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Cutting wood

In the Belly of the Beast

Two Inlets Mill one of few family lumber operations left
By Roger Pickney

Friday afternoon, quitting time at the Two Inlets sawmill. The last rank of logs goes rumbling onto the rollway. The saw whines, the carriage whips back and forth, sawdust flies as the last few boards whir through the edger, slide down the conveyor to top off the day’s run of 6,000 board feet.

Two Inlets Mill is a tiny part of a $7 billion Minnesota forest products industry that gnaws out lumber, chipboard, plywood, paper posts, poles and piling. It’s in the belly of a great sharped-toothed beast. Its where – as Ross Perot says – the rubber meets the road, or rather where the saw bites the wood. Minnesota once had hundreds of mills like this one. But giants have taken over.

But Two Inlets Mill is still here. The equipment is cobbled together, some of it old enough to have a history. Take their 1902 planer. It began its long life in Flint, Mich. Smoothing board for truck beds for Ford Model T’s. Bit it all works and the boards come out white and slick and true.

Sawyer Terry Kimball takes the blade out of gear, lets the big Cumins diesel ease to an idle, chug and rattle as it cools off. The boys stacking lumber peel off gloves slimy with sap and sweat, mop faces, spit, limp off towards home, toward blessed quiet, and cool refreshment.

Out in the log yard, George Kueber pokes around, tying up after the day’s run of popple. He runs of the forklift inside, then kicks a few errant slats into a pile while he talks of a half-century in the lumber business.

Engaged in direct conversation, George Kueber looks you square in the eye. But when recollecting, he gazes far off into the Minnesota blue, almost like how was reading a script off the sky. His ancestors came over from Balvaria, he says, “from so far back in the hills, they had to pipe in sunlight.” His mother’s brothers were sawyers until the hired man fell into the saw. They got disgusted, went homesteading in Canada. He was 21 years old when he got his first mill. But then he got drafted. A soldier’s pay wouldn’t make the mortgage and the bank took it back.

Maybe it’s the sweat and sawdust. Maybe its long hours, often miserable, consistently dangerous. Maybe it’s the quiet satisfaction of knowing the woods you cut will come back to make more trees, and lumber you make will become homes and schools and stores. Whatever, there is something about logging and sawing that makes a man philosophical.

“I was on my way to Japan. We were supposed to lure the Japanese Army into combat. “He looks at the horizon for a few seconds then shakes his head at the absurdity of the idea. “Let me tell you, here’s one man who is glad they dropped the atomic bomb. I would have never come back home.”

But hey, only one soldier in seven gets shot at. And only 10 percent of those get hit. Many of those don’t die. Isn’t logging almost as dangerous as combat?

Another absurd statement. Another long look at the sky. “Oh no! in all my years I saw only one man get hurt. He used to ride the carriage back and forth because he was generally too drunk to sand. Lost his hand at the wrist. Could’ve been worse. Could’ve lost it at the shoulder.”

How many men work at the mill?

George Kueber still has all his fingers. He uses them to count off employees, comes up with 13. “Oh, make that 14. I forgot about me. But then I don’t work, cause I’m the boss.”

What about all the responsibility?

A snort of derision. Sawing is one of the few occupations that are harder than worrying.

“Being boss is the easiest job at the mill. But somebody’s got to do it, so why not me?”

George Kueber glosses over the heart bypass surgery that did not turn out as well as it should have, fails to mention the one eye that doesn’t work.

Got kids in the business?

“Yep.”

Are they sawyers?

“Oh no. Lots of people can run a saw. I need somebody who can sell lumber.”

Son Nick sells the lumber, daughter Katie runs the books. They tell tales of growing up in the woods. The Old Man use to cut timber, haul it to other people’s mills. Pay $20 a thousand for stumpage, $30 cut, hand peeled, and delivered. A penny a board foot profit. No way to make a living. But still, he tried. Katie wanted to go to college. “You got to learn to roll logs first.” The Old Man said. Katie did both, majoring in psychology. And now she works at a sawmill? Psychology is most helpful, she says, especially here.

Nick fires up a computer and shows how the business works. The going rate for Canadian lumber flashes onto the screen. Cheap this year, he says, Minnesota 2-by-6’s can’t compete. So they devote production to specialty products. Beautiful stuff – popple paneling, red oak flooring, red pine beams, white pine siding – when the porcupines and blister don’t get the trees first. And then there are the “tree huggers,” environmental extremists who don’t want any tree cut – ever. Especially white pine, which has risen to the status of being sacred.

George Kueber ambles into the office, grabs a cup of coffee, offers philosophy. “Minnesota was overcut in the early days. But in the fifties, we began planting trees. Those trees were planted for lumber and we’re sawing them. Minnesota forests are more productive today than they have been in 75 years.”

And what about him? At 78, how much longer will he be boss? Inside, there is no sky for George Kueber to gaze at, so he looks off into middle distance awhile before speaking. “Long as I can,” he says.

Katie laughs, whispers so the Old Man can’t hear. “If he gets that eye working, he’ll be back running the saw.” Nick shuts down the computer, gets ready to leave. It’s quitting time at the Two Inlets Mill. But they will be open again on Monday.

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