Bio: Bensen, Ralph (Hobby -Sawyer - 1974)
Contact: Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon
Surnames: Bensen, Blank, Wren, Pakiz, Boon, Heck, Ehlers, Buchholz, Osman, Moldenhauer, McHone, Hagie, Martin, Halbrader, Schwellenbach, Baughman, Finder, Lipke
----Source: Clark County Press (Neillsville, Clark Co., WI) 3/28/1974
Saw Sings on Bensen Farm (Hobby - 1974)
Turns Hobby into Full Time Job
Ralph Bensen of Christie avers that he always has been “fascinated by wood.” He has about 175,000 board feet of “Fascination” piled up in his “back yard” right now; in the form of logs.
Bensen is a man who has turned his fascination from a hobby into a full-time business. He’s a sawyer, operating one of the few mills remaining in these parts.
Years ago when one read through the items of county correspondents at this time of year, he was likely to read one that went like this:
“Wood sawyers have set up o n the farm of Joe Blank in the Town of Washburn.”
Rarely, in this modern day, does one read such items; but many people in this area who want logs sawed into timbers truck them to Ralph Bensen’s, where sawing and planing is done on a custom basis.
That accounts for the separated piles of logs in the field north of Bensen’s saw house.
Love comes Naturally
Bensen’s love of wood comes naturally. His father was a carpenter and cabinetmaker in Illinois; his grandfather was a casket maker in Norway and carefully, lovingly selected the materials that went into the final resting pieces for a great many friends, neighbors and relatives. Bensen, himself, works as a planer in a furniture factory in Rockford, Il., before coming to Clark County after World War II.
Ostensibly, he came here to farm, and he settled first on a farm southwest of Neillsville now occupied by the King family. Bensen recalls going to the sawmill operated by the late, venerable Tom Wren at Sidney (three miles southwest of Neillsville), where he watched the sawing of logs into dimension lumber and boards with considerable interest.
In 1949, when he bought the present farm a half mile west of Christie on County Trunk H, Bensen started to farm the land. When he was married, however, there was need to enlarge the small house there by adding a bedroom. He bought a saw mill then, “just as a hobby and to saw out a few logs for the addition.”
In the intervening years his hobby has become a full time occupation; farming has gone by the way side and he rents out the open land on his farm.
Bensen’s is all custom work. People bring in their own logs and they furnish whatever help is needed to do the sawing, and the planing if finished lumber is wanted. So Bensen hires no help. He is his own work force.
When Bensen was expanding his hobby into a full time occupation, he bought a sawmill in Ironwood, Mi., and installed it in a shed on his farm which has since become a saw house. Two years ago he bought a larger mill, which is driven by a gasoline engine on an old tractor. At the time The Clark County Press visited the Bensen mill, everything was complete for energizing a 75 horsepower electric motor except for the three-phase transformer. By the time this piece has been published the mill could be powered by electricity.
$70,000 at Retail
Twenty-one individual piles of logs dot the landscape behind the sawmill at present. Each represents logs owned by a different customer. At present, he estimates that from 175,000 to 180,000 board feet of lumber is represented by hose logs. In a day when one can pay as much as $400 per thousand feet for lumber at retail, one can imagine the retail value of these logs, finished into lumber, in the neighborhood of $70,000. This is a very nice neighborhood indeed!
All of them, too, came from woodlots of this area of Clark County.
Wood sawing has picked up tremendously in recent years, according to Bensen; it has been particularly good this winter. The reasons are the high price of lumber and the open winter which has been a good one for logging operations, he says.
Lumber sawed out and finished at the Bensen mill will be used for a variety of things - from hog pens to farm sheds to houses. The 21 piles of logs now on hand will be converted into a great variety of building. Two piles contain lumber which Larry Pakiz, who lives between Greenwood and Willard, will use in a new house. Ditto a pile brought in by Donald Boon of Christie.
Eventually another pile will form the basis of lumber for a barn addition on the Benny Heck farm near Christie.
Depending on how the work progresses, Bensen says he will saw out from 500 to 30,000 board feet of lumber in a day. He works most days, except when it gets so cold the engine o n the old tractor used for power will not start.
“We work when it’ zero,” he told the reporter, “But when it gets 20 below, no way.”
While the sawmill operates the year around, most of the sawing is done during the fall, winter and spring. Spotted among the huge piles of logs, one will see neat stacks of rough-sawed lumber curing in the open air. These are piles which will be planed down into finished lumber, most of it during the summer.
Results of Labor
When Bensen travels through the countryside he sees many house and other buildings which were built with Clark County-grown lumber rough-sawed and finished in the Bensen mill. They include house of Willie Ehlers, Harvey Heck, Floyd Heck and Fred Buchholz; a barn addition on the Arnold Buchholz farm and a 140-foot barn on the Donald Osman farm, north of Greenwood. These are just a few the come quickly to his mind.
In May of 1972 Bensen added to his equipment a planer which finishes all four sides of a piece of lumber at a time. From the way he talks about it, one can see that Bensen is partial to planing, for this is where he had his introduction to commercial woodworking in the Rockford furniture factory. He has a variety of cutting heads for the planer, too. There is a set for matched lumber, another for flooring and still another for shiplap, in addition to heads for finishing regular lumber. The plane will take pieces of board up to 22 inches.
While the old portable sawmills were a way of life in Clark County many years ago, there are but a few of them remaining. One is operated by a man in Fall Creek, another by an old-timer in Mondovi.
Many Clark County men were prominent in this field back in its heyday. They included such names as Walter Moldenhauer of Granton; Freeman McHone, between Granton and Chili; Ed Hagie, Washburn; John Martin, Neillsville; Lawrence Halbrader, Rohland Schwellenbach, Ernest Baughman and, of course, Bertha Finder’s mill south of Neillsville which was run by Fred Lipke.
Old-time portable sawmills were considered dangerous things, and the men who worked with them did so with extreme caution and respect. Bensen fees that “one shouldn’t have any trouble;” but he was injured seriously last October when a slab was caught by the 48-inch saw and was hurled backward. It struck him a glancing blow on the cheek and shoulder. The slab continued on its way and broke a steel header on the log carriage. Bensen spent some time in the hospital after that incident; but he considers it a freak and it represents the only injury he has had in the 25 years he has been operating.
(There were Press photos but unable to copy them here…)
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