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Sturgeon’s Lumber Mill

Fall 2009 | Volume 24 |  Issue 3

Nineteen-year-old Harvey Henningsen’s heart sank in 1964 when his father announced his intention to scrap the engines of the Sturgeon’s Lumber Mill, a steam-powered operation in Sebastopol, California, 55 miles northwest of San Francisco. Harvey had grown up there, running errands for the millworkers as a boy; as a young man he had been thrilled by the boilermen’s stories as they stroked the massive furnaces powering the pulse of the single-piston, 1850 Atlas 30-horsepower steam engine, which shuddered so violently that it shook the mill floor above. For hours he had studied the 60-inch-diameter head rig saw carving massive, eight-foot-bore California redwoods into boards.

Steam-powered lumber mills had appeared across northern and central California in the mid-1800s in response to the gold rush construction boom. The 30-horsepower engines significantly outperformed the older generation of 10-horsepower water mills and carried the added benefit of portability. Owners could pack up their mills after exhausting the readily available timber and easily relocate.

But by the early 1960s the mill’s four 19th-century engines had failed to power a new table saw edger, nor were they able to compete with their competitors’ far more efficient diesel and electric operations.. Running the mill, along with his partner, Ralph Sturgeon, had sent Henningsen Sr. depply into debt, and the constant threat of foreclosure had brought on several ulcers. Even so, something struck him about his son’s passion for obsolete high-maintenance machinery. He agreed to keep the steam engines, handing over his 50 percent stake in the business on the strict condition that his son pay the property taxes.

In 1976, after a stint working in Europe, Harvey returned to Sebastopol and called a reunion of Sturgeon’s mill workers. Standing around the mill’s 1949 GMC pickup, seven former workers hatched a plan, each of them throwing a $100 bill onto the hood to begin a fund toward restoring the mill.

Henningsen and two volunteers replaced the roof and repaired the machinery, sometimes shaping their own square-headed screws and bolts on lathes to match the parts used in the 1920s. The Atlas boiler had corroded beyond repair, so in 2004 Henningsen and his friends persuaded San Franciso’s Bay City Boiler Company to donate a 1965 diesel-fueled boiler, which they retrofitted. That year Henningsen and Tom Schaeffer, a maternal grandson of Ralph Sturgeon, fired up the boiler and watched as it belched steam and became functional again for the first time in 40 years. “It’s like stepping back in time,” says Henningsen. “I feel so lucky to be at this mill. Who else gets to have a second childhood?”

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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