After 42 years, Lester River Sawmill owner sells business
The former owner said the small sawmill is in good hands.
RICE LAKE — After 42 years, the owner of Lester River Sawmill is retiring and has sold his business on Rice Lake Road.
Former owner Mike Biron, now 68, started the sawmill in 1980 when he stepped away from logging at age 26, so it’s “bittersweet” to retire, he said. But he said it will be in good hands under Will Feyder, 30, who bought the mill Nov. 1.
“He’s like me at that age,” Biron said of Feyder.
“I feel so good about handing it off to Will. … We just look at things the same way so far,” Biron said.
Feyder, who went to school for and worked in engineering for several years, said he knew pretty early on that it wasn’t the career for him — too much time indoors in front of a computer.
In 2015, a windstorm at his parents' home near Brainerd knocked down trees throughout the area, and it got him thinking about what uses, other than firewood, there could be for all the logs. He found himself down a rabbit hole of articles and YouTube videos on sawmills.
“So I built a sawmill,” Feyder said. “It took me way too long. But it was a good process. I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot about how they work and other things. So I got that running, finally made my first cut and it was like, ‘OK, this is really sweet and really fun.’”
After a few years of using his homemade mill, he upgraded to a portable mill he could haul behind his truck to different properties and mill logs on site.
He got to know Biron 14 months ago when he was looking for more customers for his portable mill and heard Biron could connect him with some.
Then Feyder heard Biron was getting ready to retire and sell the business.
“That got my wheels turning as well,” Feyder said. “And my goal was to move to a more stationary operation and this kind of ended up working out.”
Biron buys the wood he mills locally from loggers who drop it off. He then cuts, dries, straightens and turns the wood into products including furniture-grade lumber, molding, trim, tongue-and-groove, beadboard, shiplap and mantels.
Thanks to its natural resistance to rot, tamarack boards from the mill have become a mainstay along the bridges and boardwalks on the North Shore’s Superior Hiking Trail and Duluth’s Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores mountain bike trails.
Feyder plans to keep making those products but he also wants to expand into hardwoods, which will need to be sourced from southern Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Feyder will use his engineering background to make changes to the process, but jokes it will also cause him to “overthink things and over analyze things.”
“But I also don’t want to change everything. … There’s lots of time and lots of wood that’s gone through this exact process,” Feyder said.
The logs are first cut into planks by the 1980 sawmill and its 48-inch saw powered by a large Detroit Diesel engine. After being kiln dried, it’s passed through a 1930s straight-line ripsaw to get the correct dimensions.
If it’s going to be tongue-and-groove or shiplap, it’ll pass through a 1952 or 2000 molder where it’ll be shaped by knives.
“I don’t want to discount what that (process) is, and so I think it’s going to be some small tweaks to the process.” Freyder said.
Eventually, it could mean adding more products and a few employees (it’s currently just Feyder, but Biron is helping him out for his first few months).
As for Biron, he’s looking forward to getting away from the stress of owning his own business. He’ll be able to ride his bike more and walk the trails throughout town, often over structures built with the wood he milled.
“It is really fun to see your end product out in real use. I don’t know why, that's just a thrill,” Biron said. “Especially now that I’m basically getting retired, it’s fun to look back and see these products being used still. They don’t just go away for a very long time.”
Still, he’ll miss the customers he’s gotten to know, some he’s had for all four decades.
“My customers are just incredible,” Biron said. “It’s a really unique group that uses Lester River Sawmill. I’ve gone through two recessions at this mill and it’s because of them … that I was able to survive here in this niche market.”