Thursday, February 20, 2014

When Lumber Was King!

In 1899, La Farge was incorporated as a village.  Since the arrival of the railroad two years earlier, the town had become a center of frenetic commercial activity.  The production and sale of lumber was the economic leader in this activity.  As the little river town welcomed in a new century, the lumbering boom in La Farge continued to expand.
            In December of 1899, word came from West Lima that the Clark & James Company, a wagon stock production and mill partnership, would be relocating to La Farge.  The move was made to secure a better mill site and be closer to the rail connection to ship products.  The new Clark & James mill operation was located south of Main Street, along Mill Street and the railroad tracks.  By June of 1900, the Clark & James mill was running at full capacity.  The company purchased an electric dynamo to provide power for lights so the factory could run around the clock.  When electrical wires were strung to a few other businesses on La Farge’s west end, the town had their first electric light system.
            In January 1900, news traveled up the river from Wauzeka that the excelsior plant located there was moving to La Farge.  Excelsior was a product comprised of wood shavings that was used as a packing material, which was much in demand at the time.  The new excelsior production line would be added to the newly renovated mill at Seelyburg.  Tosen Sine operated the sawmill business at Seelyburg.  He had come north from Readstown shortly after the railroad had reached La Farge and rented the sawmill from Charles Seely.    Although Sime’s sawmill operation had been shut down for several months after the great Kickapoo River flood of June 1899, the mill was up and running again by the time the new year began.  Sime went into partnership with O. P. Vaughn of Wauzeka on the excelsior plant, with Vaughn moving his excelsior cutting equipment to Sime’s Seelyburg site.
            When the new excelsior cutting equipment was installed at Sime’s sawmill in November 1900 another new product would join the lumber production output.  Shortly thereafter bales of excelsior shaved from basswood was being loaded onto rail cars sitting on the branch line of the railroad that ran to the Seelyburg mill.  By February of 1901, Sime was running a weekly advertisement in the La Farge Enterprise newspaper wanting to buy excelsior bolts for his mill.  In March, Clark & James announced that they were adding twelve excelsior cutters to their mill in La Farge, further increasing demand on area farmers and landowners to provide material for the product.  In May 1901 Clark & James added a second shift to the excelsior line and ran the mill day and night.  At the height of the excelsior production in 1901, the two La Farge mills were producing 600 bales of excelsior each week.
            In September 1901 August Kriigel had one million board feet of lumber at his La Farge yard and lamented the lack of available railroad cars to ship out his product.  The railroad company, now called the Western Wisconsin Railroad Company, trying to meet the demand of La Farge’s lumber output, put down sidetracks along Mill Street to the Clark & James Mill, Kriigel’s lumberyard and the Hammer Brothers’ stave mill and factory.  Empty railroad cars could be dropped at each of those locations when the need arose.  Even with the improvements to the La Farge operations, the railroad still could not keep up with the demand for freight shipments; especially lumber shipments being shipped down the line.  In January 1903, the railroad company announced the purchase of a second steam engine locomotive and the adding of another train each day on the Kickapoo line.  Two trains would come into La Farge and depart the village each day, Monday through Saturday.  One train would carry passengers and mail as well as pull freight when needed, while a second train would be reserved solely for freight shipments.
            La Farge’s lumber industry continued to grow.  New businesses continued to relocate to La Farge and the competition in the lumber business was fierce during these times.  The Hammer Brothers’ stave mill, still running around the clock in the peak spring and summer cutting season, was combined with the Clark & James mill and moved the stave cutting operations to that site.  The Keogh Excelsior Company moved its operations to La Farge and began production in the old Hammer Brothers’ site.  Keogh’s new excelsior plant would need 4,000 cords of basswood annually, further increasing the demand for the bolts from area farmers and rural mills.  The Seelyburg excelsior production had been curtailed by this time as Vaughn left La Farge and Sime devoted more time to the new gristmill operation there.
            Perhaps feeling the effects of the increased competition for products and services, the Clark & James partnership disbanded.  Clark took the wagon production part of the business to Stoughton, Wisconsin, while James remained in the village and continued to operate his sawmill at a diminished capacity.  By the following summer, the James mill was closed and all of the machinery sold.
            The Smith & Johnson Lumber Company began operations in La Farge in September 1902.  Besides operating a sawmill in town, the new company also bought and sold lumber from rural mills.  By the spring of 1903, the company was operating at full capacity when it was confronted with labor troubles at the mill.  In March 1903, eight workers at the mill went on strike for higher wages.  The mill was closed for one day, but reopened the next with eight new workers.  (So much for labor negotiations at a busy Kickapoo lumber mill.)
            In July 1903 the largest trainload of lumber ever assembled on the Kickapoo line made its way south from La Farge.  August Kriigel, acting as the representative for American Hardwood Lumber of Madison, had assembled the rush order for oak and basswood lumber in only seven days.  The order filled thirty railroad cars and it was surmised at the time that no town in southern Wisconsin besides La Farge probably could have made the shipment.
            An article in an Enterprise issue of the time of the great lumber train extolled the La Farge lumber business, “The lumber manufactured here is from oak, maple, basswood, butternut, ash, elm and hickory.  The Kickapoo Valley timber is recognized as the very highest grade for the manufacture of fine furniture, wagons, etc., being valued for its fine even grain.  There were about twenty mills last winter engaged in sawing lumber for the dealers.”  The article then goes on to list the sawmills including four in La Farge.
            The principal La Farge buyers of native lumber at that time were August Kriigel, Smith & Johnson and the Thayer Brothers.  Kriigel operated several mills besides his large lumber yard in La Farge, while Smith & Johnson bought mostly standing timber and then sawed it up at their La Farge sawmill.  The Thayer Brothers operation bought most of their lumber from rural mills.  Total timber purchases for the La Farge lumber operations in 1903 had exceeded $120,000 for the year.  It was estimated that there were 180 men working in the lumber production industry in the La Farge area then.  The economy of the town was booming at that time when lumber was king! 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Last Sawmill in La Farge

There is an empty lot now, covered with snow.  The buildings that once housed the workings of the sawmill have been dispersed – scattered with the four winds.  (Actually, one of the buildings was torn down, while the others were trucked off to other sites.)  The cement piers that once supported the conveyor that moved the logs from the trucks towards the debarker are all that remain of the last sawmill in La Farge.
            This past summer, sawmill operations shut down at Schroers Hardwood Lumber on north Mill Street on La Farge’s west end.  Lumber had been produced at the site since the early 1950’s and the Schroer operation had been active there for forty years.  But all things must end, so Russ and Sharon Schroer decided to close the sawmill and sell off the machinery and property.
            In September an auction was held to disperse the sawmill buildings, machinery and vehicles.  A large crowd was on hand and the bidding was lively.  An out-of-state buyer bidding on the Internet bought most of the mill’s machinery.  More local buyers purchased the other equipment and buildings.  Within a few weeks, the inner workings of the mill had been disassembled, loaded onto semi trailers and hauled away from the Kickapoo Valley for good.  The buildings were all gone by the end of October.  One of the buildings was torn down by the Amish, the materials salvaged for future use.  The main building did not go far and is now used for storage at its location in the southern part of the village.  The lumber mill’s office building resides on Weister Creek for now. 
            And so it was that the rich history of saw mills in La Farge perhaps came to an end in 2013.  The village has had at least one working sawmill in operation since its very beginning in the 19th century.  La Farge actually became a thriving town because of the sawmill operations and the lumber that was produced from them.  Perhaps we should pause and look back at that illustrious history of when the sawmills and lumber businesses made La Farge the most dynamic town on the Kickapoo.
            When the railroad line built along the Kickapoo River reached La Farge in late 1897, it created an immediate boom in the small town’s economy.  As the northern terminal of the branch line that connected to the main railroad lines at Wauzeka, La Farge became a very busy place as various products came and went on the railroad.  Lumber was one of the chief products that were leaving La Farge on the new railroad.
             There was already one sawmill, the Seely mill operating on the Kickapoo on the northern end of the hamlet, when the railroad reached La Farge.  Charles Seely, the son of founder Dempster (who had passed away in 1895), built a new dam on the Kickapoo River during that time (downriver from the site of the previous dam) to provide better power for both the gristmill and sawmill that he owned.
 Dempster Seely had built the first dam and mill at the site on the river in the 1860’s.  His lumber mill flourished for the next thirty years as the abundant stands of white pine were felled and sawn into lumber.  The Kickapoo River was used extensively in Dempster Seely’s lumber operation, which was one of the largest in the Kickapoo Valley.  The logs were floated to the mill at Seelyburg, where waterpower from the river ran the sawmill.  Much of the sawn lumber was used locally, but some was floated down the river in long rafts to other markets.  By the 1890’s, most of the northern Kickapoo’s pine trees were gone.  With the new railroad extending the line to his mill in Seelyburg, Charles Seely had new markets for hardwood lumber, which was still abundant in the area.
  In 1897, the same year that the railroad arrived, the Hammer brothers from Hillsboro opened up a second sawmill in La Farge.  Located along Mill Street to the south of the railroad terminal, the Hammer Brothers’ mill specialized in the making of heading bolts.  Later the mill was expanded to include both a stave and heading production factory.  In the winter, which was the best time to harvest lumber from area farms, it was not uncommon for sixty or seventy wagonloads of lumber to come into La Farge on a good day.  In the winter of 1897-98 over 2,500 cords were delivered for heading bolts at $1.25 per cord.  The mill also bought white oak heading bolts in 15-22 inch lengths for eight cents per cord foot.  The heading mill produced 236,000 pieces in one two-week period in April of 1898.
In February of that year, the Hammer Brothers’ mill and factory had gone to around-the-clock operations to meet the production demands for finished lumber.  They used a whistle to signal the start and finish of the 12-hour shifts and lunch hours for workers.  It is believed that the present whistle (siren) times used in La Farge originated from that early lumber factory whistle schedule.
With the two mills in La Farge operating at peak efficiency, the demand for buyers for lumber soon was needed.  Lumber brokers came to the new railroad village to purchase products to ship out to various markets in the Midwest.  Lumber brokers would travel to the rural areas around La Farge, purchasing sawn lumber from mills operating at Dell, Weister Creek, Warner Creek, Buckeye Ridge, North Bear Creek, South Bear Creek and other locations.
By 1898, the partnership of Knutson & Johnson was the biggest lumber broker in La Farge.  They had followed the railroad line north from Soldiers Grove in 1897.  Buying the property to the east of the railroad depot on the corner of Mill and Main Streets (the present site of Nuzum’s), Knutson & Johnson had a lumberyard that often took in 25,000 board feet of lumber in a week’s time.  The lumber brokers averaged a boxcar shipped out every week on the nearby railroad and in June of 1898 sent out a train with thirty carloads of lumber.
The demand for suitable hardwood lumber gave the farmers in the La Farge area a ready market for most of the timber they were clearing to create fields for crops.  Hauling of the logs had to be done in the winter when bobsleds could be used to glide over the frozen, snow covered roads.  Winter cuts of timber also made for the best lumber because of the absence of sap in the logs.  As the wagonloads of logs were coming into La Farge, the timber delivered to the mills was called “Kickapoo wheat”.  Each spring, the lumberyards of La Farge would be piled high with logs ready for the spring and summer cut of lumber.
La Farge’s retail lumber business changed in May of 1899, when John E. Nuzum returned to town.  Nuzum, owner of a successful lumberyard in Viroqua, had first opened a yard in La Farge located north of Belcher’s Hotel on State Street in 1897.  The following year he sold the La Farge lumberyard to Levi Millison and left the village.  Returning in 1899, Nuzum in partnership with M.D. Chase purchased Millison’s business and bought out the other retail lumber business in town owned by the Minor brothers.  Nuzum combined both businesses into the La Farge Lumber Company, which opened on the western end of Main Street, near the Hammer Brothers mill and the railroad depot.  Levi Millison was made manager of Nuzum’s new La Farge operation.
In October of 1899, August Kriigel bought out the La Farge lumber business of Knutson & Johnson.  Kriigel was well known in the lumber trade in the northern Kickapoo Valley.  Living in the Rockton area, Kriigel had earlier worked for Van Bennett at the Rockton mill and for Dempster Seely.  By the time that he purchased the La Farge business, he was the largest lumber broker in the area.  In August and September of 1899 he shipped forty-two carloads of lumber out of La Farge.  Within a year of his purchase of the La Farge business, Kriigel would expand his operation by becoming the Kickapoo Valley representative for the Brittingham & Young Hardwood Lumber Company.