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Grand Rapids, MI

The Big Red Mill

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

The Big Red Mill

Tom Elenbaas

Journal Entry, September 2, 2012

This morning I took a walk. I’m not that much of a walker, I guess. Purposeful walking – like hiking or to get somewhere – I get that. But I don’t just go for a stroll. Well, today I did. I’ve been riding the edges of burn-out for a couple of months after pushing too hard and drinking the drug of adrenaline for two and half years. So I took the morning off, asked our youth pastor to preach for me, and drove up to my parent’s house. They live on a lake about an hour north of my house and more importantly, only a few minutes from the Muskegon River. I found a great little place near the river – a park with some benches and walkways and access to the water. To the east end of the park is a little paved path that wanders along with the river back towards town. I decided to take a stroll. OK, that’s a lie. Honestly, I was looking for a better and more secluded place to sit and read because the park suddenly got busy with people. I guess I wasn’t on a stroll after all. Anyway, as I walked, I came across a marker on the left side of the path with a picture of logs all over it and superimposed over those, a picture of an old saw mill.  Apparently, this was the site of the old Newaygo Saw Mill. Down on the post of the marker was some lettering going around the outside. It was broken up and a few letters were missing from being weathered over the years, but with some work, I easily put the phrase together. It said this: “700 million board feet of lumber harvested here.” What? Here? There was nothing here to show of it. Looking around, all I could see was underbrush and overgrowth and a few trees and the quiet river rolling by. I could hear birds, saw what I thought was an osprey, and behind me was a few large grain elevators for a local agricultural storage company, but nothing of a sawmill. No remnants. In fact, archaeologists wouldn’t even think to dig here for anything because it sure didn’t look like much of anything.

Apparently, the Penoyer brothers – entrepreneurs from Chicago first made their way up here from Chicago and began the logging business. The Big Red Mill at this location became a flurry of activity, with men working, and logs floating down the river to Lake Michigan. In fact, more logs have floated down the Muskegon than any other river in the world. This was a big deal until about the 1850’s. That’s only 150 years ago. And yet, there’s nothing here. Just a post – a marker in the ground with words you can barely read. Who were the men that worked here? Who were the leaders that led these bands of burly men who swung axes and see’d saws. How did they become so profitable, powerful, and pervasive in the lumber industry? What houses, buildings, and structures were built with the lumber that came down these shores?

There’s not much left, and not many people remember the men or even what they did. It did matter. People’s homes were built. Businesses were started. Men were paid and food was put on the table. The landscape of Michigan was changed forever, and gone are the tall, towering forests of yesteryear - including the glorious white pine forests. But who remembers the mill and its leaders?

When I first came to Fair Haven Ministries back in 2005, a pastor of the church for 25 years was retiring. With his wife at his side and an interesting mix of weariness and satisfaction on his face, he said to me, “Tom, ministry is like a bucket of water. You put your finger in for a time, and make some ripples. But when you remove your finger, it’s not long and you can’t even tell it was there.” Now, I know that this pastor made an incredible influence in the lives of many people. I know his life matters and has made a tremendous difference. I’ve now heard countless stories of times when he was present and spoke words of comfort, prophecy, or encouragement. Yet there is great truth in this – whether it’s ministry or the Big Red Mill or whatever vocation we’re called to, what we do matters, but time quickly causes us to be forgotten.

I mentioned in the beginning of this piece that as I write this I’m on the edge of burning out. There are a lot of reasons for that, but to be honest, one of them is that I’m taking myself too seriously. I think God is reminding me this morning that though what I do is important, it is small in the span of time and place. He is reminding me to stay healthy and to not make myself more important than I am, to keep things in perspective. To work hard, but to rest hard and to connect well with my wife Trista and my children. To lead well, but to remember that  you can make and transport 700 million board feet of lumber by river and be easily forgotten.  It’s a reminder to me to pay attention to the things to do last, to invest in eternity, and to remember that with God, 1000 years are like a day and that my life is but a breath or a flash and then is gone.


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