Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Wire Grass and our family connection



Grandpa Frank Schotl

In an earlier blog about Grandpa Frank Schotl, I mentioned that we found him listed as a cook on Wire Grass Farm #4, Linwood Township, Anoka County in the 1910 Federal Census. [link to that blog here]  The photo of him in a cook outfit  was one of the photos supplied by Mr. Ken Dufresne to the Anoka County Historical Society.  It was part of the collection that his maternal Grandmother, Mrs. Carl (Martha) Engquist, had saved in boxes and scrapbooks. 

The story about the Minnesota wire grass industry has been  documented by both the Washington and Anoka County Historical Societies and recorded in various area newspapers.  Paul D. Nelson wrote a feature on the wire grass industry in the Winter 2006 issue of the Ramsey County History Magazine.  I have used information from all these sources.   The Tariff Information Surveys on the Articles of the Tariff Act of 1913, by the United States Tariff Commission provided further documentation, and I have also used information that Ken Dufresne shared with us in our interview in July of 2013. 




Carex stricta
On our July 2013 trip to Minnesota we had a chance to spend a very delightful morning with Ken Dufresne.    He was very generous with his time and even provided us with a CD with scanned images.  Most of the vintage photos in this blog are from that collection.

Wire grass (Carex stricta) is a species of sedge known by the common name upright sedge. It is grass-like and can be difficult to distinguish from other plants in the sedge family. (source Wikipedia)

The origin of an industry using wire grass can be traced to Oshkosh, Wisconsin in the mid-1890's.  It was at Oshkosh under the business  leadership of entrepreneur James F. O'Shaughnessy that experiments were begun with wire grass to produce a grass binding twine suitable for harvesting wheat and other cereal crops.  So as Paul Nelson says, "It all began with Twine".


                                                             Harvesting Crew at Wiregrass Camp #3                       photo courtesy of Ken Dufresne




The first attempt at commercial production of wire-grass floor coverings began in 1899 with the organization at St. Paul of the American Grass Twine Company.  "James F. O'Shaughnessy gathered investors and put inventor George Lowry on the case.  Lowry, skilled hand with fiber in the cotton industry devised a machine to twist and join staggered stalks of wire grass..."  (Tariff Information Surveys)

O'Shaughnessy built a factory in Oshkosh only later to decide that it made more sense to locate in St. Paul near a ready supply of wire grass, the binder twine market of the Upper Midwest, and near the fine railroad service available in St. Paul. 

The 1899 charter of American Grass Twine authorized the manufacture of grass-twine mattings for floor coverings, grass-twine furniture, curled grass for bedding and packing, grass bottle covers, grass twine for binding grain, and harvesting machinery.  It was a Delaware Corporation with its main office in New York City, but St. Paul was the center of manufacturing and distribution.

A number of subsidiary plants were acquired for the production of these goods.  The manufacture of grass floor coverings was the only activity which proved to be profitable.






detail of 1932 Anoka County, Columbus Township map,   Kunshier farms are blocked in yellow




In order to be assured of a dependable supply of  grass, the manufacturers either bought up or leased most of the good wire grass meadows in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  They entered into contracts with adjacent farmers whose land was in part covered with wire grass.   It is very possible that the Kunshiers and, or the Schotls were leasing some of their land as their farms were located in areas of wire grass. Estimates for the total area owned or leased by Crex range from 20,000 to 50,000 acres. 




        Camp #1 Gleaning Crew with Carl August Engquist "boss"          photo courtesy of Ken Dufresne

The harvest season opened about the 1st of July, following the preliminary task of draining the grass lands after they have been flooded by the spring thaws.  It continued usually until about the middle of September or until the grass has become too ripe and dry to be fit for manufacture.  Aside from their small contracts with the farmers, the manufacturers assumed direct charge of the gathering of the grass.  For this purpose they established camps not unlike lumber camps.  A camp usually consisted of  Foreman's office, bunk house, dining room and kitchen, machinery warehouse, blacksmith shop, and stable.
   



Wire Grass Women "Floppers"      photo courtesy of Ken Dufresne


Crews of from 24 to 100 laborers were employed at each camp during the harvest season.  All of these men were unskilled except the foreman, machine men, and stackers.  They were paid wages ranging from $3 to $4 per day, in addition to their board.  Harvest crews were supplemented by local men, women, boys and girls.  A few sources also mention that those that provided horses were paid additional for their use.


The methods employed in harvesting were controlled largely by two factors: (1) The necessity of obtaining a grass that was properly cured, with spears straight, parallel, and unbroken; and (2) the soggy, unstable character of the peat soil which made it difficult to use heavy machinery unless specially constructed.  In cutting the grass, the self-rake reaper was most commonly used, especially in the smaller meadows.


"Ordinarily, unless a heavy rain had made it necessary to shock them for drying, the bundles of grass were stacked immediately after being tied. After going through a month of 'sweat' in the stack, the grass was ready to be baled; but this was not usually undertaken until the end of the harvest season, owing to the necessity of concentrating all efforts on the harvest during the short season available. The baling was done by a small skeleton crew of workers maintained at each camp through the winter."  (Tariff Information Surveys)




                                                                           The Grand Pile at Camp One                   photo courtesy of Ken Dufres

 



Gleaner Boss, Carl August Engquist   photo courtesy of  Ken Defresne



Ken Dufresne's  Grandfather, Carl August Engquist, had been a "gleaner boss" on a crew that harvested wiregrass.  Ken had been raised by his grandparents on their farm  near Wiregrass Camp #3. 

 

According to Ken, the camps were numbered as they were created:  Number 1 by Wyoming, Number 2 near East Bethel, Number 3 was the South end of Columbus Township, and Number 4 was in Linwood Township.

 
 


at the warehouse in Forest Lake    photo courtesy of Ken Dufresne



 

In 1908 The American Grass Twine Carpet Company changed its name to Crex. The name is derived from the botanical name for Carex stricta referring to the family of wire grass that was being used. 
 
Crex had large warehouses in Forest Lake and Wyoming.  The wire grass was stored until a call came from St. Paul where the grass would be used in a variety of products produced by the Crex Company. (More on this industry in a later blog.)



 




Today all the  camps which were located in Anoka county are part of the Carlos Avery Game Farm also known as Carlos Avery Wildlife Refuge. The refuge opened in 1937 and eventually comprised a complex of 11 buildings.  It was approved as a project of the Works Progress Administration and today is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.





After leaving Ken, we followed his directions to Camp 3 Road at Potomac Street.  It was near this intersection where he had lived on the old Rumly place and quite near the Schotl farm.  Potomac Street had previously been called Schotl Road. 





 

From this location we drove North to the Oak Park Cemetery on Notre Dame Street.  Notre Dame Street had once been know as Kunshier Road.  We found more Kunshier graves than we were expecting.  I will write about this and our experiences in Forest Lake in another blog.