Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 728

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 728


This is the grave of Brice Disque.

In every historian’s life, there are people you would never have heard of if you had not gone down some rabbit hole for your research. For me, Brice Disque is one of those people.

Disque was born in California, Ohio in 1879. He grew up in Cincinnati and joined the military in the Spanish-American War. He stayed in the military after the war, slowly rising in the ranks.

The reason Disque comes into the historical story is that conditions in the Northwest timber industry were so bad for workers–grotesque sanitation, adulterated food, disgusting bunkhouses, vermin everywhere, death and injury behind every door–that they were organizing into the Industrial Workers of the World and engaging in increasingly successful strikes. At the same time, the nation entered World War I. With the air now a field of battle, the military needed airplanes. But for that, they needed light softwoods. The best tree for this was the Sitka spruce, which grows in relatively small numbers in the Pacific Northwest. All of a sudden, an obscure labor problem in a backwoods part of the nation became a national security issue. And to solve that problem, the government called on Brice Disque.

I am now going to paste in some material from my book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests rather than rewrite the whole thing myself. It follows–with footnotes!

Soon after the U.S. entered the World War I in April 1917, the Wilson administration set up unprecedented government coordination over the economy in order to facilitate the war effort. It soon turned its attention to the Northwest forests. Wilson created the War Industries Board in July 1917 to streamline war-related manufacturing, while Congress passed the Lever Act in August 1917, giving the president the power to regulate supplies and prices of food and fuel during the war.[1] The Council of National Defense, created in June 1916 to prepare national businesses for war, coordinated industry cooperation after the nation entered World War I. Its subsidiary, the Aircraft Production Board, sent Charles R. Sligh, its lumber subcommittee head, to investigate the timber problem. His report indicated the strike’s seriousness and the impossibility of producing the necessary spruce. He emphasized, “It calls for heroic measures…The industry must be largely revolutionized, and this with skill, sureness and justice, else the attempt will fail.”[2]

Responding to Sligh’s report, in October 1917, General John J. Pershing appointed Colonel Brice P. Disque to find a solution to the labor situation in the Northwestern forests. Disque was a lifetime military officer who enlisted in 1899, playing a role in capturing Filipino freedom fighter Emilio Aguinaldo. He retired from the military in 1916 to take a position as warden of the Michigan State Penitentiary but reenlisted when the nation entered World War I. Pershing gave Disque the authority to recruit a division of soldiers to log spruce for the military.[3]

Disque created the Spruce Production Division (SPD), an army unit fighting in the Northwest forests instead of the French trenches. Made up primarily of experienced loggers, the SPD helped the military acquire the necessary wood, placed Army men among the radicals in camps, and limited drafted Wobblies from spreading their doctrine into the Army mainstream since many radicalized loggers made up the core of the SPD. But the soldiers could not work directly for the government. There were not enough SPD troops to log all the needed spruce and to do so would have made the military look like a strikebreaking outfit, making the labor problem worse. Troops would be interspersed with civilian loggers but the military would not allow them to live in the conditions that lumber workers endured daily. Getting out the cut required government intervention in the industry’s sanitary regime.[4]

Disque initially dismissed sanitation as the reason for the labor problems. He wrote the War Department about the strikes, “I do not believe that the living conditions in the camps are responsible for it because there is a general effort by employers to improve living conditions in every way.”[5] He changed his mind after touring the camps. Witnessing housing and toilet facilities and eating with loggers, Disque compared conditions unfavorably to American POW camps in the Philippines, noting, “We treated captured Moros better in the Philippines during a war.” After one meal in a camp cookhouse, he remarked, “We could not eat it.”[6]

The timber industry was initially suspicious of Disque’s presence. Edwin Ames was happy to use federal troops as a strikebreaking force, but resisted further incursions in labor relations. He wrote Disque, “all that is required is for the government to detail a small squad of men to guard each logging operation and sawmill plant manufacturing lumber for government purposes,” while calling for limited government interference in his operations.[7] Disque thus had to integrate his soldiers into civilian camps while ameliorating suspicious owners, raising the sanitation standards to those acceptable to the military, convincing workers the troops were not strikebreakers, and getting trees processed for the war effort. To accomplish this Herculean task, Disque and his advisors, particularly labor economist Carleton Parker, convinced the timber operators to place their labor problems in Disque’s hands in February 1918, promising an end to strikes and consistent production.

Disque then announced the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen (Four-L), which became the nation’s first government-sponsored company union. The Four-L required a loyalty oath and banned active IWW members from work, but guaranteed the eight-hour day, steady work, and improving conditions. In return for meeting workers’ demands, the Four-L insisted that workers not strike during the war and consider it a mediating organization between themselves and their employers. This led to a major victory for workers, but a complete defeat for the IWW.[8]

In March 1918, Disque issued an order that laid out the environmental improvements the industry must make. In addition to enforcing an eight-hour day and setting minimum wages for each job in the camps, this order demanded that camps provide real bedding to their workers, including mattresses, pillows, blankets, and sheets. He also sent subordinates to inspect mess halls and renovate “the entire physical conditions under which the lumber workers lived.”[9] The camp operators had to undergo government inspections of their camps with enforcement power from the military. This ensured that labor tumult would not result from the government-employed soldiers.[10]

Military repression went far to ensure worker participation. A SPD officer made an impassioned speech to convince loggers to join the Four-L. Most signed up but when George Harper refused, some workers threatened to tar him. After the lieutenant worried about the bad publicity of such an act, they beat him and evicted him from camp.[11] “C.C.” was not a Wobbly but was disgusted by the pressure to join the Four-L. He took a position with the Admiralty Logging Company, where he faced a vermin-infested bed and poor food. Five days later, a SPD officer came into sign up the camp for the Four-L. 120 of the 190 workers signed cards after a rousing speech, but C.C. and others did not, instead “debating on a man’s rights in a free country.” He quit, but this pressure forced most loggers, even most radicals, to accept it.[12]

The quasi-military organization of the forests had long-term effects upon the workscapes of the timber industry. First, it effectively ended the iron control of operators over their camps. One employer confessed to a government investigator that the strikes had convinced him to provide decent bunkhouses, but not until he had eliminated the IWW because “he was not going to allow those fellows to tell him what he had to do.”[13] Disque intervened in this standoff, building upon health measures the military adopted in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines and was implementing during World War I, as well as the broader emphasis on cleanliness among middle-class reformers in the 1910s.[14] The SPD ordered seven changes to an Aloha Lumber Company camp, including placing the toilets farther away from the kitchen and keeping them clean, providing shade for the meat house so the food did not spoil, and working to keep flies out of the mess house.[15] Military sanitation inspectors challenged timber operators on many of the same issues as the Wobblies. Paul E. Page protested an order that he clean up his company’s water supplies. He used its log pond for its camp drinking water and an inspector worried that the men would defecate in the water, leading to a “serious epidemic.” Complaining that a inspection of his camp was “unfair and unreasonable” he placed the water system in his camp within the context of the entire industry, arguing “If the entire water supply west of the Cascades is to be condemned for the reason that some log may be pulled through human excretia and come in contact with some brook that supplies drinking water, we are certainly in a bad way.”[16]

Improving conditions meant happier workers and higher production. One Four-L report compared the worker dissatisfaction in one camp because of bad water, biting insects, and a lack of bathing facilities to a nearby camp without union problems had already provided bathing facilities. This report requested that the War Department appoint men to make camp inspection tours as a way to enforce these changes.[17] Disque also rejected attempts by companies to get around the new mandates. When the Puget Mill Company requested workers labor after their mandated eight hours to make repairs, Disque refused, calling the eight-hour day an “iron-clad rule.”[18]

Continued Wobbly agitation made Disque’s actions necessary. Wobblies continued striking into 1918. A Wenatchee, Washington camp walked out that winter for a new cook and the eight-hour day; winning, it forced non-Wobblies to quit. In February, the IWW announced that on May 1, loggers would burn their bedrolls and go on the largest strike in the industry’s history to force companies to provide beds and sheets. It openly publicized the plan, worrying Disque and the timber industry.[19] One government investigator urged operators to “pull the teeth of this proposition by doing away with blanket carrying by the first of April.”[20] When the Four-L announced beds and sheets in all camps March 1918, the IWW crowed, “Damn it all, it seems the I.W.W. can never get what it wants” because every time it fought for something, the government “’voluntarily’ grants what we were fighting for and had got in shape to take.”[21] In this new atmosphere of reform, loggers kept winning their demands. When Wobblies working for the Mineral Lake Lumber Company held a meeting in March 1918 and demanded a bathhouse, the company immediately complied.[22]

From the IWW’s perspective, workers’ activism created these changes. Forrest Edwards, a twenty-year veteran of lumber camps, reflected on what the IWW had accomplished. He bemoaned the terrible food quality but noted, “Just as I.W.W. propaganda has brought springs and mattresses, shower baths, better bunkhouses,” it would also bring better food and the eight-hour day.[23] When Disque established the eight-hour day, The Industrial Worker credited “the I.W.W. through its open strike and the strike on the job, brought the lumber interests to time.” Dismissing the Four-L as an organization with no worker voice, it bragged, “the I.W.W. got the eight-hour day for the lumberjacks of the Northwest.” Its next goal was to change the “camps where the food is so rotten that milady’s dog would turn up its nose in disgust at the nauseating mess” and the “camps where the sleeping accommodations are not fit for pigs.”[24]

[1] Robert H. Zieger, America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littelfield Publishers, Inc., 2000), 64-77 for a good overview of the Wilson administration’s mobilization of the economy during the war. Joseph A. McCartin, “Using the ‘Gun Act’: Federal Regulation and the Politics of the Strike Threat during World War I,” Labor History, 33, no. 4 (1992): 519-28; Eileen A. Boris, “Tenement Homework on Army Uniforms: the Gendering of Industrial Democracy during World War I,” Labor History 32, no. 2 (1991): 231-52; William J. Breen, “Industrial Training and Craft Production in World War I: Unions, Employers, and the States, 1917-1919,” Labor History 37, no. 1 (1995-96): 50-74; Carl R. Weisberg, Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), and Robert D. Cuff, The War Industries Board: Business-Government Relations during World War I (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973) on labor, employers, and government intervention in industry during the war.

            [2] United States Army and United States Spruce Production Corporation, History of the Spruce Production Division, 5.

            [3] Ibid, 7; Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce,28-34.

[4] Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 114, 116.

[5] Brice Disque letter to Chief Signal Officer, War Department, November 27, 1917, Brice Disque Papers, University of Washington Special Collections, Box 3, Folder V0257a

[6] Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 109

[7] Ames to Disque, October 30, 1917, UW, Box 17, Folder 9.

            [8] Hyman, Soldiers and Spruce, 179.

[9] United States War Department, Office of the Secretary, A Report of the Activities of the War Department in the Field of Industrial Relations During the War (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1919), 45-46.

            [10] United States Army and United States Spruce Production Corporation, History of Spruce Production Division, 18.

[11] “Knock Their Blocks Off!” The Industrial Worker, January 5, 1918.

[12] “A Soldier Writes,” The Seattle Union Record, January 7, 1919.

[13] C.M. Plummer to C.C. McEachran,” March 1, 1918, Ames Papers, Box 17, Folder 43.

[14] Vincent J. Cirillo, “Fever and Reform: The Typhoid Epidemic in the Spanish-American War,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Applied Sciences, 55, no. 4 (2000): 363-97; Nancy K. Bristow, Making Men Moral: Social Engineering during the Great War, (New York: New York University Press, 1996); David J. Pivar, “Cleansing the Nation: The War on Prostitution, 1917-1921,” Prologue 12 Spring 1980, 29-41; and Douglas Habib, “Chastity, Masculinity, and Military Efficiency: The United States Army in Germany, 1918-1923,” International History Review 28, no. 4 (December 2006): 737-57. On the middle class and cleanliness, Suellen Hoy, Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), especially 87-123.

[15] John E. Stansbury to Commanding Officer, 45 Spruce Squadron. Aloha Lumber Company Papers, University of Washington Special Collections, Box 1, Folder P1319-4b.

[16] J.W. Sherwood report, July 23, 1918; J.W. Sherwood to Frank Scott, August 15, 1918; Paul E. Page to C.F. Stearns, August 9, 1918, RG 18, Box 88, Folder Spruce Production Division, Correspondence—Suregon.”

[17] Minutes of the Convention of the Inland Empire Division of the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, 13-14, Brice Disque Papers, University of Washington Special Collections, Box 3, Folder V0257a.

[18] Ames to Disque, March 6, 1918; C.P. Stearns to Puget Mill Company, March 12, 1918. Ames Papers, Box 17, Folder 45.

[19] “All Bundles Will be Burned on May First,” The Industrial Worker, February 9, 1918; “Won in a Walk Out,” The Industrial Worker, February 9, 1918; “We Claim Credit in Advance,” The Industrial Worker, March 16, 1918.

[20] C.M. Plummer to C.C. McEachran,” March 1, 1918, Ames Papers, Box 17, Folder 43.

[21] “Steal Our Thunder and It Looks Like Rain,” The Lumberjack, March 23, 1918.

[22] “Got Their Bath House,” Industrial Worker, April 13, 1918.

[23] Forrest Edwards, “The Lumber Workers and Their Success,” Industrial Worker, February 2, 1918.

[24] “I.W.W. Forces Eight-Hour Day in Northwest, Industrial Worker, March 9, 1918.

This all worked to perfection–the spruce got out, though in truth by the time full production was ramped up, the war was about to end. This combination of improving conditions and government repression did kill the IWW in the Pacific Northwest. The SPD ended right after the war, but the Four-L continued as an industry wide company union until 1937, when the Supreme Court ruled the National Labor Relations Act, which outlawed company unions, constitutional.

Disque was still a fairly young man and he was seen as a sort of hero within the business community for bringing company unionism to the industry. He was a consultant to a lot of businesses in the age of company unionism and welfare capitalism in the 1920s, when the labor movement was being decimated by corporate attacks and companies were engaging in just enough welfare capitalism to keep worker organizing at bay. The military promoted him to brigadier general at the end of the war, so he had that to help out his career as well. He also continued in the reserves until 1939. He lived in Rochester after the war and was in command of the reserves there until 1937, when he took a similar role in New York City. He was named president of several corporations as well, mostly in mining. During World War II, he served on the Solid Fuels Administration. He died in 1960.

Brice Disque is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions and while this is someone probably no one here has heard of, I personally appreciate it very much. If you would like this series to visit other people mentioned in this history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. The really truly awful timber capitalist Edwin Ames is in Seattle and Charles Sligh is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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