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Lumbermen schooled in logging and saw milling in the New England states began to cast their eyes to the pine el dorados of what was to be Minnesota as early as the 1830s. Lumbermen entered Minnesota (then part of Wisconsin Territory) along the St. Croix River to harvest pines along the river banks. The tree of choice was the white pine.
Found in northern states from Maine to Minnesota, white pine was light and floated well on log drives. It was soft and easy to cut in sawmills, yet strong, durable and resistant to decay. It grew best in the St. Croix River Valley, where, with ample rainfall, it grew to heights of 200 feet and more than three feet in diameter.
Commercial lumbering began in Minnesota in 1839. A group of New England businessmen headed by Orange Walker and L.S. Judd started a sawmill along the St. Croix, and soon a community, Marine on St. Croix, formed around the mill.
A year later a second commercial mill was erected at Stillwater and the lumbering boom had begun. Mills popped up along the river, and within a decade, Stillwater was capital of saw milling in the territory. Timber was supplied by logging camps spread throughout the wilderness. Called "State of Maine camps," they were crude communities consisting of two buildings: one for the men called a hovel and the other a barn for the oxen. Lumberjacks were hard-pressed to tell whether they or the oxen had better living accommodations.
Sawmills were equally crude, operated by waterpower. Mills often cut with a single saw blade called a "muley" or with several "muleys" banded together as a frame. Production was slow, and because the mill ponds froze in the winter, saw milling was a summer activity. Steam power soon changed Minnesota sawmills and the lumbering industry. Saws became larger and more efficient, and "muleys" were replaced with circular saws. Sawdust and scraps fueled steam engines. Hot water pumped into the mill ponds maintained ice-free sawing year round.
To meet milling advances, logging camps became larger and more efficient, adding more men and replacing slow-moving oxen with faster draft horses pulling sleighs holding tons of logs. Pine logs moved ever faster from the woods to sawmills to lumberyards. Wood from the new state supplied railroad ties to bind the nation and lumber to build its schools, homes and farm buildings across the West.
In the 1860s, the saw-milling center moved from the St. Croix to the new city of Minneapolis at St. Anthony Falls, using the white pine of the Mississippi River Valley. Using steam power, sawmills clustered around the Falls replaced circular saws with band saws by the 1880s. An endless belt of steel, the band saws worked faster with less waste. To keep up with the new technology, logging camps again increased in size, adding men with more specialized jobs. By the turn of the century, railroads reached the North Woods and locomotives began to replace horses in the woods.
Minnesota harvested more pine as a growing nation demanded more timber. By 1900, over 20,000 lumberjacks and half that number of draft horses were working in the pineries of Minnesota. An equal number of men worked in the state's sawmills and another 20,000 people worked in related wood-production factories.
In 1900, the peak year of white pine logging, more than 2.3 billion board feet of lumber was cut from the state's forests. From that year alone, Minnesota pine could have built nearly 600,000 two-story homes or a boardwalk nine feet wide encircling the world at the equator. Each of the next 10 years yielded nearly equal cuts of pine logs from Minnesota.
After that, however, each year saw the pine harvest get smaller. Logging camps reached Lake Superior and the Canadian border. Sawmills on the St. Croix closed and those at St. Anthony Falls were replaced by flour mills. With the industry in decline, lumber companies looked to the Pacific Northwest and the South for timber. In 1929, the Rainy Lake Lumber Company in Virginia, the largest white pine lumber company in the world, closed its doors and signaled the end of big-pine logging in the state.
Lumber companies that remained in Minnesota shifted production from saw logs to pulp, paper, match sticks and manufactured building materials. The big trees were all but gone, sacrificed by a public willing to trade the beauty of a pine forest for the practicality of houses, farms, cities and commerce. Minnesota's pines built Minnesota's communities.
Read select articles from Minnesota History about the history of lumbering in Minnesota.
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