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Benton County sawmill out of steam but still going strong

Published on: 09/22/2022

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A decade ago, the Hull-Oakes Lumber Co. still literally operated under its own steam.

The sawmill, some 10 miles west of Monroe in Benton County, was one of the last to operate under steam power and remain commercially viable.

Eventually, though, the 21st century proved inescapable. The company switched completely to electricity-based production in 2013, phasing in the electrical equipment over the course of a year or two. The old steam technology remained as a backup, but it’s been years since workers fired up the boiler for production, said Nathan Nystrom, the family-operated mill’s log buyer and forester.

For one thing, the 1906 steam engine was difficult to keep.

“We had to work with a lot of machine shops and different folks to be able to do any repairs on it,” he said. “We did an analysis on what we would do if we had a major failure, and it would have been months and months of downtime to get that thing rebuilt.”

Using steam takes a lot of time, he said.

“The boilers are pretty intensive to get going,” he remembered. “We’d have a person come in at midnight every night to get the fires stoked and the pressure built up. When the shift started, we were able to get the steam engine running efficiently.”

Winter was more difficult. Millworkers used wood shavings and sawdust for fuel. “Sometimes it’s hard to get steam pressure built up, so you have to shut down for 10 minutes and build up pressure,” Nathan said. “So you get a little bit of downtime there.”

Fire risk presented another unavoidable reality.

“We were using a wood-fired boiler in a wood-framed sawmill, and there were some mill fires throughout the years, and there were a lot fewer underwriters writing insurance packages for mills,” Nystrom said.

“They would come out here and see us burning shavings and sawdust and our boilers surrounded by a wood-frame building, it just made them very uncomfortable,” he said. “It was challenging obtaining insurance.”

Author :Tom Henderson | For The Oregonian/OregonLive

Source Url :https://www.oregonlive.com/business/2022/09/benton-county-sawmill-out-of-steam-but-still-going-strong.html

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