A family tradition years in the making …
by Barton Barcel, grandson of Anton Barcel
I am often asked, "How in the world did my family ever end up being loggers and sawmillers in Nebraska?" Well, it’s a long story involving more than 83 years, but here are some of the highlights!
A 15-year-old volunteer in W.W.II, Donald N. Barcel (my Dad) served two years in the Navy and was stationed in the South Pacific before his age was detected and he was returned home. On the return trip from the South Pacific, dad hitch-hiked to get back to his parents’ home (a common practice back then, not one recommended today). They were living on a farm near Linwood, Nebraska.
On the last leg of this trip Viola Klug and her daughter Bonnie picked up dad giving him a ride into Schuyler, NE. Schuyler is the county seat of Colfax County, NE, about 12 miles from Linwood. Dad decided to spend the evening in town because there was a big dance at the Oak Ballroom. That night at the dance dad met up with a lifelong friend Don Gascil. At this time dad told his friend that today he met the woman he was going to marry. Bonnie Klug became Mrs. Barcel on March 7, 1946. My Grandma, Viola Klug, used to delight in telling the grandkids that just before stopping to pick up my dad she hid her purse under the seat…little did she know that his intent was to steal her daughter, not her money!
Don and his wife Bonnie raised three daughters: Toni Rae, Donna, and RaeJean and they also raised his own lumberjack crew—sons Larry, Kurt and Barton who worked with him. We Barcels have sawdust in our blood. Anton J. Barcel (my grandfather) operated a sawmill as a part-time business along with his farming near Linwood, NE. (Anton was also a renowned Bass player, he played his Bass horn with different bands including the young Lawrence Welk). He was known as Tuba Tony. This first sawmill was a joint venture with Anton owning the sawmill and another farmer owning the tractor—a Rumley Oil Pull. Decades later Dad located this tractor completely overgrown with trees.
After cutting away the tree limbs he brought the tractor home and completely restored it. We still have it today.
For a while after they were first married, Donald and Bonnie farmed and dug basements for new house construction.
Donald began cutting and hauling cottonwood in 1949. Some of his first custom sawing began in 1950, during the Korean War, when he made ammunition boxes for a firm in Lincoln. His first customer was a firm in York, where they manufactured wooden egg crates. In those days the trees were loaded by rolling them up a ramp, by hand, into the truck. In the 1950's, when Donald increased production to full-time, about 2,000 board feet and wood shipping boxes were made a day. Over the years there has been dramatic increases in production with current production at approximately 25,000 board feet daily.
In 1970 Dad purchased 33 acres of rolling farm ground 5 miles west of Bellwood, NE. He built a shop and home on the site. During this time our family began to plant thousands of trees on the property.
In 1974 dad built the first of many sawmills that would occupy this location. In the first sawmill, the logs were loaded onto a homemade, automatic log conveyor at one end of their then 36-foot by 72-foot building. The log deck would move the logs forward to the hydraulic log turner and log carriage. The hydraulic turn lifts the logs and allowed Donald to twist and turn them on the carriage. Once positioned, the logs could be run through the saw so that they would have the least percentage of waste.
The huge bottom saw blade measured 56-inches in diameter and there is a 48" sawblade mounted over this saw to allow for the cutting of very large logs. The power plant that was used to run the conveyors and the saw was one utilizing a diesel engine out of an old truck.
After the log went through the saw, each cut slab continued to a point where Donald would decide if it could be used or not. If bad, he would trigger the mechanism, which sent it on to the waste truck, loaded by one of the crew. If the slab were to be used, it would come to a stop where another crew member guided it onto the conveyor that took it to a machine called an Edger (an edger will take a slab of wood and cuts it into boards. Think of it as a very large table saw with lots of blades and a 100-horse power electric motor.)
The Edger was the only piece of equipment that was not homemade. It cut the slabs into two by fours (or any size desired). The finished lumber was then stacked on skids and, when full, they were taken to the truck by a loader.
Expansions to the first mill building included two 60-foot by 60-foot expansions. These expansions were used to house a large automatic Frick sawmill, purchased in 1978 in Kentucky, along with several other smaller machines for cutting, trimming, and processing lumber. The day after the first expansion was completed, a tornado took it down to the concrete slab.
In 1987 on a freezing January day, a fire destroyed the mill causing an estimated $750,000 worth of damage. At the time of the fire, the mill was the largest of 57 saw mills in Nebraska in terms of annual lumber production. Daily production was between 12-14,000 feet of lumber that was shipped to manufacturers all over the state. Today the sawmill ships all over the country.
Since the 1987 fire, the sawmill has been in an almost constant state of expansion. A few of these expansions included the additions of a Brewer cutup line and a computer-controlled Cleerman carriage. A current sawmill expansion consists of a veneer production line. A Jackson back roll lathe is used to produce veneer, with many of its functions being controlled by a computer. Veneer is the peeling of the log that produces long continuous strips of wood.
Today the business is thriving and still a family-owned affair. Two of Don’s sons, Larry and Kurt, own and operate Barcel Logging, supplying the logs to the sawmill, all logged within a 65-mile radius of the sawmill. Barton James is the current president of the mill as well as the new Barcel Landscape Products, Inc., which utilizes the by-products from the mill. A third and now a fourth generation is also following in Anton’s footsteps.
Although sawing trees was his business, Donald believed that planting trees was a necessity. Central Nebraska was once a treeless prairie and Donald contributed to changing that. He once said, "I've planted over 33,000 trees over the last seven years. I like trees." Barton J. Barcel continues this practice to this day but with a slightly different goal in mind. Barton’s goal is to develop an Arboretum in honor of his father.