Posts Tagged ‘Forest Products Laboratory’

On this date in 1894, a group of men with water and property rights along the Wisconsin River reached a monumental agreement. The group decided to combine their holdings in order to build dams and consolidate water power in the area around Grand Rapids and Centralia (the two towns would later merge to become Wisconsin Rapids). The formal articles of organization were officially signed and dated twelve days later, and the Consolidated Water Power Company was born.

Consolidated Articles of Organization

Consolidated Water Power Company, 1894 articles of organization (click to read full document).

The early years of the company were wracked with disagreements over the allocation of funds, and it wouldn’t be until after the turn of the century that the ultimate direction of the company would emerge. The company’s success would eventually be found in papermaking, a shift in focus which can largely be attributed to George W. Mead.

Born in Chicago in 1871, Mead graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1894, the same year Consolidated was formed. Mead was drawn into the company in 1902 by his ailing father-in-law, Jere Witter, a banker who owned considerable shares in Consolidated. Following Witter’s passing that year, Mead arrived in Grand Rapids to temporarily assist the company. Originally planning to stay in the area for only two weeks, Mead ended up as a resident of Grand Rapids and a permanent fixture in Consolidated’s company history.

Along with Nels Johnson, manager of the Grand Rapids Pulp and Paper Company mill in Biron (and another shareholder of Consolidated), Mead helped lead a new project: the construction of a large paper mill along with a planned dam on the Wisconsin River. The new Grand Rapids dam with attached paper and pulp mill was completed in 1904, beginning its operations with the world’s first electronically powered paper machines. By that time the company’s name had already officially changed to Consolidated Water Power & Paper Company (the name would later change again to Consolidated Papers, Inc.), Mead had taken over permanent direction, and business was on the verge of taking off.

While the company experienced major growth over the following decades, accessible pulpwood supplies in the area eventually began to dwindle. In 1930, Stanton Mead (George’s son) attended an American Forestry Association meeting in Minneapolis to learn more about the growing field of forestry.  There he met a forester named Emmett Hurst and came away impressed.

A few months later, Stanton Mead hosted a private forestry conference at his family’s fishing camp in Markton. Mead invited several notable figures in the field of forestry to the August 1930 gathering, including renowned forest researcher Raphael Zon, Forest Products Laboratory head Cap Winslow, and regional forester E.W. Tinker.

Mead Forestry Conference

Mead Forestry Conference, August 1930. You’ll find a report of the conference in the list of further readings below.

Mead used the assembled group to help determine the best direction for a potential forestry policy for his company. Zon advocated both buying second-growth forest land and adopting more sustainable partial-cutting practices (rather than the clear-cutting practices still widely used at the time). Mead took the advice to heart and decided to adopt a formal forestry program for Consolidated.

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  • The setting: A bleak and blustery evening at an estate in 1930s Hopewell, N.J.
  • The scene: At 9:00 p.m., a well-dressed man hears a noise he later likens to an orange crate falling off a kitchen chair. Noting nothing amiss, he shrugs and returns to his evening activities. The night continues uneventfully until 10:00 p.m., when nurse Betty Gow checks on her young charge.  With a shock, she discovers the twenty-month-old boy missing.  Alarmed, Gow reports the disappearance to the well-dressed man and his wife, the child’s parents, who are revealed to be famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

With this opening act, the night of March 1, 1932, ushered in the sensational “crime of the century” — and, unexpectedly, wood forensics.

The ensuing search for baby Charles, Jr., turned up a ransom note on the windowsill of the nursery.  This kidnapping claim prompted the Lindberghs’ estate caretaker to contact the local authorities, who called the New Jersey State Police.  When the first state troopers arrived, they investigated the outside area of the house, particularly the ground below the second-story nursery window.  They found footprints in the wet ground, but neither measured nor made plaster casts of them.  Two deep impressions pointed to the use of a ladder, and a carpenter’s chisel laid nearby.  Widening the search, the investigators recovered a homemade ladder in three sections.  The bottom section was broken, presumably during the ascent or descent.  Within the nursery, no blood stains or fingerprints provided evidence.

LINDY’S BABY KIDNAPPED screamed the morning newspaper headlines.  Though the case did not fall under federal jurisdiction, the FBI was put on the case, increasing the high intrigue.   For months to follow, the public would be captivated and agitated by stories of the botched police investigation, a series of ransom notes, and thousands of (mis)leads.  The story of Little Lindy’s kidnapping aroused public interest; 38,000 letters arrived at the Lindbergh estate offering sympathy, prayers, and assistance.

Among these offers was a letter from Arthur Koehler, chief wood technologist at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. Koehler’s particular research interest in the identification, cellular structure and growth of wood gave him the specific training and abilities for what he proposed to do: detect clues in the broken ladder.  His letter went unanswered.


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Major League Baseball playoffs started today! Besides the excitement of the games, fans can also expect to see more shattered bats, a problem that has plagued baseball at all professional levels this year. In the last 15 years or so, maple has become the favored wood by big league sluggers, with 60% of major leaguers having switched to maple from the traditional ash. Batters prefer maple because it is more durable and stronger; however, it explodes into lethal pieces. Several people have been hit by flying shards—one woman had her jaw broken and a Pittsburgh Pirates coach was stabbed in the face and required ten stitches. Speculation as to why this happens runs from the handles being too thin to the equipment managers selecting cheap wood. Bats are made from one piece of wood, not multiple pieces glued together like in the picture below.

An unidentified player or coach inspects a bat made from multiple pieces of wood while visiting the Forest Products Lab.

Flanking Univ. of Wisconsin coach Arthur Mansfield are FPL engineers G.E. Heck and L.J. Markwardt. Mansfield is holding a laminated bat with center band of hickory that is more than twice as tough as the ash facings. Photo is believed to be from 1951. (FHS Photo Collection)

MLB has collected around 1,700 broken bats in a three-month span and is also reviewing videotape of all the broken bat incidents. The broken bats are being examined by Timberco, Inc., and the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory—the federal government’s primary research facility for wood products—in Madison, Wisconsin. (Coincidentally, today is the 99th anniversary of the opening of the Forest Products Lab.)

Ash, with its longer grain, tends to crack, not explode. Ash trees, however, are under attack by the emerald ash borer, which “has killed more than 40 million ash trees in southeastern Michigan alone, with tens of millions more lost in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Virginia,” according to the website http://www.emeraldashborer.info. It could very well be that in a few years, bat manufacturers will have no choice but to use maple.

For you (Brooklyn) Dodgers fans, here's Duke Snider at the Louisville Slugger plant inspecting a semi-finished bat of his own personal model. He's with Johnny Logan of the Milwaukee Braves, taken April 9, 1956.

These Minnesota Twins fans have more to scream about than just their team's collapse at the end of the season.

These Minnesota Twins fans have more to scream about than just their team's collapse at the end of the season.

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As historic photographs in the FHS collections are digitized and added to our online image database, photos are also periodically grouped into browsable online galleries organized by subject.  The newest gallery, just added to our website, features images relating to World War I.  Much of this set is made up of photos documenting the important behind-the-scenes war work done by the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin.  Workers at the laboratory performed tests and experiments on all types of wood products used by American soldiers.  Items such as the wooden boxes and packing crates designed for transporting mortar shells were built and tested at the laboratory.

The strength of these boxes was thoroughly put to the test by a giant, 27 ton rotating metal drum used at the Laboratory.  This drum effectively measured the durability of the wooden boxes and crates built to transport various war materials such as shells, bombs, and foodstuffs.

The Laboratory also conducted much of the American aircraft-related research done during the war, such as testing wooden airplane wings and propellers.  One project involved testing the effectiveness of propellers made from different species of wood under closely controlled conditions.  (For more information on wooden aircraft during WWI, see “Wooden Aircraft and the Great War” from the October 1978 issue of the Journal of Forest History).

The work done by the Laboratory did not end with WWI, as even today wood products play a role in military efforts.  In 2006, the Forest Products Laboratory performed tests on the wooden propellers of the Shadow 200 tactical unmanned aircraft, which are currently used by the U.S. Army for reconnaissance and surveillance in Iraq.

Visit the complete World War I gallery here.
Browse previously posted photo galleries, organized by subject here.

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