NEVER FAR FROM THE TREES:
A HISTORY OF STIMSON LUMBER COMPANY, 1850-2001
Today Stimson Lumber Company is synonymous with Oregon and the greater Pacific Northwest; however, its humble beginnings hearken back to Michigan in 1850 when Thomas Douglas (T.D.) Stimson and his business partner felled their first tree. The young loggers achieved financial success but a shared appreciation for independence eventually dissolved the partnership. Off on his own, T.D. managed to acquire timberlands, establish lumber camps and sell logs to mills located in Muskegon, Michigan. After marrying, T.D. interrupted his burgeoning lumber career for a riskier opportunity: oil had been discovered across the border in Canada and he decided to give it a try. He tried, and by 1864, had lost everything.
T.D. was determined to rebound quickly. He made an arrangement with a former employer in Chicago who agreed to buy whatever timber Stimson could cut on 10 percent shares. For upwards of a year, T.D. cruised the backwoods of northern Michigan, buying timber, closing deals and sending his cache of floating logs down the Muskegon River. By 1871, he had acquired enough acreage in northern Michigan to establish his own mills and equip them with modern machinery. From 1871-1888, T.D., with assistance from sons, Willard Horace, Charles Douglas, Ezra Thomas and Jay D., and daughter Olive Fay and son-in-law, J.J. Fay, Jr., managed the burgeoning operation. In time, T.D. stepped back from daily operation and moved to Chicago, leaving the day-to-day management of the businesses to his children.
By the early 1880s, T.D. had sensed that the marketplace had changed. The paucity of land coupled with an increasingly poor quality of timber, forced him to think about making a change. After oldest son, Willard Horace, returned home disappointed from surveying other potential timber regions in the South and Midwest, T.D. decided to look westward. Leading the search himself, he sailed up the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon, and then pushed on to Puget Sound. Together with his sons, T.D. cruised the backwoods for weeks, leaving few areas unchecked. By November 1884, the party had arrived in Seattle. T.D. was impressed with what he saw. The timber alone was of unrivaled quality, and the areas feverous growth coupled with a saltwater port assured a continuous market for lumber. Despite owning the third largest mill operation in Muskegon, T.D. made a fateful decision: the operation would relocate to Seattle. W.H. and C.D. along with their respective families led the movement to Seattle in 1889. They wasted little time reorganizing and establishing the business. Timberlands were acquired in Snohomish County, on Hood Canal and as far south as the Tillamook region in Oregon. T.D. even bought several thousand acres in California. While W.H. was cruising for timberlands, C.D. busied himself searching for a sawmill site. Good fortune enabled him to purchase an existing mill on Salmon Bay in Ballard, just north of Seattle. In January 1890, the Stimson Mill Company was incorporated, and within the month was busily processing lumber, laths and shingles. In 1898, W.H., who had relocated to Los Angeles, sent his only son, Charles Willard, to work with his uncles in Seattle. He wanted C.W. to learn all aspects of the family business, from cruising timberlands to understanding the intricacies of mill operations and finance. Young C.W. was a natural woodsman and enjoyed the hard work. He assumed more responsibility gradually and looked forward to expanding the business. In 1912, C.W. sold the Ballard mill and moved operations to Hood Canal to log the timberlands his father had purchased years earlier. He became known personally as a tough competitor and crack negotiator. Operationally, the company was known for employing hard-working men who were fortunate to use modern logging equipment. Such business acumen led C.W. in 1923, to purchase one of the oldest mills in Seattle, the Brace-Hergert Mill on Lake Union. Known as the Stimson Lumber Company, the mill employed over 200 men and produced about 50 million feet of fir lumber annually.
However, by 1929, C.W. faced a dilemma similar to the one his grandfather had encountered in Michigan. The area around Hood Canal had been cleared; quality timber was no longer available. Fortunately, C.W. had a place in mind. Forty years earlier his father had purchased 25,000 acres of old growth timber in the Tillamook region of western Oregon. Although C.W. remained involved, it was left to son-in-law, Harold Miller, to build not only a state-of-the-art sawmill in Forest Grove but to provide the leadership necessary for Stimson Lumber Company to remain viable in an increasingly competitive market.
The period from 1929-1981 can be known collectively as the “Harold Miller Era,” for it was during this period that the company reinvested in timberland holdings and diversified its product line. The company weathered through the Great Depression exceedingly well and never had to shut down temporarily or lay off workers. The series of destructive fires in the 1930s and 1940s, known collectively as the “Tillamook Burn” became only a temporary obstacle. After the 1945 fire, the company discovered that the burned and green wood that was cracked, stained or of lesser quality, could be converted into “hardboard.” Founded in 1946(?), Stimson’s Forest Fiber Products Company was the third hardboard plant in the U.S. Known as “sandalwood,” Stimson’s product became the envy of the industry.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s, resource shortages forced the company to think not only about acquiring sizable tracts of timberlands but also of acquiring related businesses. Throughout the early years land purchases consisted of small tracts located in Columbia, Clatsop and Yamhill counties in Oregon and Clark County in Washington. Many amounted to only a few acres; others totaled over 1,000 acres. The 10,000-acre purchase of redwood timberland in Del Norte County, California, became the main timber supplier to Stimson’s subsidiary, Miller Redwood Company. The 1980 purchase of 27,598 acres in the Grand Ronde region in western Oregon was, at the time, the largest in company history and helped push timberland holdings to almost 70,000 acres.
The company extended its reach further in 1962 when it purchased Northwest Petrochemical Company in Anacortes, Washington, manufacturers of phenol, a chemical used in processing hardboard. Stimson’s 1976 purchase of a plywood plant in Merlin, Oregon, melded well with the company’s other timber operations in Forest Grove, Oregon and California, and provided the perfect outlet for the phenol produced in Anacortes.
After Harold Miller died in 1981, leadership of the company passed to Darrell Schroeder, a trusted employee who had worked with the company since 1946. As the first non-family member to lead the company, Schroeder presided over the company during an expansion period that included building the dimension mill in Forest Grove, acquiring both a heavy timber mill in Clatskanie, and a cutting mill in Oregon City. In 1991, after forty-five years of service Schroeder retired from active management.
By the early 1990s, Stimson’s management decided the company needed to be more aggressive with its acquisitions -- not only in creating a “land base,” but also in reviewing other viable opportunities should they arise. The past ten years have been one of the most successful eras in the company’s history with acquisitions of assets from Champion International, Plum Creek Timber Company, and Idaho Forest Industries. Today Stimson Lumber Company stretches into eastern Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho.