Caught In Time Northwoods Wisconsin Memories and Gifts
Fond Memories ...
The Logging Industry of Northwest Wisconsin
D. James Tindell
(originally published in Trail Blazer, June, 2004)
In the beginning, there was land, thousands of acres of it. The land was dotted with lakes and cut by streams and rivers, and most of all it was covered with trees, by the millions. For a young nation on the move, whose people needed lumber to build homes and shops and stores, it was a trove of immense treasure.
The first logging operations, in the early 1840s just before Wisconsin achieved statehood, were small operations. Andrew Tainter set up a mill on the Red Cedar River in what is now Barron County in 1845, and two years later purchased a small mill on Wilson Creek in Dunn County. Tainter's new operation wasn't too far from a mill operated by William Wilson and John H. Knapp, a pair of entrepreneurs who kept expanding their operations and bringing in partners. Tainter officially joined the company in 1853, and with Wilson, Knapp and another partner, Henry L. Stout, the foundation for one of Wisconsin's mightiest 19th-century companies was laid.
The Knapp, Stout & Company was headquartered in Menomonie and by 1870 had spread to the surrounding area with mills and logging enterprises. The Red Cedar was its lifeline, allowing the company's lumber to be shipped down to the Chippewa and thence to the Mississippi and south to St. Louis. From 1871-1896, the company shipped an average of 85 million board-feet of lumber annually. Homesteaders followed the loggers as they cleared the land, establishing farms and towns. At its peak, the company employed some 2,000 people in Menomonie alone, and operated not only the lumber business but supporting enterprises involving stables and horses, grain warehouses and grist mills, machine and blacksmith shops, general stores and steamboat lines. Additional lumbering facilities were purchased in Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi.
The partners worked together and became rich men. Tainter was in charge of the lumbering and shipping of the timber to the mills, which were supervised by Knapp, who also ran the company's affiliated businesses. Wilson took care of rafting the finished lumber to markets that were secured and managed by Stout. The partners re-invested their profits in the business as it grew, and later turned to charitable ventures. The first schools in Dunn and Barron counties were established by the founders of Knapp, Stout. They contributed heavily to area churches, and Tainter built and endowed a civic center in Menomonie as a memorial to his daughter Mabel, a building that still thrives today. James H. Stout, Henry's son, founded the college that would become UW-Stout.
The partners knew that the forests of northwest Wisconsin weren't limitless; without access to the reforestation techniques used in later years, they gradually sold off some 275,000 acres of Wisconsin land and turned their attention to the forests of Arkansas and Missouri. The last of the original four partners, Henry Stout, died in 1900. The last raft of Knapp, Stout lumber went down the Red Cedar on August 12, 1901.
The logging methods of the 19th century cut huge swaths through the forests of Wisconsin. The trees were also devastated by several wildfires, most notably the Peshtigo fire of 1871. Because it occurred on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo blaze didn't get nearly as much publicity, although it was far more destructive: about 250 people lost their lives in Chicago, but the fire that roared through northeast Wisconsin and nearby parts of Michigan's Upper Peninsula claimed over 2,000 lives and scorched an astonishing 1.5 million acres, making the fire the worst natural disaster in American history.
As the 20th century dawned, attitudes toward forests and logging began to change, spearheaded by President Theodore Roosevelt, who championed conservation of the nation's natural resources. As late as the 1960s, though, many skeptics thought that conservation measures would fail. Science fiction writers predicted a future where wood will be more valuable and scarce than gold. Fortunately, they are turning out to be wrong.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the percentage of land covered by forests has held steady. In 1936, the first inventory found 45 percent of the state's 34.7 million acres covered by forests. The rate of conversion from forest to clear land was slowing, and by the 1970s the numbers started going back up. The most recent survey, in 1996, calculated that 15.7 million acres in the state, or 46 percent, are now forested.
The once-feared monopolization of forest lands by corporations hasn't happened, either. Private individuals own 57% of forested acreage. Another 15% is operated by counties and municipalities, and 9% is national forest. Only 11% is owned by the forest industry or private corporations. Those acres hold a lot of trees. According to the DNR, "For each of the 5 million residents of Wisconsin, there are more than 1,700 trees larger than ten feet tall. In a typical year, seven of these trees are harvested and 137 die of natural causes. However, 167 new trees grow to be over ten feet tall."
In fact, the forests appear to be growing trees faster than we can harvest them, and that's been the case for a long time. In 1936, the DNR survey found that about 200 million cubic feet of trees had been removed, but some 250 million cubic feet of net annual growth was reported. By 1996, removals had risen to about 340 million cubic feet, but growth was up to some 540 million.
Wisconsin's forest products industries are many and varied. Two of the biggest in the Hayward area are Louisiana Pacific and Midwest Forest Products.
L-P operates an oriented strand board mill in Hayward, which produces wood for flooring and sheathing. Employing about 175 people, the mill's economic importance to the area has been evident for decades. "The Hayward mill is one of our original mills, and still one of the premiere mills in the country," says Brian Luoma, L-P's Northern Region Manager. L-P operates a siding mill in Tomahawk that is almost as large as the Hayward mill.
Modern companies are well aware of their environmental impact and the need to carefully manage timber resources. Those management techniques are working, says Luoma. "In terms of rotating out slower-growing stands of timber and re-planting with faster-growing stands, we've been pretty successful," he says. "The growth is out-pacing the take-away. The growing stocks are in great shape." He does sound a cautionary note about the future. "What happens in years to come remains to be seen. Assuming the federal government, state and county governments and private landowners continue to manage the resource aggressively, there won't be a problem."
Eric Maki is the vice president of Midwest Forest Products, which has operated in Hayward since 1977 and employs about 50 people in the area. The company provides wood fiber to the paper industry. "Aside from providing jobs with good wages and benefits, we also help provide jobs for everyone in the logging industry," Maki says. "We have a resource here that can be utilized, and we shouldn't let it go to waste."
Maki talks about "best-management practices" as ways in which the forest industry has changed in the last quarter-century. "We don't see the adverse impacts on the environment and resource that there were twenty years ago," he says. "BMP provides us with ways of conducting harvests that are practical and have minimal impact on the environment." Noting that the majority of Wisconsin forests are owned by private individuals, he says, "There is a high demand for wood products, so there's no lack of opportunity for landowners." Maki is also cautious. "The harvest of wood in national forests is going down. Wood is going to waste."
The common public perception is that trees are in the forests, serving as vital members of the ecosystem, until they are cut down or burn in fires. What we forget is that trees die, and when they do, they're no use to anyone, humans or otherwise. An important part of forest management is replacing longer-living stands of trees with shorter-lived ones, as the older trees are harvested or die. Harvesting faster-growing trees allows more wood to be harvested from less land.
In 1997, nine paper companies that collectively own or manage over 876,000 acres of Wisconsin forest joined together with the DNR to establish the "Green Guarantee". Using a variety of progressive management techniques, the companies involved in the Guarantee have been able to profitably harvest trees at a rate far more efficient than seen in other states. As of 1999, the average size of a paper industry clear-cut harvest in Wisconsin was less than 29.3 acres, compared to the national average of 64 acres. The companies also work closely with the government to ensure the forest habitats remain vibrant for flora and fauna, including humans---99.7 percent of Wisconsin forest land is open for recreation. Trail mileage has increased 9 percent. The forests thus provide a vital service for the state's tourism industry. Green Guarantee members work together on wildlife management, and not just for the most obvious four-legged or winged residents of the forest. One of the group's major projects has been to preserve habitat for the Karner Blue butterfly.
Wisconsinites of the future may live different lifestyles than we do today, but chances are they'll still live in houses and sit on furniture and write on paper, so they'll need wood. By working together, we're making sure they'll have plenty.
Special thanks to D. James Tindell,
and the Trailblazer Magazine, for making the story available to us.