Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

February 16, 2000, Page 24

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Oldies" Articles 


The Good Old Days


Compiled by Dee Zimmerman


Clark County News


C. C. Washburn


The Lumber Baron (Continued from last week)


In 1852 C. C. Washburn turned his business interests to the acquisition of Wisconsin pine land.  Being a native of Maine, he had a little familiarity of the lumbering industry. Washburn and Woodman acquired some acreage in the Wisconsin River pinery in 1852, but their serious interest began the following year.


Washburn and Woodman proposed to monopolize approximately half of the Great Lakes softwood area. Western Wisconsin and Minnesota absorbed their attention. 


The northeast Wisconsin rivers lead to the Chicago market.  From a high plateau in the northern pat of Wisconsin, how-ever, four other rivers flow south-by-southwest into the Mississippi: the St. Croix, the Wisconsin, the Chippewa and the Black.  Another, the Rum River, flows out of Mille Lacs in central Minnesota and joins the Mississippi some eighteen miles above the Falls of St. Anthony.  It was the timber on these five streams that Washburn expected to command.  In 1853 he could only guess at the magnitude of the timber resources he intended to control.  The Chippewa, upon mature analysis, turned out to possess one-sixth of the pine west of the Appalachians.


In each of these pineries the cutting and milling of pine was an established process by 1853.  There were some 200 sawmills on the Wisconsin, the Black, the Chippewa, the St. Croix and the Wolf rivers, all dependent upon the timber floated on those streams and their smaller tributaries. Washburn believed the monopoly would require an expenditure of $200,000 in order to capitalize the venture.  Nothing ever eventuated from the scheme because Washburn did not find financial support and when he paid a visit to the newly opened land office in Stevens Point to research the availability of land for the plan, he found that much of the land had already been entered.


Washburn had systematically erred in developing the monopoly scheme.  He failed to realize that mill owners would act aggressively to secure the appropriate supplies of logs, even if they had to trespass on the land of others, or the federal government, to obtain them.


There were, for example two ways to secure pine land.  One was to buy it outright and the other was to acquire rights to the timber, commonly known as “stumpage,” without purchasing the land itself.  Since the latter alternative still left land, though bereft of its precious resources, in the hands of the owner, stumpage was clearly a less expensive way to procure pine. But one could not buy stumpage legally with the land warrants and considering Washburn’s familiarity with the warrant market, he decided to secure pinery land by purchasing the land itself.  His original interest lay entirely in logging as an enterprise complete in itself.  He had no desire to enter the business of fabricating logs into lumber, not until 1853.


At that time, lumbering in the Great Lakes area was a rough-and-tumble enterprise.  Washburn and his partners engaged four men to cruise available pine land in Wisconsin, their first purchase was a small tract along the Pine River, a tributary of the Wisconsin River.  Ephriam Brown, the veteran cruiser of Saco Valley lumbering in Maine brought to Wisconsin by Washburn, entered the land for the partners.  “Cruising” or “looking up” pine was the process in which one or more men examined pine land, usually in forty-acre tracts.  With diligent analysis and elaborate note taking, they tried to estimate the board feet in the tract and the ease with which the logs from the acreage might be driven on adjacent watercourses.  This operation was also known as the “great guessing game.”


Brown wanted to build a saw mill at the confluence of the Pine and Wisconsin rivers but Washburn refused to invest money in Brown’s sawmill idea.  Later in 1852, Washburn acquired 3,000 acres along the Yellow River in Wood County.


C. C. Washburn began entering pine land on the Black River for himself and for Eastern investors like Jacob Merrick in 1853.  Within a year, the associates had acquired 23,000 acres for cash and another 13,000 acres with military warrants.  Washburn and Woodman negotiated the right to buy half of the acreage entered for the Eastern investors whenever they chose to exercise the option.  Washburn stipulated to the absentee speculators that “we are to become joint owners with you, on paying you one-half the costs thereof and interest at the rate of eight percent per annum.”  In effect they borrowed from the Easterners to buy half the timberland they had entered for them.  Profits from logging the newly acquired land would provide the funds for buying out the easterners.  It was a standard Washburn tactic.


In addition, Washburn entered into speculative partnerships outside his association with Woodman.  By 1856 Washburn held title to 40,000 acres on the Black River and pine land had clearly displaced farm land as his principal interest.  He intended to strip the land of its pine as quickly as he could engage crews to go into the woods.  Virtually every acre he procured involved borrowed funds and anxious creditors in the East.


In the 1854-1855 winter season Washburn contracted crews to cut as much as 5,000,000 feet and with logs at $12 per thousand feet, he realized a potential profit of $45,000.


Unfortunately, selling logs and securing compensations were much more difficult than cutting logs and rafting them down the Black and Mississippi rivers.  All of the logs had been cut in Clark County by crews of two camps managed by Isaac Usher, a brother-in-law of Woodman and an experienced woodsman from Maine.  Their destinations, safely reached, were mills at Lyons, Illinois and Muscatine, Iowa.  There they lay in booms, unsold in 1855.  Washburn had only secured running expenses.  He fairly begged for more time to pay his debts.


In spite of financial tribulations in 1855, Washburn had become the premier lumberman on the Black River.  The stream yielded only 3,000,000 feet in the 1853-1854 season, but the 1854-1855 cut totaled more than 16,000,000 feet.  Washburn’s crews had logged more than a quarter of the total. But problems other than financial also began to accumulate.  The prospective lumber baron went off to serve in Congress, leaving his logging concerns in the hands of Isaac Usher, who proved to be incompetent and preoccupied with other interests.  Eventually, Usher was discharged and pursued his other interests.


Perhaps, of greater significance, and certainly of more enduring concern, was the matter of dealing with the Black River it-self. Driving logs on the stream had become so problematic that after two years of exploiting pine in the valley of the stream the logging entrepreneurs realized that substantial and costly efforts to improve the watercourse were clearly necessary.  The first tentative effort to organize the lumbermen on the Black River in an effort to secure improvement of the river was the Black River Driving and Boom Company, organized in 1854.  Washburn was one of the creators, but the firm seems to have done little except to sponsor the building of the boom at Onalaska, a few miles above the mouth of the river.


Flush times in the Wisconsin and Minnesota pineries ended with the 1855-1856 season.  Saw mills in the Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa river towns possessed a glut of logs at the same time they experienced a severe and sudden reduction in demand. Two-thirds of the 1856 cut remained in the water at down-river mill towns.


The banking panic and subsequent depression, which commenced in August 1857, portended absolute disaster.  Washburn, caught overextended, experienced a year he vowed never to forget.  Despite the hard times, Washburn did not undertake to dispose of one acre of his Black River holdings to pay his outstanding debts.


Some years elapsed before Washburn again found it worthwhile to engage logging crews to cut along the Black River.  His decision was shared by other owners of timber in the area.  Lumber prices and logging rebounded in 1865.


About 1860, Washburn left Mineral Point for La Crosse.  He always wanted a military career, so with assistance of Wisconsin Senator, James R. Doolittle, Washburn received permission to raise a cavalry regiment.  In the deal, Washburn had to provide the horses and other equipment from his own resources.  He could start out as Colonel and could commission the First Lieutenants but not the captains.  In October 1861, the 2nd Regiment of the Wisconsin Cavalry was created.  By early 1862, Washburn had recruited some 960 men, most from the La Crosse area.  He thought the war would be short and knew he didn’t have to pay his bills or property taxes while in the service.  The war lasted longer than he anticipated and Washburn resigned from the war in April 1865.


Washburn also became active in a new effort to improve the log driving capabilities of Black River during his tenure in the Union Army.  In 1864 loggers on the stream secured a charter from the Wisconsin Legislature for the Black River Improvement Company, an organization which replaced the moribund riving and boom enterprise which dated from the first year of logging activity on the watercourse.  Capitalized at $50,000, five times larger than the original company, Washburn demonstrated his interests in the future by securing 200 shares in the firm.  As the largest stockholder, he was in a position to dictate the choice of a chief operating officer. Sylvester L. Nevins, a trusted Washburn associate, filled the position, technically called Secretary-Treasurer, from the inception of the company until 1893.


The Black River Improvement Company fulfilled many functions.  It undertook such projects as the construction of wing dams, channel dredging and other mechanisms to facilitate the transits of logs from the roll-a-ways to the boom near the river’s mouth.  Perhaps it’s most impressive accomplishment was the closing of “Hammond’s Chute,” the major channel of egress to the Mississippi in the sluggish estuary of the stream.  Closing the chute redirected the river’s main channel southward through Onalaska and North La Crosse.  More than 20 sawmills eventually clustered above the new mouth of the Black River.


In addition, Washburn became active in the Black River Logging Association, a driving company of La Crosse based loggers with major holdings in Clark County.


By 1870 Washburn owned some 200,000,000 board feet of standing pine along the Black River and its tributaries.  The Black River white pine was considered to be the best quality of any other in Wisconsin.  It seemed sensible again to participate in the lumbering and marketing the product of his own holdings.  A large north La Crosse sawmill, located near the mouth of the Black River burned in 1871.  Lacking capital to rebuild, its owner, G. R. Shepardson, formed a partnership with five other local lumbermen, one being Washburn.  The rebuilt property was referred to as the “Big Mill,” with a very productive capacity.


The La Crosse Lumber Company, the official name of the mill, opened in 1872.  It represented up-to-date technology, a steam-powered mill, with sawdust as the primary fuel to fire the steam boilers, sawdust produced in cutting its own logs for lumber.  By 1875 the mill possessed the capacity to produce 200,000 feet of lumber, 60,000 shingles and 50,000 feet of lath in an operating day of 10 hours.  Generating this output was a single rotary or circular saw, a double rotary saw, and two gang saws. The rotary saws functioned to “square the logs” or “slab off the timbers” into the gang saws, machines with a group of saw blades, 30 to 40, placed parallel in a frame and keyed in place.  In time Washburn acquired sole possession of the saw mill. After eliminating his partners, Washburn brought in Sylvester L. Nevins, administrator of the Black River Improvement Co.  The personal property tax roll of the Town of Sherwood showed the La Crosse Lumber Co. as owning a large amount of land in that area, as well as many carriages, wagons, etc.


Washburn remained actively involved in both the cutting and milling of lumber until his death.  In 1881, the year before his death, the yield of the Black River pinery peaked.  Pine land in Washburn’s name in 1882 comprised 632 forty-acre tracts in Clark, Wood, Taylor, Polk and Barron counties as well 53 various sized parcels in amounts varying from 20 to 60 acres.  Some of the pine had already been logged off of the acreage.  Fifteen years after Washburn’s death the Black River floated pine logs for the last time.


Other opportunities located northward from La Crosse and westward from Washburn’s Black River pine lands were pursued. The Falls of St. Anthony on the Mississippi River, with the town of St. Anthony on the east bank and the new village of Minneapolis on the west bank, appeared inviting for a business venture.  Six months after his resignation from the Union Army, Washburn decided to build a flour mill, after obtaining the required mill powers to provide the water power to drive the turbine to rotate a number of millstones.  The flour mill business flourished with two more being built and in operation by 1870.  In the early 1950s an old mill building with a “General Mills” sign was still visible on its original site. Washburn’s wealth grew dramatically with the flour milling business.


(Washburn story to be continued next week)

Cadwallader C. Washburn purchased an elegant home in 1871, while Governor of Wisconsin.  The home known as Edgewood was located on spacious grounds outside of the Madison city limits.  In 1878 Washburn gave Edgewood to an order of Roman Catholic sisters who created an Academy and later a high school within its spacious environ



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