in Wisconsin History
Logging and Forest Products
The 19th-century logging industry reshaped the landscape of central and northern Wisconsin, provided a livelihood for thousands of workers, and formed the roots of today's thriving paper industry. By the late nineteenth century, Wisconsin was one of the premier lumber producing states in the U.S., and from 1890 to 1910 forest products led Wisconsin's developing industrial economy.
Despite its obvious potential, logging was only a minor activity for the first white settlers, who actually brought lumber with them from the East at great expense. Throughout most of the 1830s, logging was carried out on a small scale around Prairie du Chien, Portage, and Green Bay, but after 1836, when the Menominees were forced to cede much of central and eastern Wisconsin to the U.S., white settlers began to actively develop the lumber industry. Although facing obstacles such as long distances from supplies and markets, limited transportation, and unimproved waterways and roads, the lumber industry grew steadily to form the backbone of the state's economy by the middle of the century.
Because of its greater accessibility to early settlements, forests along the Wisconsin River were the first to fall before the lumberjack's ax on a large scale. Rivers provided a convenient way to transport pine logs from the forests to the mills. The mills then used the same rivers to power water wheels and huge saws that cut the logs into boards. Entire cities such as Stevens Point and Wausau grew up around these mills as general stores, banks, grocers, and other businesses opened to support growing populations of loggers and mill workers. Most of the major cities in central and northern Wisconsin were consequently built on rivers.
The region around the Wolf River in northeastern Wisconsin was another major lumbering district by the late 1840s. Because the river ran through the center of their reservation, the Menominee developed a successful logging business in the mid-nineteenth century. Menominee men stayed in lumber camps all winter cutting timber and hauling it by sleigh to the riverbank, so it could be floated downstream when the ice broke in the spring.
The watersheds of the Black and Chippewa Rivers in the northwest constituted a third major lumbering region in Wisconsin. Dozens of small independent companies there gradually combined into a conglomerate led by Frederick Weyerhaeuser that shipped logs and boards down river to St. Louis, creating towns such as Eau Claire and Black River Falls in the process. Enough pine was harvested from the Black River Valley alone to build a boardwalk nine feet wide and four inches thick around the entire world.
Railroads transformed Wisconsin's lumber industry in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. Transporting lumber by train allowed loggers to work year-round and to cut lumber that had previously been impossible to float down rivers. Lumber camps could be moved deeper into the woods, which caused them to increase in size to meet the needs of the men. Bunkhouses, a kitchen and dining hall, a company store, a blacksmith, and a carpentry shop became typical features of lumber camps.
The soft pine forests of northern and central Wisconsin provided a seemingly endless supply of raw material to urban markets. Products manufactured from Wisconsin trees included doors, window sashes, furniture, beams, and shipping boxes built in lakefront industrial cities such as Sheboygan, Manitowoc, and Milwaukee. Much of the lumber was also used to construct housing and other buildings for booming population centers of the Midwest. The forest trees of 19th-century Wisconsin still surround us, transformed into the houses, schools, and churches in older neighborhoods from St. Louis to Superior.
Lumbering had a permanent effect on Wisconsin's economy. The location of mills led to the growth of cities and towns and influenced the routes followed by railroads. Thousands of workers were employed in cutting trees, hauling and transporting logs, cutting logs into lumber, and shipping boards to markets. The industry was essential to the economic well-being not just of urban "lumber barons" but also of the Menominee, who used capital from log drives on the Wolf River to develop a sawmill that provided jobs and income for many decades.
At the start of the twentieth century, the fate of the lumber industry in Wisconsin was uncertain. Earlier logging operations had gone into forests to select only the most suitable and profitable timber, but new methods completely cleared forests of almost all useable trees, even revisiting areas already cut over. The demands of the state's furniture, paper, and tanning industries led to an increase in the harvesting of hardwoods, which had been spared when the industry had earlier focused on pine reserves. Moreover, the virgin forests of the Pacific Northwest drew the capital of large lumber corporations away from Wisconsin in the early twentieth century.
As logging declined, northern Wisconsin's lands were increasingly promoted for agricultural use by logging companies seeking to sell their land and towns hoping to halt the exodus of people from the region. New waves of immigrants, mostly from northern Europe, attempted to turn acres of pine stumps into family farms with little success. Some towns survived as retail and distribution centers, or as centers of paper manufacturing as mills shifted from the production of lumber. But many northern towns simply shrank into small rural communities that struggled to cope with the Great Depression. Not until the forests recovered their growth and the tourist industry boomed after World War II would the economy of the Northwoods revive.
[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol 2 and 3 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Nesbit, Robert C. Wisconsin: A History. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973)]