The Great Lumbering Legacy of Cass County

One of "Mother Nature's" great gifts to the European settlers and entrepreneurs that spilled into Minnesota in the 1800s were the vast

The Great Lumbering Legacy of Cass County

One of "Mother Nature's" great gifts to the European settlers and entrepreneurs that spilled into Minnesota in the 1800s were the vast, unbroken "pineries" of northern Minnesota.

Millions of square acres of towering, virgin white and red (Norway) pine covered the landscape, here since the demise of the great glaciers over 10,000 years ago, awaiting the exploitation of the great "empire builders" of the 19th century.

When the great lumber companies and their "rough and ready" lumberjacks began to the harvest the timber in earnest in the 1880s, few thought that the forests, so vast, could be depleted anytime soon. Yet, so efficient were the lumbermen that soon after the turn of the century, most of the lumber camps, horse-drawn logging sleds, and narrow-gauge logging railroads were gone, leaving in their wake environmental devastation, uncontrolled forest fire and unsustainable "hardscrabble" farming.

But the sacrifice of the great forests also gave America the raw materials to built the towns, homes, businesses and industry to settle the American hinterlands and to lay the foundation for the "Great American Nation" that remains today.

Cass County lumbering is associated with the names of some of 19th century Minnesota's great "lumber barons"; names that are still embodied in local nameplaces such T.B.Walker who gave his name to the present county seat as well as both his name and art collection to the founding of the world famous Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, E.W.Backus who gave his name to the great former lumber milling community of Backus, and the Leavitt brothers, Josiah and Renssalaer, who formed one of Minneapolis' first great lumber mills with the famous Pillsbury's. The Leavitt's gave their name to Leavitt Lake just outside of Outing, and together with their partners, Pillsbury and Chase, started Cass County's first major milling and logging operation, based around Gull Lake but which soon extending well into the central reaches of the county.

No name associated with Cass County lumbering ranks higher, however, than Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the country's first billionaire. Starting as an immigrant mill hand in St. Louis, Missouri, he accumulated enough wealth to buy his own mills at Rock Island, Illinois after the Civil War, and eventually migrated to Minnesota to run his rapidly expanding lumber empire. He was particularly adept at organizing teams of lumberjacks, building his growing empire by systematically cutting the forests first along the Chippewa River in northern Wisconsin and then along the St.Croix and Mississippi Rivers in northern Minnesota. His various logging companies and investment combines transcended by far the impact of all others throughout the upper Midwest.

Weyerhaeuser came north in the early 1890s to focus his interests on the "pineries" of Cass and Crow Wing Counties, acquiring lands, creating logging companies and railroad logging operations across vast forest tracts from Whitefish Lake north to Leech Lake and points east. At one time it was estimated that he controlled over 2 billion uncut board feet of forest throughout this area. Both the amount his combine invested financially in these operations and the amount of lumber harvested from these lands set state records never to be broken.

As the logging companies of these various lumber barons evolved and reorganized, they expanded their operations throughout the area, all along the major lakes and waterways of Crow Wing, Cass, and their neighboring counties. Together they established a series of river and lake dams to control water levels on Mississippi River, to the advantage of their log rafting and sawmilling operations all the way down to the Falls of St.Anthony inMinneapolis. This same vast dam system remains intact today under the management and control of the Army Corps of Engineers, sustaining the great water reservoirs these lumber companies created, and which came to constitute the "mini Great Lakes" of northcentral Minnesota; Gull, Whitefish, Leech, Winnibigoshish, Cass, etc.

As their legacy to us, these lumber barons created a vast "infrastructure" which served to build the roads, communities, businesses and industries which sustain the area to this day. Their logging operations, while abandoned by World War I, evolved into the significant logging and pulp papermilling operations still functioning today. In turn, that has generated increasingly sophisticated, world standard setting forest conservation practices, able to rebuild and sustain the vast public forests of northcentral Minnesota.

The extensive dam and water management system these barons built also remains, not only providing flood protection but creating opportunities for fishing, hunting, canoeing, nature appreciation and other four-season outdoor recreational activity. The logging railroad corridors which they blazed to better transport logs to the sawmills, resulted in not only the great railroading heritage that built the communities of Brainerd, Bemidji and elsewhere, but also laid the groundwork for the area's extensive system of state, county and forest roads and highways.

And of course the people they brought to harvest the area's timber resources or to till the soil after they left remain today, populating the communities, hamlets, lakeshores and farmsteads across Cass County. They remain to welcome the county's great number of year-round visitors and share the vast natural bounty still available for the enjoyment and appreciation of all.

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