The Castle of Camden

C.A. Smith Building–A Northside “Castle” with an interesting past

In North Minneapolis a very popular and interesting building stands at 4400 Lyndale Avenue. Most know it as “the castle building,” few remember it as “Machine Specialties,” but you would be hard-pressed to find a living body that remembers its original historic name–C.A. Smith Lumber Company. With the recent nomination for historic designation of not only C.A. Smith, but other nearby buildings in this former “Lumber District,” it’s a great time to celebrate one of our greatest buildings in Camden.

Growing up in Lind Bohanon Neighborhood, I was fascinated by stories of a lumberjack era in my community. As a young boy, one particular mural on the side of the neighborhood dollar theater sparked my interest. Upon further exploration of the nearby neighborhoods and parks, my friends and I found more clues of days past. Scattered vintage machinery behind the “old castle building,” and logs that jutted out of the rushing Mississippi River all served as relics for our imaginations, and we spent countless summer days sneaking down to the river to play.

That curiosity was nourished as I grew up in the area and I became more involved and interested in local history. Now with the Internet and other simplified resource gathering tools, it’s much easier for folks to view and read about local history, and to share previously unknown stories and document pictures from our own family archives.

While doing research on our beloved C.A. Smith Lumber building, I was referred to an article in the Minneapolis Journal via the Library of Congress dated November 26, 1903. (Follow this link for the whole article: click here)

The article is filled with record-breaking fun facts, interesting trivia, and a detailed account of the mill infrastructure and what daily life on the job entailed. Interesting facts include:

~No other mill in the U.S. was as advanced or utilized a log so efficiently.

~The mill produced between 115-120,000,000 feet of lumber per year. The national average was 100,000.

~The mill sat on 80 acres of land with 30 miles of tramways to quickly move the lumber around.

~The mill used a unique twin blade bandsaw “that squared a log in two motions.” The only kind known to exist.

~The mill operated two crews working 11 hour shifts each.

~Many compared the mill to a much more advanced Norwegian mill in Europe.

~People looking to exploit a day trip were encouraged to experience the sawmill district of North Minneapolis with its distinct smell of fresh lumber and sometimes fire. The C.A. Smith Lumber mill was the climax as the streetcar traveled to the distant “Camden Place.”

Another interesting fact about the mill was its early pioneering of recycling its waste products. The mill, which was powered by an on-site steam plant, used its own mush of sawdust and woodchips to fuel the whole mill. Remarkably, the excess byproduct was sold to the City of Minneapolis’s nearby water pumping station. This cost saving measure eliminated the need to transport coal for fuel and ultimately saved the city $15-20,000 a year. Over seven years, the mill saved taxpayers the equivalent of $2,594,758 in today’s money!

Fast forward — two of the old mill buildings still stand. What is now “Machine Specialties” at 4400 Lyndale was then the main office building for C.A. Smith Lumber. The other, just north of the office building was a subsidiary company of the lumber mill called the “Compo-Board Company” at 4430 Lyndale.

The office headquarters was of the highest quality and required ample “accessories of a modern office building.” Many of these high quality furnishings can still be seen today in the original interior woodwork.

The old newspaper article goes on to mention another reuse of byproducts at Compo-Board factory, “…utilizing the edging of the sawmill and turning them into a manufactured product which is used the country over…”

g-castle3The patented process took the edgings and re-sawed them to thin strips and with hydraulic pressure, pressed the wood between two pieces of paper above and below. The finished product was a firm, but light board used in housing construction to replace lathe and plaster. (Think pressed wood as an early form of sheetrock.) It was also a hugely popular material for the construction of ping pong tables!

Currently, the old mill office building and adjoined compo-board building are for sale by the long-time owners who have had the properties in their family for over 50 years.

Community interest has been a stir with the Camden Community Historical Society and the Lind Bohanon Neighborhood Association, expressing interest in someday running their respective offices in the “turret building.”

Recent local historic designation is a move in the right direction to ensure that we preserve the history of these neighborhood treasures to influence future generations to explore their local history.

Be sure to join the Old North Minneapolis history page, facebook.com/groups/OldNorthMinneapolis/.