Imagine it’s the 1850s and you’re flying over the state of Wisconsin. There’s nothing but white pine forests for as far as your eye can see. Miles and miles of timber, so much as to be inexhaustible.

Fast forward to 1906 and you’re standing on the bank of the Mississippi River in Clinton, Iowa, watching a huge raft of logs, white pine logs from Wisconsin, float past.

Such rafts have been floating into Clinton for 40 years now, meeting up with nearly 20 sawmills. There, the huge logs were cut into lumber for a growing nation, helping to build towns and cities all across the Midwest, Chicago to Kansas City. At peak production in 1892, Clinton was proclaimed as “the lumber capital of the world” because more board feet of lumber were cut there than anywhere else in the country.

But now this raft is among the last. The prime pine stands in Wisconsin have been all but played out. The boom that left behind a devastation of stumps built houses, barns and businesses and made millionaires of a few is now over.

The realization that much of the forest that once covered Wisconsin passed through Clinton on its way to becoming building material is one of the lasting messages I took away from a recent tour of Clinton’s Sawmill Museum.

The museum at 2231 Grant St. — backed up to the Mississippi River levee at 23rd Avenue North — opened about five years ago in what was once a McEleney automobile dealership, but this was my first visit.

We met director Matt Parbs — doubling as the ticket-taker at the door — who gave us a brief rundown on the Clinton lumber industry. He explained how Rock Island’s Frederick Weyerhaeuser convinced Clinton’s three lumber barons to join him in forming the Mississippi River Logging Co., a business that would control every point of production, from the forests all the way down the river to Clinton. By cutting out the “middlemen,” they could make more money.

Parbs also explained the workings of the museum’s signature exhibit, a huge, 1920s saw that makes rectangular boards out of round logs.

A 10-minute video provided additional orientation, then we stepped into a room furnished like an 1800s parlor, with gold and white wallpaper, an Oriental rug and rows of satin-covered chairs. At the front were four large gold picture frames on stands, and in each frame were the heads and shoulders of four mannequin-like men, representing the four big names in Clinton lumber history. Through the wonder of animatronics, the heads came to life and the men talked to each other about their individual stories.

In addition to barons Chance Lamb, William Young and David Joyce, there was E.H. Struve, another notable who lived somewhat later and whose company continued to operate a saw mill into the 1970s. Several pieces of Struve equipment are on display.

 Appeal to children

A good chunk of the museum’s exhibits is geared toward young people. An 1888 mini lumberjack camp includes a bunkhouse, cook’s shanty, foreman’s office and blacksmith shop. Placards explain that the cutting season was October through March, then from April to June daring “river pigs” built the rafts and floated them downriver.

A unique vocabulary grew up to describe the different specialties — a “cruiser,” for example, was a person who estimated the amount of money a particular stand of timber might produce and a “fitter’ was a person who cut the notch in the tree to begin the process of felling it. (No power tools, of course. All the trees were cut down by hand and moved out of the forests on sleighs pulled by horses.)

Another portion of the museum contains placards with information about Clinton lumber industry personalities, displays of artifacts and pictures of their mansions, some still standing near the downtown.

You’ll also see displays of tools, such as saws (of course!) and pike poles that were long, sturdy sticks with spikes on the end used to push or pull logs into position when building a raft or to snag an errant log floating downstream

I learned that at least one woman was involved in the industry — Ida Moore Lachmund managed all aspects of rafts for lumber baron Joyce in the 1880s and handled $500,000 worth of logs each season, according to one of the placards.

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I also learned, a bit to my embarrassment, that George Curtis wasn’t a lumber baron. For years I have been writing stories about the Curtis mansion, home to the Clinton Women’s Club, describing him as such. Instead, he owned a company that produced millwork — kitchen cabinets, windows, doors, fancy trim and fireplace mantels. Visit any number of older homes in Clinton, and you’ll see amazing examples.

Expansion in works

Given the breadth of the museum and all there is to say about lumber and its role in the nation’s development, I wondered why the name “sawmill” was chosen instead of “lumber.”

“Sawmill” seems to give short shrift to what this place has to say. It’s much more than sawmills. And we learned from director Parbs that there’s more to come!

The museum has just embarked on a $1.2 million expansion to the back that will create space for two big children’s exhibits, including a rafting simulator and a water table display, he said. In addition, Clintonians proud of their heritage regularly make donations of artifacts, such as blueprints of old buildings or examples of Curtis millwork.

(News of the addition quelled my concern about the viability of the museum, which I had wondered about, given that many such nonprofits tend to struggle.)

As with all good museums, the Sawmill has a gift shop. My favorite offering: plastic bags filled with sawdust shavings for $1.

If you’re interested in history, the Sawmill Museum is worth a visit.

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