusting machines, steam engines, hand tools, old trucks and wagons back to work again. Seven former millworkers and historians began the process of restoring the mill piece by piece.

Today, two decades later, the century-old machines powered by steam go to work thanks to the 60 enthusiastic volunteer crew members that operate the mill and conduct tours during saw milling demonstration runs.

“Volunteers range from 15- to 92-years-old,” Schaeffer said. “About 10 are in their 80s, but a majority of people are in their 60s like me.”

Schaeffer, who serves as board president, said that volunteers donate almost thirty days a year, for a combined total of about 4,000 volunteer hours annually.

“Our volunteers are people who have a general sense of history in Sonoma County and are interested in preserving our history and heritage,” Schaeffer said.

Jim Flint, who is 83 years old, has been volunteering at the Mill since it started running again, but has been a part of Sturgeon’s Mill since his childhood “I was here when they brought the dirt in,” Flint said. “Bob Sturgeon and I were good childhood friends. We deer hunted, topped timber, and fell trees together.”

He is passionate about preserving the mill and the slice of history it represents.

“It really is a working museum and guests really appreciate seeing the Mill working as it used to. I volunteer because I enjoy the camaraderie with all of the long-time volunteers, some of which are old-timers like me,” Flint said. “We all love seeing the old machinery up and running.”

There is nothing static about this living museum. All the antique equipment has been restored and chuffs, pops, hums, or whistles to life as it works in tandem to power the sawmill. Steam, smoke, sawdust, and the pungent aroma of milled timber fill the air.

The Atlas 1896 30 horsepower steam engine is the main steam engine of the mill. It burns 18 gallons of diesel per hour to produce the heat to make the steam that powers the Mill’s engines.

Schaeffer said that steam boilers were revolutionary technology in the 1800s. The same technology that powered the industrial revolution still powers Sturgeon’s Mill today.

Schaeffer said he hopes visitors gain an appreciation for the work ethic and ingenuity that was needed by our ancestors to create lumber.

“Our tools are primitive, but they are also efficient,” Schaeffer said. “Sawmill dollars were hard-earned by our ancestors.”

Fueled by fond childhood memories, Schaeffer said that he is still passionate about preserving his family’s milling legacy.

“I spent my childhood playing at the sawmill and eagerly waiting for my turn to blow the steam whistle,” Schaeffer said. “Today, I look forward to selecting one child during each steam up day to take up the task.”

Step back into history at Sturgeon’s Mill on September 14-15 and October 12-13. The sawmill sits about halfway between the towns of Sebastopol and Occidental at 2150 Green Hill Road. To learn more about the working museum please visit www.sturgeonsmill.com.

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