Road Trip Through History: The Sawmill Museum at Clinton, Iowa

The Sawmill Museum at Clinton, Iowa, was our last stop on this year’s Great River Road adventure—and a fitting stop it was. Logging was a recurring theme this year and last year. Beginning in Lake Itasca in Minnesota almost every local historical museum or GRR interpretive center has had at least one panel on logging.* The Sawmill Museum tells the story from the perspective of the people who milled the logs rather than the people who cut them. Or at least from the perspective of the people who hired the people who actually milled the logs.

The museum looks at the broader history of America’s lumber industry through Clinton’s local history, which is a classic example of an American town’s boom and bust, lumber baron-style. ** Located at a conjunction of the railroads and the Mississippi, Clinton was a powerhouse in the logging industry in the second half of the nineteen century. Between 1865 and 1900, one-third of the lumber produced in the United States was processed in Clinton. And because it was a lumber center, it was a center of other industry as well. The twin cities of Clinton and Lyons bustled with sawmills, flour mills, finishing mills, distilleries, carriage and wagon shops, and foundries.

Here are the things that caught my imagination:

  • The story of how a group of mill owners in Iowa and Illinois created a lumber empire by controlling both supply and production along the Mississippi—told in part by the lumber barons themselves in the form of a set of animatronic talking heads in conversation with each other. Effective story telling, though a little creepy.
  • An in-house small scale milling operation, with seven volunteer sawyers who process trees into lumber, then turn it into wooden items for the museum’s gift shop.  Nothing beats seeing the equipment in action
  • Anne Paulina Crepin, a French woman who patented the first modern band saw blade in 1846. The band saw itself was invented by an Englishman, William Newberry, in 1809 but it didn’t work because existing blades couldn’t hold up to sawing. (A fundamental flaw by any standard.)  Crepin’s design used a new technique for welding a blade that overcame the problem, making the band saw a viable tool.
  • Crepin’s band saw was powered by a goat on a treadmill. Apparently animals on treadmills were used to power a number of small machines in mid-19th century America. Who knew?

Hopefully we’ll hit the Great River Road again in 2020.

* I still regret missing the Forestry History Center at Grand Rapids Minnesota. It was already closed for the season by the time we got there last year.  One of the hazards of traveling in the fall.

**If you want to get a deeper understanding of lumber barons and other nineteenth century monopolists, the museum’s director, Matt Parbs recommended a book that’s been on my mental to-read list for a long time now: Richard C. White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. Obviously it’s about railroads, not the lumber industry. But he suggests that the mind set is the same.


Pro tip: If you walk around a small museum obviously taking notes, sooner or later at lease one member of the staff will come talk to you. This is almost always a good thing because they tend to be passionate and knowledgeable. They also can tell you the best place to eat lunch nearby.  Always a hot topic as far as we’re concerned.

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