When you think of Clinton’s lumber history, the phrase lumber capital probably quickly follows. But is this an accurate pairing? In short, Clinton was part of THE lumber capital, wherever it might be, but by itself, it was never a lumber capital.
What makes this analysis difficult is historic statistics are often stated by parties who have self interest in their usage. To have accurate statistics, one needs to take into account how contemporary accounts talked about the statistics and then utilize multiple sources to fact check the numbers.
The difficulty can be perfectly summed up through a favorite Trump anecdote. Trump would inflate the floor numbers in his towers so someone actually living on floor 58 would see their floor number be 68. Just like Trump’s “tower of lies” was salesmanship, most Clinton and other lumber barons knew William J. Young had a “sawmill of lies.” WJ Young claimed to have the world’s largest sawmill. Lamb and Joyce often challenged him to cut at full capacity to no avail. Young and Trump’s claims were known to be dubious by clients and competitors, but both were necessary sales pitches
While the world’s largest sawmill claim is inherently difficult to prove or disprove, Clinton can claim to be the leading lumber center in Iowa. It should be noted that Clinton includes Lyons, and I will use Clinton to include both moving forward. Clinton accounted for 30 to 40 percent of all of Iowa’s lumber production. In 1870, Clinton claimed it cut more on balance than the entire state. Mostly likely a true claim given that Rock Island and Moline were the main competitors south of Clinton.
Being Iowa’s leading lumber capital is impressive. However, Iowa rarely, if ever, cracked the top ten most productive states. From the 1860s and 1880s, Pennsylvania was the first or second most productive state. During Clinton’s peak of the 1880s and 1890s, Michigan was king or queen. In 1890, Iowa would cut over a half a billion board feet. Michigan cut 4.3 billion board feet or 8 times as much. Iowa accounted for only 1.5 percent of all lumber cut between 1880 and 1907.
What American lumber capital usually means for Clinton is being the most productive town along the Upper Mississippi River. For the Mississippi River, it seems for most of the time between 1860 and 1900s, Minneapolis led production with Clinton, LaCrosse, Eau Claire, and Winona battling it out for second.
The genesis of the lumber capital, as understood as being the leader on the Mississippi, is in the early 1870s. In the 1870s, the local papers claimed Clinton was the most productive city on the Mississippi River, or cleverly perhaps, south of St. Paul. The papers even state Clinton’s production was the best in the west or that Clinton could compete with almost any place in the nation. They would provide Clinton’s numbers and leave out competitors.
By the mid 1880s, it seems such bold claims subsided. I state this because in 1880, the paper makes a claim that Clinton had never cut more than 90 million feet in a year. What the papers in the 1870s did was use the fact that Clinton mills had a capacity of 160 million board feet and not focus on actual numbers. Then the paper would publish Minneapolis production in a range from 116 million to 195 million. Papers rarely mentioned Eau Claire, on the Chippewa, regularly out produced Clinton and on occasion Minneapolis in the 1870s.
This is because the real lumber capital in America was always up for debate. For 1860 and 1870, you had to grapple with New York and Pennsylvania, where towns like Williamsport were cutting over 300,000,000 board feet a year. By the 1870s and into 1880s, the leading towns were in Michigan and eastern Wisconsin. From 1851 to 1897, Saginaw Valley in Michigan had 83 mills at some point. It accounted for 25 billion board feet cut. Saginaw always cut more than 400 million board feet until the panic of 1893. At its height, Saginaw was cutting 700-850 million board feet. In 1891, Clinton, Fulton, and Lyons were the sixth most productive town behind Menominee/Marinette, Bay City, Muskegon, Saginaw, and Minneapolis. Clinton was just ahead of LaCrosse. Always at the heels of Clinton was Davenport, Moline, and Rock Island as a unit. The Tri-Cities were often within millions of board feet when taken as a whole.
What makes Clinton a lumber capital, or rather part of THE lumber capital, is Clinton overcame its geographical limits. Clinton owners were part of several larger organizations that took over the Northwoods. They owned timber in the Northwoods. They had mills throughout Wisconsin and eventually even Minnesota. For example, the Joyces owned Shell Lake Company and Barronet Lumber Company. Young and Lamb also had interests in Wisconsin. Even Curtis had a sawmill in Wisconsin. I often wonder if you add those numbers to Clinton’s numbers where Clinton would rank; of course you would need to do this for every interest.
But to a degree, it was the consolidation of the lumber interests into the Weyerhaeuser syndicate that shows Clinton’s true claim to being a capital. Weyerhaeuser is credited with knowing that controlling the Beef Slough in Wisconsin meant one controlled the Northwoods lumber industry. So while he is credited with creating the Mississippi River Logging Company in 1870, Clintonians were usually the largest shareholders of the Mississippi River Logging Company and Beef Slough Company and its subsequent incarnations. In fact, local papers called the MRLC a “Clinton enterprise.”
An intense game of musical chairs and alphabet soup would follow as sawmill interests vertically and horizontally integrated. Clinton was always right there leading the boards of the groups that made up the Weyerhaeuser syndicate. More importantly, the board meetings were often held in Clinton. Throughout the industry, it truly seems all lumbermen equally weighed Clinton’s input as they did Weyerhaeuser. I can’t resist saying this of course seems to be Weyerhaeuser’s business plan and philosophy to become the Giant. What this means is that Clinton had a hand in the billions of board feet cut in the Northwoods, even if less than a percent of it was cut in Clinton.
In February 1882, there was an article that I think sums up how Clintonians thought of their place in the industry. They did not want to overstate their role because what they wanted was real investment and “immigration” from the East. The article however went out to say Clinton was being too modest about its prowess. Later papers felts that not enough capital from the East knew that Clinton’s manufacturing sector and river facilities were on par with anyone along the river.
The article claimed Clinton had hid its light under a bushel. I can’t help but think that this is how the “lumber capital” moniker became attached to Clinton. Like Trump’s white lie, like Young’s white lie, it became shorthand to simply mean, invest in a winner. Just like in 1870 when it was used to make a town realize their own potential, Clinton as a lumber capital came back in full force once the sawmills closed and Clinton was looking for a new identity. It’s why at the museum we hedge our bets. We tell guests that while Clinton wasn’t technically a lumber capital, let us tell you the story of how they played an integral role in the Northwoods lumber industry and jointly controlled the Mississippi River lumber industry. Controlling both put Clinton on the map as THE lumber center, even if the dot on the map was a big circle connecting Minneapolis to Wisconsin to Davenport.
Matt Parbs is the executive director of the Sawmill Museum.