October 29, 1975
Grand Rapids, Minnesota
Marion Brown -MB
John Esse -JE
JE: This is October 29th, 1975 and were taping this morning up in the First National Bank Building which is presently our office space, and with us today is Marion Brown who is a one time resident of Deer River and who presides out in California for part of the time, part of the year, and who has a considerable amount of knowledge on the background of the railroad, mainly because he did work on the railroad and also of course I believe Marion, raised in Deer River?
MB: Was born in Grand Rapids.
JE: You were born in Grand Rapids, and then your father?
MB: Well moved to Deer River when I was about a year and a half old.
JE: Okay, now how old are you now, when were you born?
MB: Seventy three.
JE: So you were born?
MB: September 3rd, 1902.
JE: Okay now how did your father get to Grand Rapids then?
MB: Well my father came here originally in about 1898 I think it was, to teach school. He taught school in the Trout Lake area that was the Trout Lake by Coleraine.
MB: In fact he and my mother both taught in that area, that’s where they met, they taught at separate schools but they stayed with the same family, a family by the name of Faulkner.
JE: Uh huh.
MB: Mrs. Faulkner, their daughter Bessie Faulkner was of course was a very good friend of my mothers and she is still living and her name is Mrs. Tom Kingston, she lives in Bovey. Then from there my dad then went to work with the Decker Lumber Company that was located in Grand Rapids, and they were purchased in the early 1900s by the King Lumber Company, and the King lumber Company of course was in operation in Grand Rapids with several retail yards of the Iron Range area, and Deer River until just recently, within recent years and then they sold out to Lampert Lumber Company.
MB: And my dad went with the King Lumber Company when they acquired the Decker Lumber Company. In about 1903 he went to Deer River to manage the King Lumber Company Yard. And of course that’s where I spent my life until 1933. I might back track a little and say I was born in Grand Rapids on September 3rd, 1902 and as I mentioned my dad moved to Deer River with his family about 1903 and I was raised and went to school in Deer River and stayed there until 1933.
JE: Just for a point of .history, was that school that is presently there, is that the one that was built at that time or?
MB: The original part of that school was built when I was in the second grader it was completed when I was in the second grade. Many additions have been put on it since including a dormitory that at the time was only it was one of only two high school dormitories in the United States.
JE: What was the reason for that?
MB: Because of the large area that the school district covered, the school district covered a lot of the area north of Deer River and transportation facilities in those days were so inadequate that it was, that was the reason that the dormitory was built, so these children could, high school children could, students I should say, could stay in the dormitory or reside in the dormitory. Of course, probably most of them, a lot of them didn’t only go home for holidays.
MB: Some had the opportunity to go on weekends but, the dormitory for high school students was a very unique situation.
JE: Ya, most of the kids usually would live in somebody else’s home, and probably…
MB: Before they had the dormitory.
MB: Yes, because it would be impossible to commute back and forth from a lot of that district to Deer River. Especially when the days when the roads were not made for travel anywhere’s near the way they are today.
MB: But, and then of course as a child I, my father had his residents within a block of the downtown district of Deer River, and of course as a child Deer River was made up of, well you wouldn’t say principle but it had fourteen saloons at one time. Of course there were business places and Deer River from its early days was always considered until the mills went out, it was considered a very good business town. In fact it was considered the best business town in Itasca County. It served a big territory and the logging and mill operations were large operations in those days. At one time Deer River had a saw mill, Itasca Lumber Company saw mill, plain mill and the veneer mill, the veneer mill was established by two Bahr Brothers, Bill Bahr and Roland Bahr, and the mill was later taken over by the J.J. Natze Company of Chicago.
MB: And the timber that they used was something that in the early days there was no market for, it was all very selective hardwood. Birch, Maple, Oak, Basswood, Elm and of course they turned out some beautiful veneer products. And it was the only large hardwood operation that they ever had in this County and I wouldn’t hesitate to say in Northern Minnesota.
JE: Now we’re all three of those…
MB: And they were all operating at one time.
JE: Now were all three of those built after you moved to Deer River or were some of those operations already going?
MB: No they were all built after my dad moved to Deer River. So you probably can recall some of the In fact as a young boy I started working in the mills when I, not in the mills but they wouldn’t allow a yo.ung boy in the mill, but I was fourteen years old when I had my first job, which was a summer vacation at the Itasca Lumber Company Mill. They hired kids my age to pile sixteen inch stove wood.
JE: Uh huh.
MB: They used to cut this up from the trimmings and the slabs from the mill and they stored during the summer and it would dry out during the summer and then they sold it to residents in the community during the winter, by the wagon load. And of course they used a lot of wagons in the winter time but they would use the same box and put it on sled runners. It was good wood for cooking and fairly mild temperature, but it wasn’t adequate of course for severe temperatures.
MB: And then, in later years as a young boy I was only fifteen years old and I was working, running a lath machine in the lath department of the mill. The lather department was in the same mill.
MB: And I did that for a couple of summers until the general manager of the operation happened to come through the mill on a instruction tour one day and asked the foreman how old I was, and I was only sixteen years old then, and the general manager said well that can’t be, he has got to be eighteen years old to run those machines. I could run the lath machine or any of the machines, and there were only two machines, one was a Bolder and one was a lath machine. The bolder cut the slabs and the trimmings to the dimension that would go in the lath machine, and the lath machine of course would make the final product. But the laths were made in thirty two and forty eight lengths.
JE: What type of wood was used to make those laths?
MB: Well the only thing that they could cut in the mill was pine, the various pines. Mostly, very little jack pine but primarily white pine and Norway. The other timber such as balsam, popple they were unheard of in those days for lumber they didn’t make very good lumber. But the lath mill as I said was, in fact it was contracted to a man with my same name, Mr. Brown, and it was no relation.
JE: No relation.
MB: But the man that I liked very well and he liked me and it was quite very exceptional for a boy that age to be running a lath machines.
JE: Ya, working in the mill.
MB: Of course I always aspired to make a little more money and the common in fact from the time I was sixteen years old I never worked for common labor, I always aspired for something higher and I always got it. I was commonly known amongst the people of Deer River as quite a hustler as a kid so I had no problem getting a job, in fact jobs came probably too easy because I worked in every mill that Deer River had, except the Plane Mill, and I never did work in the Plane Mill. There was one other mill, that I haven’t mentioned is what they called the Box Factory, I never made boxes, but it was operated and owned by the Raphar, Hare and Ridgeway Company who were subsidiary of the Armor Company, and the entire product went to the packing plants, but only as lumber, there were no blocks this way. They were cut to lumber dimensions after it got to its destination, to the packing plants.
JE: Well Armor owned that plant down here too in Hill City, the barrel factory.
MB: Ya I am not familiar with that plant at all.
JE: Do you recall Marion the dates when these various mills came in?
MB: Well the sawmill as I remember, I shouldn’t say remember, because these facts have been passed on to me by my father and older men that I worked with, but I think the sawmill was ready for operation about 1904.
MB: Possibly 1905.
MB: And of course that Planing Mill was put up at the same time. In those days they dried all the lumber outdoors and now a days they have these….
MB: Dry Kilns, why it would take a winter season to dry the lumber, the lumber was piled out in the yard between the Sawmill and the Planing Mill and that was a vast amount of lumber that would be piled in there by the time the mill closed in the fall of the year. The mill only operated, ah, oh I would say from April to November, that is the sawmill. The Planing Mill runs the year round of course.
JE: Now did the men in the sawmill Marion go then out to the woods?
MB: A lot of them did, quite a few of them did, of course the family men there was a lot of them that probably didn’t have any employment for a while in the winter time.
MB: And then, of course they retained a certain number of men worked for repair work in the mill during the winter and the yard men of course they hauled dry lumber from the yard to the Planing Mill, because the Planing mill operated year round.
MB: And the shift year round.
JE: Can you explain…
MB: But the Veneer Mill, or I mean the as we call the box factory, that started as I remember about 1915, and the Veneer Mill somewhere near the same time. They started building that about that same time, They didn’t have a very long time of operation because it burned down I think it was about 1919, and then they moved the operation to Grand Rapids, J.J. Natze Company who were operating in Deer River after they took over from the Bahr’s. It didn’t last very long in Grand Rapids either; I think it was only a matter of only three or four years.
MB: But getting back to the sawmill, the sawmill had its last run in 1919, I haven’t, ordinarily it takes five men to operate the machines and tie laths in the lath mill department, but the only, the mill run for three weeks on dead heads, they had picked up dead heads in the Mississippi River area and White Oak area to operate the mill for three weeks, and that was the last run where we ordinarily had five men on the machines, three of us contracted to run the lath mill, because we couldn’t get enough stock, dead heads don’t, aren’t conducive to making the trimmings from the dead heads were numerous wouldn’t be the amount that would be in the regular logs that were used for normal operations.
JE: Can you give the location of these business adventures in Deer River?
MB: The mills?
MB: Well the sawmill was located on White Oak Lake in the North Shore of White Oak Lake.
MB: Somewhat, well about the middle of the lake, a little more west than the middle. The Planing Mill was directly south of that, probably a half a mile, and the box factory was in, well all of these operations were in Zemble Township, that’s a township separate from Deer River…
MB: Their own government organization in the town of Zemble, and all these operations were in the town of Zemble. And the box mill was in the east portion of the town of Zemble, and the M & R railroad shops, the round house and their facilities were about the same distance from the lake as the Planing Mill in fact they were directly across the track from each other. They weren’t a block apart. In connection with the various mill operations I mentioned the Veneer Mill, the Veneer Mill had fairly extensive logging operation while the mill was operating. In 1920 I clerked at one of their camps in the north end of Bowstring, and it’s too bad that we don’t have some virgin hardwood that we had in this country, that we had in those days, there wasn’t anywhere’s near as much of it as there was the pine and other timber products, but we did have a lot of hardwood and we had a lot of hardwood that was destroyed by forest fires.
MB: And these forest fires most of them primarily originated because, from the burning of the slashings from the lumber operations.
JE: Now that was a law that they had to burn those slashings you know.
MB: Ya that was the law that they had Co burn them, but there was no law that said they had to control.
MB: And of course they spread until nature, and of course they didn’t go from one pine area to the other, these fires didn’t, but if there was like hardwood in between there, well there was no attention paid to that because it was considered an unmarkable timber in those days and it was a crying shame that it had to happen but it did happen. There were some hardwood stands that survived and then all of that hardwood that is the good hardwood was the hardwood that the veneer operation logged and used.
JE: Now you spent time as a clerk in a camp?
MB: In the J. J. Natze Camp on the north end of Bowstring.
JE: Now could you describe to me the kind of camp it was, and how many men probably were involved in the operation of the camp?
MB: Oh. At the peak of the operation I would say that we had about one hundred men.
MB: And I forget the amount of number of feet that we logged that winter, but I would estimate that it would run into around a million feet at least.
MB: And the timber that was logged was logged off of land that was owned by about two hundred and forty acres of it was owned by a man by the name of Frank Miller who was an old timer in the Deer River area. In fact he owned the place that is now Bowstring Lodge, and Mele Johnson who was another old timer in that country had some land that we logged, and some Indian lots that were logged.
JE: Uh huh.
MB: It was a big operation, and we used, well of course we used four horse teams on ice roads, I am sure you are probably familiar with iced roads.
MB: But the reason for icing the roads was so they could haul bigger loads. Even with hardwood which they couldn’t haul, there were many feet of hardwood on a load of logs as it could pine because hard wood was much heavier.
JE: Heavier and a lot more density.
MB: Three or four thousand feet would make a big load for a four horse team with hardwood, while pine loads would run from six to eight thousand feet. And they used the sleighs had fourteen foot bunks on them. Of course when they ice the roads they don’t ice the entire road, just the rut area.
JE: Just the ruts.
MB: The ruts and the runners if I remember correctly were approximately six feet apart. And of course the horses walked in the center. However there was always water that spattered in the road and the horses had to be able to call sharp shod.
MB: The shoes the corks were sharp shods so they wouldn’t slip and they use to have quite a few accidents with these horses if they stumbled or something like that they would do what we called cork their selves.
JE: Ya cut
MB: Cut out their lower legs.
MB: And the barn bosses always took care of the horses, and I remember the one of the most popular remedies was kerosene and turpentine, all they did of course was wrap them up and soak them and keep them clean and try to prevent infection, and it wouldn’t be too long before the horses would be ready, they would be able to go back to work.
JE: What kinds of horses were being used out there in that camp?
MB: Well they were big horses, in fact in the early days from the time I was a boy until my days in the M & R, I have seen many horses that were shipped from the North Dakota farms, and a lot of them were beautiful horses.
JE: Were they French bred…
MB: They were big horses, I beg your pardon?
JE: Were they French Percheron?
MB: Well they weren’t, no they weren’t thoroughbred horses.
JE: Ya, they were crossbreds?
MB: They were good heavy, I would say that, of course in the timber operation they didn’t need heavy teams for everything; the heaviest horses were used for the hauling operation.