More Information on the Sawmill Museum

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Breckenridge History opened the Breckenridge Sawmill Museum in 2015 on the site of the Wakefield sawmill established by Marion and Zella Wakefield. The Wakefield mill existed for at least 27 years (~1933-1960).

Marion operated his mill in the summer months and engaged in mining-related activities during the winter. Another sawmill—the Jacot Mill—was located near this spot in the 1890s and early 1910s.

This site represents the importance sawmills had in the establishment and continued growth of the American west.   It has been said that sawmills were the wheels that got all the other wheels going.  This sawmill was a portable mill.  Unlike the Midwest and Southern U.S., there were few large rivers in the west to transport logs from the lumber camps to the sawmill.  In the Colorado high country, it was more economical to take the sawmill to the trees and haul out milled lumber.

Reportedly, a crew of six to eight men could dismantle and reassemble one of these portable mills in about four days. Alignment and leveling of mill components was critical in the setup for producing accurately milled lumber.

In 1859 and the early 1860s, when gold seekers crossed the Continental Divide into the Blue River Valley, there were no sawmills.  Boards were either made locally by the pitsaw method or they had to be hauled over the divide by mules or wagons. As the photo shows, pit sawing was a slow and arduous method.  The top man pulled the blade up and the pit man made the cut by pulling the saw down.  Average output was 15 boards, 12 feet long, per day.

All buildings were made of logs.  Few structures were longer than 25-30 feet due to the size of native trees and the difficulty in handling.  Fewer still were a full two stories, one story with a loft being the norm.  Two well-preserved log buildings are the Iowa Hill Boarding House and the Carter Museum (both BH sites). 

By the late 1860s, the increasing need for sawmills started attracting woodsmen with an eye on big profits.   Settlements like Breckenridge were growing at a rapid rate.  By 1880, Summit County had dozens of sawmills servicing these settlements and the mining industry. 

Sawmills were a key factor in transforming log settlements into established communities with schools, churches, fraternal halls, hotels and saloons.  Buildings could now be constructed without size constraints and in different styles.  Boards for framing, roofing, siding, could be obtained locally.  Even the by-product of cut slabs could be used or burned as stove wood. 

Planing machines were introduced to produce smooth planking for flooring and boardwalks, and smooth boards for siding, doors, shelving, furniture, and even coffins.  The Barney Ford House in town (also a BH museum) is a good example of a home built with planed lumber.  Tongue and groove boards appeared on the scene after planed boards.  They were used by placer miners to build water-tight sluice boxes and flumes.

Local sawmills enabled towns to recover more quickly from devastating fires that were much too common. Over the years, sawmills have continued to be key to economic growth and prosperity.

Portable mills like this one were built from 1890 until the 1960s by many manufacturers. Corley Company of Chattanooga, Tennessee built this mill.

Anatomy of a portable sawmill

These numbers correspond to the numbers on objects at the site.

Main components of a sawmill


Husk – This frame contains the circular saw, drive shaft and bearings to keep the saw rotation true.  It also houses the operator’s platform and a type of transmission that controls the speed of the carriage that feeds the log into the saw and backs up the log on the carriage for the next cut.


Carriage – This may be thought of as a metal sled mounted on a track which holds the log to be cut.  It is propelled back and forth carrying the log through the saw.  After a log has been cut up, a new log is loaded on the carriage while on the back stroke.

The thickness of the boards is determined by setworks, mechanisms for advancing the log on the carriage a specified width after each cut.  The “knee” portion of the two setworks shown in the illustration physically advances the log.  The knees are mounted on headblocks bolted to the carriage.  Mounted on the knees are sharp “dogs” which penetrate the top of the log holding it in place on the carriage.  The setworks and carriage are operated by the sawyer.


Power supply – The only piece of equipment from the Wakefield mill is a gasoline engine manufactured around 1930  by the  Wisconsin Motor Mfg. Co. for use in Cletrac 40 crawler tractors produced by the Cleveland Tractor Company.


Cut-off Saw – The cut-off saw sizes the boards to the desired length.  This saw is mounted on a swinging carriage hinged at the top.  It is belt driven and swung forward and backward by the operator using the handle.

Other components of a well-equipped sawmill


Edger – The edger saw removes the outer edges of the cut slab to form a board.  The width of the edge cut is dictated by the irregularity of the log.  The edger can also be used to rip boards using one or more saw blades as in the case for producing laths or stakes.


Buick Straight 8 – This engine powers the edger saw and the planer. Previously it powered a sawmill on the Colorado Front Range west of Denver in the vicinity of Conifer.

Buick cars from 1931 to 1953 had an overhead valve design. This engine was probably from a 1938 automobile.  Bigger Buicks used this model; the engine also offered a more powerful option for smaller cars.


Sawdust Sluice – One of the by-products of this type of sawmill that presented a problem was sawdust.  Every cut generated sawdust waste the width of the blade.  So much was generated that it had to be removed continuously.

Marion Wakefield figured out a unique and efficient way to dispose of his sawdust.  He tapped a water source above the mill and piped it down to his operation.  He built a wooden water channel or sluice under the saw and let the water carry away the sawdust. 


Planer – For some uses, customers preferred their boards smooth. Planers were introduced early on to meet that demand. Early mining towns had many tents for conducting business and for living purposes.  They were called “plank houses”.  They had smooth plank floors and some had half walls made with planed wood.  Planers also produced tongue and groove boards for flooring and furniture.

Planed boards enabled structures like the Barney Ford Home to be built, beginning the transition from the log cabin phase.

This behemoth was believed to be manufactured in the early 1880s.  Those were the days when machinery was designed not only for function but with the desire to please the eye but not today’s safety engineer.  The lack of safety guards meant that safety was solely the operator’s responsibility.


Planer – Marion Wakefield operated this planer to produce all types of smooth boards. He also produced tongue and groove flooring.

 Sawmill power sources

Evidence suggests that water wheel power was used but  inconsistent. Water wheel power was popular in the U.S. early in the Industrial Revolution.  It was replaced by the more powerful and efficient water turbines in the mid-1800s.  Both of these power modes were somewhat portable but required a water source.

The next advancement in sawmill power was the steam engine which was used from the last quarter of the 19th century to the first quarter of the 20th century.  Evidence indicates a steam engine powered the sawmill at this site for a period of time. 

Portability became an issue early on due to the weight of the engine and the steam generating boiler.  Smaller, more compact engines were soon developed with the boiler mounted on top.  They were much easier to transport.  Steam engines were a logical way to power a sawmill because their steam generating boilers were fueled by end cuts, log slabs and sawdust.

The next step in the evolution of the sawmill power plant was the gasoline tractor or car engine, like the ones at the Breckenridge Sawmill Museum. By the 1950s, diesel engines were common on portable sawmills. The last operating sawmills in the Breckenridge area (up until about 1967) ran on electricity.

Sawmill Job Responsibilities

Sawyer – Of the many mill jobs requiring concentration and good judgment, the sawyer is the key person.  He is responsible for seeing that 1) the saw is sharp and running true and 2) the logs are properly loaded and secured on the carriage.  He also operates the setworks controlling how many and what size boards are to be harvested from the log.  He controls the rpm of the saw and the speed of the carriage conveying the log to the saw.  The speed depends on the diameter and moisture content of the log, the hardness of the wood, and the condition of the saw.  He is closest to the primary saw and is in a position to spot problems.

Log loader – Unloads the felled, de-limbed logs and positions each one on the carriage using the peavey tool.

Off-loader – Removes the freshly cut boards after they are sawed from the log. The boards fall on the track with rollers for easy sliding. 

Cut-off saw operator – Runs the cut boards through a cut-off saw to the desired length.

Edger saw operator – Runs the cut slabs through an edger saw to create a board of the desired width.

Planer operator – Planes the boards to the desired smoothness.

Stacker – Stacks lumber so that it will dry properly without warping.

Mill mechanic – Inherent in every operation of a mill are the mechanical requirements of keeping all moving parts well lubricated and operating within specification.