Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Early lumberyards in the Great Plains not only shaped the development of that region but also affected the Great Lakes region and railroad practices. As settlers in the last half of the nineteenth century moved west onto the generally treeless Plains, they sought familiar building materials at lumberyards. During the same period, the pine forests of the Great Lakes region were being rapidly harvested, providing the timber for sale at those yards. Indeed, Great Lakes lumber supplied much of the growing market in the Great Plains, with transportation enabled by a rail network that was expanding west from Chicago and other midwestern cities.

A relationship between railroads and lumber retailers was necessary, since timber usually was sold through "line yards"–multiple facilities owned by various companies and located in towns along a railroad line. But it was an often tenuous association. In general, the preferred site for a lumberyard in a Plains town was on a warehouse lot adjacent to the railroad. Due to their proximity to the tracks, these locations were easy to stock. They also often had good visibility, which helped to generate tra.c. However, since those parcels were usually on railroad property, the railroad made the warehouse lot assignments to its best advantage, which often relegated lumber companies to less desirable situations. It was left to Gen. Grenville Dodge, Civil War veteran and engineer in charge of the Union Pacific's late 1860s push across the Plains to Promontory Point, Utah, to argue that lumber and railroad companies should work as partners, because lumber was among those commodities that could attract settlers to a town and thus help generate tra.c for a railroad.

Once the site for a yard had been agreed upon (preferably a site without standing water), a stock of lumber was delivered and made available for sale. Until a company was sure that a town's potential for settlement merited investment, initial lumber sales generally occurred without the convenience of an office or lumber shed. If the early sales were satisfactory, a company might construct a small structure, perhaps no bigger than sixteen feet by twenty-four feet and including only a modest office and shed for the finished lumber. If sales did not develop properly, the company could easily load its stock onto a train and move to the next town, losing virtually nothing in the process.

Aside from an office and shed, lumberyards in early Plains towns included a limehouse and lumber piles. Sometimes yard expansion was warranted, and an addition was made to the extant office-and-shed combination. For instance, the sixteen-by-twenty-four-foot structure could be extended to forty feet in length, thus allowing more lumber storage space. The investment a company was willing to make in a yard was commensurate with the perceived potential for lumber sales. Accordingly, larger towns received more substantial yards, which generally included multiple storage sheds, the largest of which could accommodate wagons.

Lumberyards were places at which a significant commodity passed from supplier to consumer. Moreover, they played an important role in the processes that ultimately created the Great Lakes cutover region as well as in the establishment of the early European American built environments in the Great Plains. Despite these extensive effects, the companies that operated the yards had simple objectives: they wanted to get into a town quickly, sell as much lumber with as little investment possible, and then move on to seek fortune elsewhere.

See also TRANSPORTATION: Dodge, Grenville.

John N. Vogel Heritage Research, Ltd.

Laird, Norton Company Correspondence, Laird, Norton Company Papers, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Vogel, John N. Great Lakes Lumber on the Great Plains: The Laird, Norton Lumber Company in South Dakota. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

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