History: Clark County - Charcoal Burning Industry

Contact: tstraka@clemson.edu

Surnames: Straka, Gueller

----Source: Book written by Thomas J. Straka and Lawrence A. Gueller

Charcoal Burning Industry in Clark County and Bordering Counties
by Thomas J. Straka and Lawrence A. Gueller

Railroad stations in Clark County and its bordering counties were once the location of a largely forgotten industry: charcoal burning. Smoking kilns were local landmarks that produced charcoal for the iron smelting industry. Jackson Country had a large iron smelter at Black River Falls, which created much of the demand, but iron furnaces in Green Bay, De Pere, Appleton, Fond du Lac, Spring Valley, and Ashland were forced to take advantage of the vast forest resources of the region as forest depletion near the other furnaces made local fuel scarce.

The iron furnaces along the Fox River and Lake Winnebago operated from after the Civil War to the mid-1890s. Towards the end of that period forest resources near the furnaces were depleted and charcoal had to be obtained far from far into Central Wisconsin, taking advantage of expanding railroad lines. The Fond du Lac Iron Company (later called the Wisconsin Furnace Company), in particular, experienced a shortage of local wood supplies charcoal and expanded charcoal production far north of Fond du Lac. The large Hinkle iron furnace at Ashland went into production in 1888 and obtained charcoal from kilns which had been built along the right-of-way of the Wisconsin Central Railroad, reaching well south into Central Wisconsin.

A major iron smelter was only located just south of Clark County. In 1886 the York Iron Company constructed a new furnace at Black River Falls on the site of an 1856 furnace. It was a large furnace, but only operated until 1892, when the salvageable parts were moved to a new iron production area at Spring Valley. Charcoal kilns were located at the furnace site and additional kilns were erected close to the furnace (from 12 to 25 miles) at Merrillan, Neillsville and Millston. Neillsville may have referred to Sidney, a railroad station just west of Neillsville, which had a set of charcoal kilns. An 1892 fire insurance company map of the furnace site shows ten charcoal kilns. Within a month of starting production the demand was so great that York Iron Company quickly erected 30 additional kilns. Eight kilns were constructed at Stanley and 16 at Thorp along the Wisconsin Central Railroad line. Close-by kilns at New Auburn, Chippewa Falls, and Hixton also likely furnished the York Iron Company furnace. In 1890 the company was reported to be expanding its kilns: “Along the line of the Omaha [railroad], between Neillsville and Marshfield, the York Iron Company will erect many coal kilns next year to burn charcoal for its furnace.” Kilns in Lynn Township and Yolo at Chili (Fremont Township) were a likely part of the construction those kilns.

Clark, Marathon, Chippewa and Wood Counties were a crossroads of the charcoal market and supplied both York Iron Company and the other large iron furnaces to the north and west. This was due, in a great part, to the fact that the greatest portion of pine timber of these counties had already been removed by this point in time, leaving any remaining hardwood trees standing or as a part of the slashings – the left-over piles of unwanted small hardwood trees and pine branches which littered the cut-over land. Which locale’s kilns supplied which iron furnace is difficult to determine. Most iron furnaces located at least some kilns near the furnace, but usually also had to develop a system of kilns nearer the forest resources along the railroad lines. As some iron furnaces closed, other furnaces purchased those kilns, so newspaper accounts of ownership can be fuzzy. Even the number of kilns at a location was variable; kilns sometimes burned out and were destroyed, and furnaces often built additional kilns at prime locations. One local history noted that all three iron furnaces from Black River Falls, Ashland, and Fond du Lac procured charcoal from areas of Clark County:

Every piece [of timber] that will make a board six feet long and three inches wide will find a ready market for lumber, and the rest when within a reasonable distance from the railroads, finds a ready market for cordwood to make charcoal. The York Iron Co., of Black River Falls, is expending in Clark county for [char]coal at present over $50,000 per annum, with the prospect of increasing the outlay two-fold in the near future, by erection of new kilns east of Neillsville, on the new lines of road being constructed, while the Ashland and Fond du Lac furnaces spend annually as much or more for wood in the eastern and northern part of the county; so that today there is scarcely a forty of hardwood in the county that will not more than pay for clearing in the value of timber removed.

Some of this area’s charcoal even moved east; nine kilns near Withee were reported to be shipping to Fond du Lac and Oshkosh for the iron furnaces located there, and for heating purposes. Another source reported those kilns were shipping to Ashland. Both sources could be correct as the Green Bay Gazette reported in 1894 that “Ashland Iron and Steel Company has purchased all the kilns along the Wisconsin Central Railway.” Fond du Lac Iron Company also erected and operated kilns at Hewitt, Milladore, and Auburndale (all located in Wood County).
Other kiln locations are harder to tie to specific iron furnaces. Kilns at Hewitt and Spencer supplied Ashland, at least as late as 1895. In 1890 the kilns at Colby also supplied Ashland, local businessmen and farmers having donated land to get the furnace to locate them in Colby. It was not unusual for local businessmen and farmers to donate land or funds to entice a furnace or investor to build kilns. In early 1892 a local newspaper reported that Pittsville officials asked its citizens: “How much will you give toward the bonus for building coal kilns here”? Later in the year after the kilns had been built, the same newspaper contained the remark: “Five coal kilns owned by Geo. Hiles, of Milwaukee, are conspicuous monuments of his love (?) for Pittsville. No fire has ever burned within.” It seems the kilns, having been built, were not creating the economic activity promised, but in the same newspaper was an advertisement soliciting wood for those kilns. Other charcoal kiln locations were at Curtiss, Unity, and Hatley. Much further north, thus making them more likely to supply Ashland, were kilns located at Glen Flora, Ingram, and Butternut.

It was during the year 1894 that the Spring Valley Iron and Ore Company furnace, located toward the southwest, in Pierce County went into blast and was furnished fuel from forty-six charcoal kilns until it was converted to coke fuel in 1899. It well could have procured charcoal from this area of north central Wisconsin.



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