Bloedel, Prentice (1900-1996)

  • By James R. Warren
  • Posted 2/17/2003
  • Essay 5227
Prentice Bloedel was a leader of the timber industry. He left a brief teaching career to join the management of his family's far-flung timber empire and led the industry's forest-conservation efforts. Bloedel guided the firm into a merger with H. R. MacMillan Export Co., which became the giant MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. Prentice and Virginia Bloedel were important patrons of the arts in Seattle, a tradition carried on by their daughter Virginia Wright. The Bloedels created the Bloedel Reserve, a botanical showcase of gardens, pools, lawns, and arbors on Bainbridge Island.

Born in Bellingham in 1900, Bloedel graduated from Yale University with the idea of becoming a teacher. In 1929, in response to a plea from his father, he gave up his teaching career and went to work in the family business, Bloedel Stewart and Welch, based on Vancouver Island.

A Pioneer in Recycling

He first took charge of a new mill at Port Alberni, B.C. The mill became one of the first to make efficient use of sawdust and waste, called "hog fuel," to generate power. He believed integrating a pulp mill with sawmill operations would get the most out of every stick of timber, and the mill became one of the first waste-based operations in America.

In 1938, Bloedel guided the company into a reforestation program and the firm became the first company to plant seedlings. A decade later, the firm was responsible for 70 percent of all the reforestation carried out by private industry in British Columbia. During the 1930s and 1940s, Bloedel began buying land in Whatcom and Skagit counties that had been clear-cut and abandoned. He became treasurer of Bloedel, Stewart and Welch in 1942 and continued to implement innovations to the industry.

Briquettes From Waste

In 1948, he launched a plant designed to produce fuel briquettes made from shingle waste products, which were marketed under license as "pres-to-logs." Two years later, driven by a reluctant conviction that "to do the best with the resource would require larger units, greater markets and greater flexibility in product," Bloedel guided the firm into a merger with H.R. MacMillan Export Co., which became the giant MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. He moved back to Seattle and to Bainbridge Island and, in early 1972, retired from the board of MacMillan Bloedel.

He continued his involvement in the industry through his leadership of Bloedel Timberlands Development Inc., a company he founded in 1945 in partnership with his father. The firm bought up land long since logged and essentially abandoned.

Bainbridge Island's Bloedel Reserve

In 1951, Bloedel and his wife Virginia acquired the Bainbridge Island estate of Seattle pioneers John and Bertie Collins and their heirs. Over the following decades, the Bloedels transformed the large wooded tract into a botanical showcase of gardens, pools, lawns, and arbors. They donated the property to the University of Washington in 1970, but the estate proved too costly to maintain. In 1974, the Bloedels established and endowed The Arbor Fund, which purchased "The Bloedel Reserve" in 1985 and continues to manage it as a quasi-public garden.

Prentice and Virginia Bloedel were also major patrons of the arts in greater Seattle, a tradition carried on by their daughter Virginia Wright. The Bloedel Reserve was a favorite retreat for artists and writers, a reputation marred by poet Theodore Roethke's tragic death on the grounds in 1963. Most famous (or notorious) of the works of art collected by the Bloedels was Henri Matisse's Odalisque, which they subsequently donated to the Seattle Art Museum. It was later discovered that, unbeknownst to the Bloedels or to the Museum, the painting had been looted by Nazis from its original Jewish owners. It was returned to their heirs in 1999.

Prentice Bloedel died at his Capitol Hill (Seattle) home in June 1996, at age 95.

Sources: "A Century of Business," Puget Sound Business Journal, September 17, 1999; Junior Achievement of Greater Puget Sound Hall of Fame Series; Lawrence Kreisman, The Bloedel Reserve: Gardens in the Forest (Bainbridge Island, WA: The Arbor Fund, 1988).
Note: This essay was modified on December 9, 2009, to correct the date of Theodore Roethke's death.

Related Topics:   Biographies | Environment | Industry | Visual Arts

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