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Portable Sawmill Business Endures

Jackson Lumber Harvester sawmill, modified and updated, still runs after 30 years

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 1/1/2004

MONDOVI, Wisconsin — Entrepreneurs have a way of seeing opportunity. So it is with George Isaacson, the owner of Wood Creek Sawmill.

        After college, George went to work for Jackson Lumber Harvester, which manufactures sawmill equipment. He worked in the office and on the production floor.

        George envisioned an opportunity to start a small sawmill business, so he saved his money and bought a portable mill from Jackson Lumber Harvester. The mill, which he bought 30 years ago, is still running today although the original machine has been modified.

        Now he operates his Jackson Lumber Harvester portable sawmill as a stationary mill. When  George started his business, travel was the norm. “We recognized the need for custom lumber harvesting,” he said. As a ‘portable’ business, he cut grade lumber for other sawmills, loggers and lumber companies in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

        Reminiscing about the early days of his business, George said the original mill was designed so that the “operator rode the carriage and did all the dogging and setting by hand.” In 1976, with some help from Jackson Lumber Harvester, the mill was converted to full hydraulics.

        In addition to his knowledge of the sawmill and the sawmill business, George has a keen understanding of engines. The original engine, a Detroit Diesel 471, “was overhauled several times,” he said. “We overhauled that ourselves.”

        In 1996, after 23 years of service, the original engine was finally replaced with a John-Deere 250 hp engine. In the 30 years since he originally bought the mill, the log deck and log turner have been replaced, too.

        Even when one considers refurbishments to the original mill, its performance is impressive. George said he has produced 53 million board feet with it. And he is still counting.

        Six years ago, George had Jackson Lumber Harvester add a Mudata computerized setworks on the mill.

        “Five years ago, we put a Jackson vertical edger on,” he added, besides an edger he already had in place. Longer flitches go to the vertical edger because it can more easily handle the long pieces, and it makes things easier on the crew. The conventional, horizontal edger is used for shorter pieces; it is also put in service when production is higher than normal.

        Wood Creek buys logs from contractors within a 50-mile radius and sells the lumber it produces. The business also provides specialty sawing services to customers who supply their own logs.

        The species milled at Wood Creek sales are primarily oak, elm and aspen. Occasionally, the company saws some cherry and hickory; they usually are custom dried (off-site) and sold for paneling and flooring. Specialty hardwood is a “developing” part of his business, said George.

        In addition to producing grade lumber, Wood Creek Sawmill sells the remaining hardwood cants to pallet manufacturers or saws them into crossties. The company also produces a small volume of low-grade lumber that typically is sold to farmers.

        Wood Creek Sawmill does custom work for three customers — two sawmills and a  lumber company. “Filling a niche where we can help meet the needs of customers,” said George, is one of the things he most enjoys about being a business owner.

        “Some of the species we cut are a problem on customers’ mills,” said George. “Small pieces, such as basswood, must be debarked” before they can be sawn by other mills. “We can operate without a debarker,” he explained, because the Jackson Lumber Harvester mill uses a circular blade with carbide teeth.

        The sawmill company is equipped with a Patz barn cleaner to remove sawdust, which is  sold to farmers. Slabs are bundled and sold for firewood. Markets for all primary and secondary products are in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

        The company’s operations are based on a 20-acres site near Mondovi, a town of about 2,600 people in the central, far western portion of Wisconsin. Just 25 miles east of the Mississippi River, Mondovi is in a region of relative lowland. The town’s elevation is 810 feet.

        The Jackson Lumber Harvester mill is permanently set up on a concrete slab outdoors. The four employees at Wood Creek Sawmill work year-around.

        George recently added a log cabin office The office is one of three buildings George has built from pine logs. He has also built two cabins in northern Wisconsin. Inquiries from people who have seen the log buildings now have George considering the addition of log home components to his product line.

        George earned a degree in business at a small college in Kansas before he joined Jackson Lumber Harvester. Some of his sense about creating a niche in wood products might come from formal education, but some of it may be inherited.

        Clinton Jackson, George’s great-uncle, founded Jackson Lumber Harvester Co. Inc. Clinton was the brother of George’s maternal grandfather, Willard Jackson. Jackson Lumber Harvester is also located in Mondovi.

        “In the 1930s,” said George, “Clinton had the idea of making a portable mill” to keep pace with the demand for lumber. Clinton and Willard went all around the country, sawmilling, he explained.

        The blacksmith shop that Clinton owned gradually evolved into Jackson Lumber Harvester, said George. Willard focused on farming. In 1946, George’s father started sawing and owned a mill right into the mid-1990s.

        Today, Jackson Lumber Harvester makes not only portable sawmills but also scragg mills, gang and band resaws, edgers, shaving mills, feedworks, lumber handling equipment, and more. The company also provides mill layout and design services.

        One of the things that George has enjoyed most about having his own sawmill business is “meeting people,” he said. He also gets a lot of satisfaction from sawing custom lumber.

        The custom sawing business has sometimes been a “feast or famine” experience, said George. However, operating the sawmill as a stationary mill has put the business on a steadier, more  predictable footing. In lean times George worked at other jobs — such as logging, trucking and carpentry — to supplant his income and keep the sawmill going. He has been committed to his business and to the Jackson Lumber Harvester sawmill he owns.

        An important factor in the durability of any machine is its construction. Another is the way the piece of equipment is maintained.

        “About every two to three years, we go through and replace the worn parts,” said George. That kind of regular maintenance keeps the machine running strong.

        In many ways, the history of Wood Creek Sawmill is written in the modifications to the original portable mill that has been the cornerstone of the company’s operations. After all, adapting as necessary while staying focused on a core business describes the strategy George has implemented for success.

        There is no actual Wood Creek near Mondovi. George needed a business name for tax and other business purposes, and he chose Wood Creek Sawmill for its poetic and metaphorical tone. After all, there is a “stream of wood” that flows from the mill, he explained.

        When he takes time away from his business, George and his wife enjoy visiting their grown children. He also likes to hunt.




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