The Willsie Sawmill
Craig King


My college English class was very excited about going to see a sawmill, Willsie Lumber Company, in Freeland, which is a busy place all year round. Driving into the parking lot the first thing that is noticed are giant piles of logs overflowing the capacity of the lot. I was surprised to see there were only two buildings to handle all the work of this mill. The lumber company uses many pieces of heavy equipment, such as pay loaders, saws, semi trucks, and debarkers. Willsie cuts most of the lumber used by mid-Michigan furniture factories and cabinetmakers, which makes it a very convenient for the local businesses that use lumber. As we began our tour, every place I turned to or walked past had either a sound, smell, or sight that caught my attention. When we walked out into the yard it was amazing to see the piles of logs stacked to the sky.

The workers of Willsie Lumber Company are very hard working men, for each day is a vigorous work day. The men are continually moving to and fro from one area to another. They are very easy to spot because of their orange safety hard hats. They are like the worker bees of the hive collecting pollen, but these workers are instead carrying lumber to its destination.


Every time I turned my back I heard new sounds, sometimes the noise seemed to be off in the distance and moving as if it were coming at me. I heard the roar of the diesel motors moving the heavy logs here and there, as if they were nothing to lift. When I walked outside a building I could hear a strange noise like some one beating a bat on a tree. Once I walked around the side of the building I found that it was the debarking machine making the noise. This machine has teeth that work much like the teeth of a beaver gnawing off the tree bark on a log. The debarker kept gnawing on the bark, and as it finished one log it would go on to the next. The logs at this point rolled down a feed bed, where other logs were waiting. The mill itself was loud, like a swarm of bees in their hive working away. The buzzing sound became almost comforting, but you knew it was dangerous to be around. The buzzing was made by a massive saw blade, ripping apart its meal like a raptor. As I was watching the saw blade, I asked Mr. Willsie, "How much does a saw blade cost?"

"Each saw blade costs $2,500. The teeth can be replaced at a cost of $1,000 per set," Mr. Willsie replied.


As I walked around listening to the sounds, I noticed a very distinctive odor. I have spent most of my life working around wood. Each species of wood has its own distinctive tang, such as sassafras smells like root beer, cherry has a sweet odor, and red oak has a rotten smell. The stench was that of red oak filling the air with the reek of a decomposing tree on its last limb of life.

The Willsie Sawmill was an exciting experience; it reminded me of the times as a little boy that I would go with my dad to a lumber brokerage firm. I would enjoy watching the men working, cutting and moving the lumber. I was always amazed at the equipment used to cut the lumber, just as I was on this day. The smells reminded me of what I notice each day as I work with lumber in our family's business. The sounds also caught my attention because I was not familiar with them. However, my lasting impression will be of those huge stacks of logs in the Willsie Sawmill parking lot. I am sure that those piles of logs would seem to be dwarfed by the piles of logs created when lumber was king in Michigan,in the late 1800s, but to me they were very impressive.

Editor's Note: Willsie Lumber Company was founded by Grant Willsie, Senior, in about 1931. It first served as a portable sawmill, then moved to its permanent location in Freeland, Michigan, in 1948. During its 75 years of business, Willsie Lumber has gone from processing about 1/2 million feet of lumber to 6 million feet in 2005. It is the only sawmill in the area, and belongs to the Michigan Association of Timber Processors.

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