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T.B. Walker’s Sawmill in Grand Forks


It is quite surprising to find that Grand Forks once played a major role in the lumber industry, but from 1886 to 1892, one of T.B. Walker's sawmills was located on the banks of the Red River just south of the Kennedy Bridge. The Walker Mill cut millions of board feet into two-by-fours for building the region's houses and businesses. On this date in 1886, the Grand Forks Plaindealer newspaper announced that the newly-built Walker Lumber Mill would be ready to cut logs "within a week."

The logs were Minnesota white pine, floated down the Red Lake River in the spring log drives. Some of the logs came from as far as four hundred miles before being tethered in a sorting pond beside the sawmill. White pine was the ideal wood for building houses. Being a soft wood, it was easy to cut, yet was strong, durable, and resistant to rotting.

In 1885, when T.B. (Thomas Barlow) Walker, the Minneapolis lumberman, was looking for sawmill locations for cutting his vast white pine acreages near Red Lake in Minnesota, the businessmen of Grand Forks offered Walker a good site and a good deal. The Grand Forks citizens contributed $16,000 to buy a property on the banks of the Red River, and Walker agreed to build a sawmill there and operate it for a certain number of years.

Walker was true to his word. The sawmill cost $50,000 to build and it began sawing logs in June, 1886. The mill became a hub of activity — the saws were buzzing and the planing mills were humming, taking the rough edges off the boards. The shingle mill was shaking out shingles by the thousands. The sawmilling season typically lasted from March through October.

In 1888, however, disaster struck. "The mammoth mill" in Grand Forks burned to the ground in an August fire. Rumors spread that Walker, regarded as the richest man in Minneapolis, would not rebuild it. However, T.B. Walker did rebuild, spending $100,000 on a new sawmill. The large steam engine that powered the mill burned waste wood from the milling process.

Regrettably, the Grand Forks sawmill operated for only four more years, shutting down permanently in late 1892, when T.B. Walker built a new sawmill in Akeley, Minnesota, closer to his pinelands. Walker was supposed to have operated the mill longer than just six years, and Grand Forks city leaders tried to make him re-open the mill, but the lumberman wouldn't budge. By 1897, the "abandoned mill" was considered "an eyesore and a tramp's lodging place."

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.


"The Walker Mill," Grand Forks Weekly Plaindealer, June 10, 1886, p. 5.

"A Big Bonus," Grand Forks Daily Plaindealer, May 17, 1897, p. 3.

"Another Large Mill," Grand Forks Weekly Plaindealer, October 7, 1885, p. 5.

"Grand Forks Factories," Grand Forks Herald, December 18, 1892, p. 13.

"A Great Lumber Industry," Grand Forks Herald, December 18, 1892, p. 12.

"In the Pine Woods," Grand Forks Daily Herald, January 8, 1893, p. 3.

"The Work Of Fire: The Mammoth Mill of T.B. Walker Was Burned at Grand Forks," Minneapolis Tribune, August 17, 1888, p. 1.

"Grand Forks," St. Paul Daily Globe, October 25, 1888, p. 5.

"Sawmill Closes," Grand Forks Herald, October 13, 1891, p. 5 (closed for the season).

"The Walker mill closed down for the season yesterday-----not a very long season either," Grand Forks Daily Plaindealer, October 21, 1892 p. 4, col. 2.

"Accident at the Mill," Grand Forks Daily Plaindealer, September 24, 1892, p. 4.

"Killed In A Mill," St. Paul Daily Globe, May 29, 1889, p. 8.

"Has Decided to Rebuild," St. Paul Daily Globe, September 9, 1888, p. 5.

"Mr. Walker Will Rebuild," Minneapolis Tribune, September 9, 1888, p. 8.

"T. B. Walker is reputed to be the richest man in Minnesota," St. Paul Daily Globe, October 21, 1888.

Stephen Sylvester, Ruby on the Red: East Grand Forks, Minnesota (East Grand Forks: East Grand Forks Centennial Committee, 1988), p. 140, 141, 147.

"Robt. H. McCoy" in "Minnesota Biographies 1655-1912," Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Volume 14, June 1912, p. 463.