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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 519

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This is the grave of Frederick Weyerhaeuser.

Born in 1834 in Germany, Weyerhaeuser grew up in a family of land-owning farmers. During the 1848 revolutions, several of his family members moved to western Pennsylvania. They thought it was great and more of the family came to the U.S., including Frederick in 1852. He worked in a brewery in the town of North East, then for a farmer. The family sold their lands in Germany. With his share, Frederick decided to start on his home, going west to Rock Island, Illinois in 1856.

Soon after moving to Illinois, Weyerhaeuser went into the timber business. The Midwest needed a lot of it, as the places whites were increasingly moving didn’t have much wood. He started working at a firm, rose rapidly, and then bought his partners out when they had financial problems. Working out of Rock Island, he and his brother-in-law slowly built up a conglomerate of timber companies across the six Midwestern states. By the 1870s, Weyerhaeuser was starting the largest timber firm the nation had seen. He would be the Rockefeller or Morgan for this industry. He invested heavily in the North Woods timber after the Civil War. By 1900, he produced about 12 percent of the all the timber in Wisconsin, which for an industry with a low capital investment, was an incredible amount. And he just cut and run. Slashed it. Got it all out as fast as possible. And left the residents of the region to clean up the mess. This became known as the cut-over and remains among the poorest counties in the region today. The basic idea was that the truest purpose of land was farming it. And wasn’t there trees to last forever anyway? So let’s just make money off it and then sell it to farmers. But that was terrible agricultural land. Weyerhaeuser and friends got to make one more little bit of profit off of it and then didn’t have to deal with any of the consequences. Such was American capitalism and such it remains today, as much as the capitalists can get away with.

In 1900, Weyerhaeuser bought an astounding 900,000 acres of timber in Washington from James J. Hill and his Great Northern Railway that had been granted them for building the railroad. For all that land, he paid $5.4 million. Weyerhauser moved his operations to the gigantic trees of the Northwest. He had thought about investing in the South, but hated the climate there and, according to one historian, the “social conditions,” which I assume is meant to mean he wasn’t super racist, but that’s conjecture on my part. It’s hard to overestimate the power he had over the developing Northwest. Like other timbermen, he had no interest in conservation, at least not in the early years. The coastal forests that were the most easily accessible soon went the way of those in Minnesota and Wisconsin, disappearing rapidly. Much later the company would start reforesting its own land, earlier than most other companies, but that was long after the patriarch was no more. For a man like Weyerhaeuser, the only point of forests was to make money. To be fair, this did not make him particularly different than the large majority of other people in the nation at this time, including the people living and working in those forests.

Weyerhaeuser’s mills were seen as a death traps by workers and the Industrial Workers of the World began organizing around this in the last years of the timber capitalist’s life. One IWW newspaper wrote of a dead young worker: “You will remember, fellow workers, that this boy was suffering from tuberculosis, contracted during his confinement in Weyerhaeuser’s ‘black hole’ in Moscow.” That’s Idaho, for those of you less familiar with the region.

In 1906, with trusts playing a bigger role in the political arena, Weyerhaeuser’s timber monopoly became gaining attention. The Interstate Commerce Commission recommended to Congress that he be investigated. But he just completely blew it all off. He died in 1914 in Pasadena, California. His company continued to grow in the years after his death and remains the world’s largest timber operator today. If you want to see how capitalists talked about each other at this time, which is something I find really interesting, here’s a good long obituary from a timber industry publication. Note the ways that ideas of Victorian manhood and conservatism, in the classic sense, get portrayed here. Note how the clichés about hard work and boostrapism were just as ridiculous and ubiquitous among the elite classes then and now. Never mind all the questionable ethical decisions that went into the making of these business empires–it’s about hard work! Sobriety! Thrift! And if you compete with me, I will crush you using every means I have! Oh wait, that part isn’t actually said.

Frederick Weyerhaeuser is buried in Chippiannock Cemetery, Rock Island, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit more figures from the history of American forests, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John W. Weeks, who sponsored the Weeks Act to create the national forests is in Arlington and Brice Disque, who headed the military force quasi-nationalizing the forests of the Northwest during World War I to get wood out in order to build planes, all while crushing the IWW, is in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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