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Editor's Note-Minnesota's First Industry
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Editor's Note-Minnesota's First Industry

A large cluster of wood-products companies—and Minnesota's first non-native settlement—are the legacy of timber harvesting.

Poets are quoted too seldom in business magazines, right? In 1995, Twin Cities Business took on a project that would have pleased Robert Browning, whose most famous line (from “Andrea del Sarto”) is “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”—suggesting that to achieve anything worthwhile, one should attempt things that might be impossible.

We attempted that summer to catalog all of the Minnesota companies that had been spun off from or started by former employees of Control Data and Engineering Research Associates, Inc. (ERA), where Control Data founder William Norris began his post-military career. We documented around 40 active companies that traced their lineage to ERA, including Aetrium, Inc., Analysts International Corporation, Hutchinson Technology, NTS Systems, and Seagate Technology, all of which remain active today. We knew, however, that we had missed at least as many entities that had prospered for a time but had later failed or been absorbed by other large companies.

That shortcoming prevented us from compiling a similar list of Minnesota-based medical device and biomedical companies that originated with Medtronic. There were more than 100 such businesses while founder Earl Bakken was still with Medtronic; there might be 200 by now. (Divestitures of operating units seem, by the way, to have helped Medtronic by allowing managers to focus on core missions. As the 19th-century poet Erin Majors wrote, “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.”)

The antecedents of Minnesota’s wood-products industry, which is larger and more diverse than you might suspect, are as easy to discern as those of our state’s information technology and biomedical industries. Today, 31 percent of Minnesota is forest. When the first European settlers began to arrive in Minnesota (then part of Wisconsin Territory) in the 1820s, they found about 60 percent of the state—31 million acres—filled with virgin red and white pine.

In 1838, David Hone and Lewis Judd, two Illinois investors, explored the white pine forests of the St. Croix River Valley and selected a site for a sawmill. A year later, Judd and another partner, a New Englander named Orange Walker, started the sawmill—Minnesota’s first manufacturing operation—on a six-acre site that is now within the city limits of Marine on St. Croix (12 miles north of Stillwater, population 700), which became Minnesota’s first community of European settlers. When I learned of Judd, my first thought was that a street should be named after him. One has been—in Marine on St. Croix.

The 2005–2007 Minnesota Guidebook to State Agency Services reports that in 1840, a lumberman named Daniel Stanchfield built two lumber camps on the Rum River. From then on, the lumbering industry grew rapidly; by 1852, there were 22 logging camps on the Rum River and 14 sawmills near the city of Bemidji alone; by 1862, 153 sawmills were in operation in the St. Croix and Mississippi river valleys. Duluth, Virginia, and Cloquet all became important lumbering centers by the 1880s, by which time manufacturers in every region of the state were turning out wood products.

They still are. In 2000, the last year for which reliable figures are available, Minnesota was home to 1,400 lumber processors and wood-products companies employing 61,000 people and generating almost $8 billion in revenues. In that year, Minnesota forests provided the equivalent of 3 million cords of pulpwood, 280 million feet of board lumber, 750,000 cords of firewood, and more than 12 million Christmas trees and wreaths.

Because of a decline in home construction, the industry is undoubtedly smaller now than it was nine years ago. It includes, however, around 200 stationary sawmills, 83 portable sawmills, three veneer mills, five tree chippers, 13 pulpwood buyers, and 24 brokers or wholesalers of lumber. Among the state’s “secondary” processors of forest products are six paper manufacturers, 245 cabinetmakers, 115 producers of office furniture, 102 wooden countertop makers, 24 producers of wood flooring, 161 custom millworkers, and 14 makers of widows—among which is Marvin Windows and Doors, the 5,000- employee company whose president is the subject of this month’s cover story, which begins on page 28. The company was founded by Susan Marvin’s grandfather, George Marvin, in 1912—a full generation closer in time to the establishment of Lewis Judd’s sawmill than to the harvesting of the trees used to produce this magazine.

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