Days of the Sawmills

In 1833, European settlers crossed the Mississippi River into a newly opened section of wilderness, purchased from the Sauk and Meskwaki (Fox) Indians the year before. In less than ten years most of this land would be settled. But the pioneers did not know that as they faced the great forests. Cedar, oak and walnut trees stood tall and green in wide bands along the rivers. The pioneers only knew that here was good land, cheap ($1.25 an acre), with plenty of wood on it. A person with a strong arm and an ax could clear a bit of land and build a house and simple furniture from the trees.

The Technology of Mills

Wagons, loaded with sawmill machinery, halted by the small creeks that ran through the woodlands. Where the settler went, the miller soon followed, knowing there would be business. A dam of branches, logs or even stones was piled across a creek to create a mill pond. The pent-up water from the pond was channeled through the mill run and pushed the flat boards of a wooden water wheel. The wheel turned gears, providing the power to run the saw machinery. The water wheel was an ancient source of power, relied on by humans as early as 200 B.C.E. It was equally important to these settlers, who could now haul their cut trees to the mill and come away with boards for roofs, tables and chairs.

As the European settlers moved across Iowa, large patches of prairie and savannah interrupted the forests that pioneers depended on. Savannahs were usually areas on hillsides with scattered trees. Here and there a grove of cottonwood and oak trees rose from the tall prairie grass. It became obvious that the forests of Iowa were not going to be able to provide for everyone's needs. Towns were being built, requiring new sources of milled lumber.

Iowans Look North for Lumber

The water power of creek mills could not meet the growing demand for power. Those millers who could afford to do so brought steam engines in by boat from Pittsburgh or St. Louis. Looking for more sources of timber, they looked hungrily to the huge, almost untouched pine forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin. It did not take long to convince the northern timber dealers that Iowa sawmills would pay a good price for their timber.

So huge rafts of pine logs were floated down the Mississippi, and landed at the steam-powered mills that sprang up from Lansing to Keokuk. As soon as the ice broke up in the spring, the first raft moved out onto the river. These giant rafts were sometimes as big as two-thirds of a football field! A crew rode on the raft and used oars bigger than a person to push away from the shallow places. A tent or small cabin was set up where the crew slept after tying up for the night on the riverbank. Around the time of the Civil War, log rafts were as common on the Mississippi River as steamboats.It was not long before steamboats replaced the clumsy oars in steering the raft. Too often these oars had been unable to keep the raft from crashing into a muddy riverbank. Steamboats, placed in the front and back of the raft, were a better way to guide the logs.

Lumbering Expands, Then Declines

As the flow of logs increased, mills became larger businesses, making constant improvements in their machinery and supplying lumber for homes, barns and stores. When railroads pushed across the state, mills in eastern Iowa were linked with mills in the western part of the state and beyond Iowa's boundaries. Lumber products could then be shipped by rail to any major city in the nation—and from there out to smaller towns.

From 1859 to 1889 the sawmill business on the Mississippi River boomed. Along with flour milling and meatpacking, it was one of Iowa's top sources of income. But by the 1890s the flow of logs had slowed to a trickle. The great forests to the north had been stripped bare without any attempt to replant. Sawmills all over Iowa were abandoned. Those millers who wanted to stay in the business packed up their machinery and moved to the Pacific Northwest or the South—where forests still stood.

But Not Forgotten

Even a business that grows and dies within 50 years, as the sawmills of Iowa did, leaves some lasting effects. Woodworking companies that grew up around the mills manufactured wood doors, window frames, stair railings and porches. Some of these companies are still in business in Iowa today.

M.S. Disbrow and Company was one of the most successful of the early companies, sending out a fancy catalog of their wood products as thick as the better known catalog from Sears & Roebuck. Beginning in 1856 at Lyons (now a part of Clinton), the company manufactured fine wood products for the inside and outside of buildings.

It's easy to spot homes built in the later 1800s. The proud homeowners showed their taste by putting up as many wooden curls and spindles as they could afford. Especially popular in the late 1800s were the wooden ornaments that could be put on porches, gables and over windows. Homes in Mississippi, Idaho, Washington, New York, Ohio and other states sported millwork from Disbrow. Another lasting impact of the lumber industry was the sawdust. This bi-product of the milling process was used as fill on both land and in the river. There are still places in Iowa along the Mississippi River with 15 feet of saw dust at the bottom of the ricer from the mills in operation over 100 years ago.

It took only a few years for one of Iowa's rich natural resources to be destroyed. And then settlers turned to neighboring states to fill their need for lumber. At the same time, the quest for lumber spawned new industries. In turn, some of those businesses died while others changed to meet new needs of Iowans. 


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “Days of the Sawmills,” The Goldfinch 2, no. 2 (November 1980): 2-4.