Generations of history at Hedstrom Lumber

Brian Larsen

Howard Hedstrom (right) visits with his son, Jonathan (left) and friend Bob Pratt. Howard talked about the 100-year history of Hedstrom Lumber Company at Cook County Higher Education on May 27. Pratt worked for Hedstrom Lumber as a young man and Jonathan, an electrical engineer, is a fourth generation Hedstrom working for the company. 
Staff photo/Brian Larsen Howard Hedstrom (right) visits with his son, Jonathan (left) and friend Bob Pratt. Howard talked about the 100-year history of Hedstrom Lumber Company at Cook County Higher Education on May 27. Pratt worked for Hedstrom Lumber as a young man and Jonathan, an electrical engineer, is a fourth generation Hedstrom working for the company. Staff photo/Brian Larsen What was Andrew Hedstrom thinking?

With seven children to feed (and, little did he know, six more on the way), he abandoned a successful 20-year carpentry/construction career to start a sawmill.

It was July 1914 and the world was about to change with the assassination of Austrian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When Austria declared war against Serbia that July, World War 1 broke out.

Not the best time to start a sawmill. But maybe there never was a good time to begin a business in the rocky, rugged, boreal forested lands of northern Minnesota.

Andrew Hedstrom arrived in the United States from Sifferbo, Sweden to Kansas in 1891 at the age of 21. He lived in Kansas for a year, working as a coal miner before moving to Duluth. There he met his future bride and worked for her father as a carpenter in Duluth and on the Iron Range before moving to Cook County in 1897.

Against all odds, the sawmill was successful for Andrew and three generations of Hedstroms, plus the hundreds of Cook County families that have made a living from the sawmill, now a century old.

Andrew purchased a dilapidated sawmill, shuttered since 1910, from Ed Toftey. It took Ole J. Allen and his team of four horses three days to move the mill 25 miles from Tofte to Maple Hill.

Once there, Andrew worked tirelessly to resurrect the mill. After a winter of logging with Andrew’s newly hired crew felling trees with “Swedish fiddles” (two man crosscut saws) and skidding them to the landing with teams of horses, it was time to begin milling the wood.

With the war going strong, wood for shipbuilding was in high demand. On the first day of sawmill operations, Andrew and his 15 workers cut 10,000 feet of lumber.

This was a family affair. Alma, Andrew’s wife, fed the crew breakfast, lunch and supper. The men worked 10-hour days and slept in a bunkhouse Andrew had built. Alma’s three oldest daughters, Frances (Fenstad), Mildred (Andersen), and Lucile (Walker), helped prepare meals and watched after their younger siblings while their mother worked round the clock.

In addition to feeding her family and work crew, Alma took care of the house, baked, gardened, did laundry and tended to the children. She was as much a part of the mill’s early success as Andrew, said Howard.

Howard shared this chronology of Hedstrom Lumber Company’s first 100 years in business to a group of about 40 people at Cook County Higher Education on Tuesday, May 27, 2014.

Howard, a third generation Hedstrom, is the current president of the company. “When they rebuilt the original mill they had to build charcoal fires to heat the shafts and straighten them out. Everything was bent and banged up but it had to be put back together,” Hedstrom said.

The first mill was a simple machine with a circular saw powered by a steam boiler. It was located across the Devil Track River from the current site to which it was moved in 1948.

In addition to lumber for houses, the early mill produced cedar shingles, fish boxes and railroad ties.

In 1929 Andrew added a planing mill and box mill, but shortly thereafter a fire destroyed most of the plant. It took most of the Depression years to rebuild.

As time progressed Andrew’s sons Lawrence, Roy, Carl, Andy, Herb, Phil, Art, and Wes joined him in the operation. Each came with different temperaments, traits and talents. It wasn’t always copasetic, but unlike most family businesses that end in turmoil, their tenacity, dedication and love kept things going through hard times.

In 1938 Andrew retired and Roy took over as president of Hedstrom Lumber Company.

In the early years Hedstroms operated logging camps. One such 1930s camp, near Little Alder Lake, was more a small town than logger’s camp. It featured a barn, root house, blacksmith shop, cookhouse, and bunkhouse.

Steam powered the first operations, and then gas and diesel engines ran the saws and planers. By the early 1960s the sawmill had converted almost entirely to electricity.

Peak production occurred in the late 1980s when Hedstrom Lumber sawed 25 million board feet. Today production is at about 15 million board feet, most of which is kiln dried and finished, said Howard.

The mill was originally built to cut white pine, but that was never a good wood to saw because of the rot, said Howard, who added, “Spruce is the easiest to cut, the fastest to cut and dries the fastest.”

In the 1960s the operation added a debarker and wood chipper. Two steel buildings were purchased from Potlatch and the smaller building became a machine shop while the larger building was used as a heating plant and a place to sort lumber and resaw aspen and birch.

In the 1970s a line-bar resaw, merry-go-round saw, and short log mill were added as the mill turned more and more away from sawing hardto get white pine.

In 1979 a fire destroyed the dry kiln, but it was quickly rebuilt. In 1988 a computerized sorter/stacker was added.

Today lasers guide saws and CAD systems are the norm for machinery. Logs are generally cut to 16-foot, 12-foot and 8-foot lengths, but shorter or longer lengths will be cut, depending on the customer’s order.

Four men currently buy logs for Hedstroms. They have a client list of 250 loggers located within a 350-mile radius of the mill; finished lumber is sold through brokers.

“We have a long-term relationship with our brokers. Some mills chase profits for their wood. We don’t. When things go bad, they [our buyers] are loyal,” said Howard.

Some specialty products go as far as Texas and California. One product Howard mentioned was 4x4 turning stock used to make spindles for decks. Hedstrom Lumber also cuts dimension lumber, pattern stock and timbers for timber frame construction.

To stay alive Hedstrom Lumber has had to find specialty products to produce. “We can’t compete with the costs to cut 2x4s with the big mills,” Howard said. “We do more niche things. Items that are smaller and might need more handling. We are in areas the big guys aren’t,” he said.

Nothing goes to waste; bark is sold for landscaping, sawdust to pellet manufacturers; chips to Canadian companies who use them to make paper, and the mill uses the leftovers to generate its own heat.

At its height Hedstrom Lumber employed about 125 people. It included a retail yard, had its own trucks and truckers and sometimes its own logging operations. In 1996 the company purchased a sawmill in Two Harbors and ran it until 2001, when they had to close it because it wasn’t profitable anymore.

“In 1981 we lost the sawmill in a fire. That wasn’t a good day. Wayne Anderson and I drove around the country and found the best deals that we could on things we needed to rebuild the mill. We were underinsured. Most of the things we purchased are still running,” said Howard, who has presided over or taken part in many state and nationwide forest industry groups since the early 1980s.

He shared pictures of Hedstrom Lumber’s current 35 employees and told a little bit about each of them. “It takes a lot of good people to run a sawmill successfully. We’ve been very lucky. We have had a lot of smart, dedicated employees throughout the years,” he said.

Howard mentioned many old time employees, including Hilde Bjorklund, who passed away many years ago. “He was a genius of a mechanic and machinist. We still have some of the things that he built.”

As a child Howard said he would ride the carriage that held the logs that were being cut into boards back and forth, back and forth. As he showed pictures of the old operation, the workers and the equipment, he noted that there wasn’t much for safe guards around the saws or other moving parts.

It was a different time, but he expressed satisfaction and no small amount of joy when he came to picture of a worker and explained the job they were performing, how smart and how dedicated they were.

“See that band saw. Band saws have to be tensioned and balanced or they won’t work. Roy always said, ‘There are a thousand details and every one of them has to be right.’ And he was right about that,” said Howard.

To commemorate the 100-year anniversary Hedstrom Lumber is hosting Community Appreciation Days on July 7-8.

Displays, tours, free food and refreshments will be offered. Children under 10 won’t be able to go on the tours, but they can come listen to the stories about the mill workers and machines that helped build the county and country over the last century, one board at a time.

They can learn about a family, who as Bob Pratt of Grand Marais said, “are solid, solid people. Proud and humble and humble comes through. I was so fortunate to grow up around them.”

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