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HistoryLink.org Essay 1675
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The Weyerhaeuser Company, based in Tacoma, Washington, is one of the world’s largest producers of lumber, pulp, paper, packaging materials, and other wood-related products. It operates about 270 sawmills, pulp and paper mills, and wood products plants in 18 different countries. The company also is among the world’s largest private land owners, controlling 7 million acres of forest in the United States and another 31 million acres in Canada. A pioneer in the practice of “high yield” forestry in the 1960s, Weyerhaeuser has more recently become an industry leader in “sustainable” forest management.
A “Will to Work”
The company was founded in 1900 by Frederick Weyerhaeuser (1834-1914), who emigrated to the United States from Germany when he was 18. He first worked as a laborer in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he met and married Elisabeth Bladel. In 1856, the young couple moved to Rock Island, Illinois. Weyerhaeuser found work in a sawmill and lumber yard, eventually becoming foreman and assiduously saving his money. After the financial panic of 1857, he was able to buy the mill, in partnership with his brother-in-law, and he soon acquired interests in other mills in the Midwest. “The secret lay simply in my will to work,” he said in one of his few interviews. “I never watched the clock and never stopped before I had finished what I was working on” (Washington Business Magazine).
Weyerhaeuser began buying timberlands in the mid-1860s, beginning with pine tracts in Wisconsin and expanding into Minnesota, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. In 1891, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he became a neighbor and friend of railway magnate James J. Hill (1838-1916), president of the Great Northern Railway and majority owner of the Northern Pacific Railway. Hill had acquired millions of acres of land along the route of the Northern Pacific from Lake Superior to Puget Sound -- land originally given to the railroad by the federal government in return for constructing a transcontinental rail line. On January 3, 1900, Hill sold 900,000 acres of this land in Washington state to Weyerhaeuser and 11 investors for $6 an acre ($5.4 million in all). Weyerhaeuser and his partners then organized the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, with Weyerhaeuser as president.
By 1903, Weyerhaeuser owned more than 1.5 million acres of land in Washington. Although it established a sawmill in Everett in 1903, the company initially gave little attention to the manufacturing side of the lumber business. Instead, it concentrated on buying land (eventually purchasing 3 million acres from Hill alone) and selling standing timber to other mill owners.
Frederick Weyerhaeuser continued to live in St. Paul, putting day-to-day management of the company in the hands of George S. Long, who would hold the position of general manager for 30 years. Weyerhaeuser shunned publicity and was reportedly greatly displeased to be dubbed “the Timber King” in a 1913 profile published by The New York Times. He died on April 4, 1914, while on vacation in Pasadena, California. Despite owning more forestland than any other person in the world at that time, he left an estate valued at a modest $875,000.
Weyerhaeuser was survived by seven children, one of whom, John P. Weyerhaeuser, succeeded him as president of the company. Demands for lumber during World War I led to a substantial increase in the company’s business. Weyerhaeuser lumber was used to build wooden ships, airplanes for reconnaissance and air-to-air combat, and barracks for troops. The military demand for lumber was so high that the Army sent soldiers to work as lumberjacks in Weyerhaeuser’s forests, to increase production.
The company built a second sawmill in Everett in 1915. By the end of the decade, it was operating 22 mills. It opened a lumber distribution center in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1921. Two years later, it added a transportation subsidiary, Weyerhaeuser Steamship Company.
In 1941, industry executives joined John P. Weyerhaeuser Jr., company vice president, and Governor Arthur Langlie in dedicating the nation’s first tree farm, on the Clemons tract near Montesano.
The timber industry went through major changes during and after World War II. Power chainsaws replaced hand-operated whipsaws. Trucks replaced trains in hauling timber from the forests. Under George H. Weyerhaeuser (Frederick’s great-grandson), who became company president in 1966, “high-yield forestry” became the company’s guiding principle. This involved large-scale clearcutting, draining of wetlands, and use of chemical herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers to increase tree growth and shorten “rotation” times.
The company also began expanding into the manufacture of such new forest products as ply-veneer, hardboard, particleboard, and processed wood bark. It opened three kraft-pulp mills for the production of grocery bags and multi-wall sacks for pet food, lawn and garden seed, and other products. Over the years, mergers have added packaging and paper manufacturing mills. Today (2004), Weyerhaeuser’s diversified business interests include plant nurseries, food and chemical products, real estate development, and mortgage and insurance companies.
Labor, Environmental Problems
Like a number of other large forest products manufacturers, Weyerhaeuser suffered from low prices and small, non-union competitors in the 1980s. Several large companies either withdrew from the Northwest or reduced their operations. Mills closed around the region. In 1986, Weyerhaeuser sought significant wage reductions from its union mill and logging employees. After a strike lasting more than a month, the unions settled for a rollback of about $4 per hour, along with productivity incentives.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the company faced increasing pressure from environmentalists and government regulators. Concerns about endangered species, particularly the spotted owl, led to national forests being virtually shut down to logging. Private landowners like Weyerhaeuser were forced to change some of their practices. Criticism spilled over to clearcutting and log exports on private lands, both of which were core Weyerhaeuser business practices.
Weyerhaeuser argued that, with federal lands becoming less productive, private lands like its own were even more important to the supply of lumber and paper. Still, while continuing to clearcut and export logs, the company modified its forestry approach, leaving wider buffers, snag trees for wildlife, and even using landscape design techniques to make its clearcuts less obvious. It also emphasized its role as a large recycler of waste newspaper and other paper products. Today, Weyerhaeuser says, it works to combine the "economic virtues" of high yield forestry with "a concern for habitat, wildlife, water quality and other forest values" ("Weyerhaeuser Company in Brief").
"A Century of Business," Puget Sound Business Journal, September 17, 1999; Junior Achievement of Greater Seattle Hall of Fame Series; Scott Carlson, "The House That Frederick Built: The Story of Weyerhaeuser," Washington Business Magazine, March/April 2004 (Association of Washington Business Website, www.awb.org); "Penniless Immigrants Who Have Made Millions," The New York Times, November 2, 1913, p. SM12; "Puts Fortune at $875,000; Weyerhaeuser Wealth Now Rated at Less Than Was Supposed," The New York Times, May 8, 1914, p. 5; "Weyerhaeuser Company in Brief," Weyerhaeuser Company Website (http://www.weyerhaeuser.com/aboutus/), accessed September 10, 2004. See Also: Robert Ficken, "Weyerhaeuser and the Pacific Northwest Timber Industry, 1899-1903," Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 70, No. 4 (1979), 146-154; and Robert Ficken, Forested Land: a History of Lumbering in Western Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987).
Note: This essay was revised by Cassandra Tate on September 13, 2004.
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