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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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Smoke from the sash and door industry hang over the city in this picture from the 1920s.

LUMBER INDUSTRY. Utilizing its ideal location on the MISSISSIPPI RIVER, Dubuque became a hub of lumbering activity.

The first development took place in 1865 with the establishment of a retail business by William Harrison DAY, Sr. This small company, the Robb and Day Retail Plant, grew with the city and, as INGRAM, KENNEDY & DAY, opened a sawmill in 1876 that eventually became the lumber industry titan, STANDARD LUMBER COMPANY. (1)

Lumber companies like Standard depended on a steady supply of timber from forests of Wisconsin. LOG RAFTS were soon seen floating with the current under the watchful eye of expert lumbermen. Logs floated down the river were marked with their owner's symbols at the skidways in the forest or at the landing on the stream. These brands were numerals or characters mounted on the head of a sledge hammer. Brands were stamped in several places so that regardless of the log's position in the water, the brand was clear. Occasionally bark marks were also cut in by the sawyers. Branding became so specific that logs were distinguished by ownership, sections of land, and rivers used for transportation. All of these marks were registered. If logs of several companies were combined and shipped to the same location, the marks on the "pool logs" were ignored and the companies received a share of the entire shipment in proportion to their investment. (2)

The era of the immense log rafts held a romantic image in the minds of many. The "log drivers" lived, when working, in a tent or in "dog huts" arranged near their field of work. Permanent structures were hot erected for shelter. The company owned all the "houses," grocery and supply stores. Early examples of "company towns" like Gary, Indiana, the company rented their men their shelters and sold them their supplies.

"Log drivers" managed to find their way over jammed or moving logs because of their "calks," half inch long spikes numbering between ten and one hundred, on the soles of their boots. Thousands of logs could form a jam or "lock" and still be freed by one man who was suddenly faced with a race across the moving pack to land and safety. The only other piece of equipment needed was a pick-pole, an iron-shod staff, and "cant-dog," a hook. (3)

As late as 1875-1876, when logging operations started late, by February 23, 1876 the Dubuque Herald reported that 100 million logs were banked and that if the cold weather held in the Chippewa River Valley for another two weeks another 100 million would be added. (4) The lack of rain over a period of time could, however, bring milling operations to a complete halt as logs could no longer be obtained due to low water levels. (5)

Not only low water, but pirates threatened the log rafts. Thieves took advantage of every opportunity to pull logs away from rafts. Logs that were stolen were sold to shady companies where marks were removed, the lumber sawed and planed, and then sold. (6)

Lumbermen in 1892 were also concerned by a bill introduced by Representative Bryan of Nebraska that would place lumber on the "free list"--not subject to duty. This was proposed, according to the lumbermen's convention in Washington, to improve the favorable conditions of the Canadian manufacturer who had to complete with American manufacturers. The lumbermen's convention adopted by a unanimous vote, a report calling for a $2 per 1,000 feet of lumber remain in place. (7)

In its earliest days, the lumber industry in Dubuque saw more planing and cutting mills than lumber companies. The Standard Lumber Company was the oldest. At least six other companies rafted logs. M. H. Moore established Moore's Saw Mill that incorporated under the name of the DUBUQUE LUMBER COMPANY. Other firms included the Lambert and Reed Company, Randall and Pelan, KNAPP, STOUT AND COMPANY, Langworthy Brothers, and Burch and Babcock. (8) "Woodenware" manufactured from rafted logs was made by the Charley Clark Mill, later renamed the LESURE LUMBER COMPANY. Destroyed by fire in 1894, the company emerged as the RUMPF-FRUDDEN LUMBER COMPANY and later the Engler-Frudden Lumber Company. An explosion in 1884 ended the existence of the KEY CITY PLANING COMPANY but not before providing the experience upon which Christian LOETSCHER used to build the FARLEY AND LOETSCHER MANUFACTURING COMPANY. A small mill called Patch and Wait was located at Ninth and Washington.

It was common for dealers to contract during the winter for next season's supply. It was usual for dealers to begin moving out of town for the pine forests in the north as early as December. (9) As logging proved expensive, companies adopted the practice of having the timber sawed in the forest and shipped to Dubuque as planks. A cutting mill, the C.W. Robinson Lumber Company, which did not raft logs, was established on West Main between First and Locust STREETS. In 1888 Peter J. SEIPPEL and Joseph A. MEUSER left Robinson's employ and founded the MEUSER-SEIPPEL LUMBER COMPANY. Another employee of Robinson left and began the Svendson-Ott Lumber Company. This company was later the target of a merger that led to the establishment of the OTT-MEUSER LUMBER COMPANY. Meuser and Seippel dissolved their partnership in 1897, and Seippel founded his own company. The Seippel Lumber Company was incorporated in 1906. Seippel's company and the Meuser company merged in 1907 after the retirement of J. J. Ott. (10)

In June, 1876 the Dubuque Herald carried an article stating that every evening at 5:00 p.m. seventy-seven cars of lumber travel west out of Dubuque on the ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD. (11) It was the height of the lumber industry and lumbermen and dealers in the Mississippi Valley as well as nationally enjoyed the society of each other in such organizations as the CONCATENATED ORDER OF HOO HOOS or "Black Cats."

Articles sounding the alarm of over-cutting appeared randomly as early as 1898. The supplies of oak were seen to be dwindling. Its slow growth meant that lumbermen were limited to the number of trees already grown. Buyers had been discovering over the previous five to ten years that groups of standing timber large enough to base a lumbering operation were scarce. Fears were stated that the relative cheapness of oak was based on a false estimate of the amount left. "Is it not too cheap for a variety that is in universal demand and in only limited supply?" (12)

Ironically as the northern forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin were being clear-cut, a recognition of the importance of forestry was beginning to take shape. R. L. McCormick, president of the Mississippi Valley Lumberman's Association in 1903 remarked:

                 It is not necessary to turn to statistics for proof that
                 the supply of certain kinds of valuable timber trees of
                 the United States is rapidly falling, of others is
                 practically gone, and of still others has entirely
                 vanished...The time for us to look after the trees
                 themselves has in many cases already arrived. (13)

The last raft of sawed lumber was received by the P. J. Seippel Company in 1912. After that date, railroads carried most lumber shipments. Leaders in the early lumber industry included the KNAPP, STOUT AND COMPANY, the Standard Lumber Company, and the DUBUQUE LUMBER COMPANY. Mergers and consolidations affected other lumberyards including the Weston Birch Company, Svendon-Ott Company, Meuser-Seippel Lumber Company, FRUDDEN LUMBER COMPANY, Noah Adams Lumber Company, Lesure Lumber Company, Rumpf-Frudden Lumber Company, Ott Meuser Lumber Company, P. J. Seippel Lumber Company, Blocklinger Lumber Company, C. W. Chapman Lumber Company, Meuser Brothers Lumber Company, SPAHN AND ROSE LUMBER COMPANY, PYRAMID LUMBER COMPANY, MIDWEST LUMBER COMPANY, and C. W. Robinson Lumber Company. For the only lumber raft on the MISSISSIPPI RIVER was taken downstream by the steamer "Ottumwa" in 1915. The pineries of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin were depleted and the dam at Keokuk prevented rafts beyond that point. (14)

Disastrous FIRES in the pine forests were partially responsible for the decline in Dubuque's lumber industry. In 1871 the area around Green Bay, Wisconsin suffered disastrous fires which killed hundreds and wiped out entire communities. (15) One of the first fires to affect Dubuque was the 1894 inferno near Henckley, Minnesota, which destroyed a reserve of timber owned by the Standard Lumber Company. Ironically, some lumber companies only leased forest land for cutting. Once the lumbermen were done, the land was returned to the original owner. Years later this land was found to contain the massive deposits of iron ore that launched another industry in the North. (16) A decline by 1910 in the amount of lumber available from northern forests due to over cutting led to the further decline of the industry in Dubuque and the Mississippi Valley. The history of Spahn & Rose Lumber Company began with the interest of Dubuque lumbermen in utilizing the supplies of timber in California.

The over cutting of forests led Luther Conant, Jr. commissioner of corporations, to suggest to President Taft in 1913 that the existing national forests not only be retained by the federal government but increased as far as practical. (17) At the time, the lumber industry in the Pacific Northwest employed 250,000 men. (18) Private capital invested in timber lands, mills, logging railroads and equipment of the lumber industry employed 739,000 person and had an annual output just in excess of one billion dollar--the third largest industry in the United States in 1915. (19)

Local fires were no less destructive. Arson or perhaps a spark from a passing train started a blaze that consumed the Lesure lumberyards along with a paper factory, vinegar works, Glab House, and the KNAPP, STOUT AND COMPANY. In 1911 arsonists attacked the CARR, RYDER, AND ADAMS COMPANY and destroyed the Standard Lumber Company.

See related categories: Sash, Doors, and Blinds; Shingle Manufacturer



1. "Maj. Day Founded the Lumber Industry in Dubuque," Telegraph-Herald, August 24, 1930, p. 15

2. Ibid.

3. "Life Among the Logs," The Dubuque Daily Herald, November 1, 1890, p. 3

4. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, February 23, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760223&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, September 21, 1878, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18780921&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

6. "Maj. Day Founded ..."

7. "Against Free Lumber," The Dubuque Daily Herald, March 3, 1892, p. 1

8. "Maj. Day Founded..."

9. "For the Pineries," The Herald, December 11, 1868, p. 7

10. Maj. Day Founded..."

11. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, June 3, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760603&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

12. "Oak is Getting Scarce," The Dubuque Herald, February 4, 1892, p. 3

13. "Endorse Forestry," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, June 7, 1903, p. 16

14. "End of Rafting on Upper Mississippi," Telegraph-Herald, April 2, 1916, p. 12

15. "Great Fires in Wisconsin," Dubuque Daily Herald, October 13, 1871, p. 1

16. "Maj. Day..."

17. "Warning Note Sounded Against Timber Grants," Telegraph-HeraldItalic text, January 20, 1913, p. 1

18. Untitled news. Telegraph-Herald, June 13, 1913, p. 10

19. "Vast American Industries," Telegraph-Herald, January 25, 1915, p. 5