History of the historic C.A. Smith building

Men at the C.A. Smith building, photo taken in 1911. Photo courtesy of MNHS.

Men at the C.A. Smith building, photo taken in 1911. Photo courtesy of MNHS.

Often referred to as the “castle building,” the iconic yellow brick building at 4400 Lyndale Avenue North has stood there for 125 years. It was originally the office building of the C.A. Smith Lumber Company and was a piece of an integral part of the history of Camden and the City of Minneapolis. There were several lumber mills along the Mississippi River but C.A. Smith was the only one in Camden.

Charles Axel Smith started C.A. Smith & Co in 1884 in partnership with then Governor John S Pillsbury and C. J. Johnson. At first they had the logs they handled sawed at custom mills but in 1887 they bought the mill of the John Martin Lumber Company. Unfortunately it burned down 60 days later.

In 1893 the business was incorporated as the C.A. Smith Lumber Company. It began by building the largest, most expensive and most complete mill erected in Minneapolis. This mill opened in what was then Camden Place, a northern suburb of Minneapolis. Within a few years it was breaking sawing records in Minneapolis.

The mill not only turned out large amounts of lumber, but under Arno Mereen, who became the plant’s superintendent in 1899, it was also able to reduce the cost of manufacturing. To do this it did things such as adding a ‘box shooks’ manufacturing factory to the plant that would utilize wood that would have been waste. It used sawdust and shavings for fuel rather than throwing it away.

The Northwestern Compo-Board Company, which was part of the C.A. Smith plant, utilized the waste edgings to make a composite material called Compo Board. Compo Board, consisting of thin strips of pine edgings, heavy paper cement and glue, was essentially the precursor of drywall in replacing lathe and plaster. In 1912, because the reserves of white pines in Minnesota had dwindled, C.A. Smith closed the mill and moved that operation to Oregon. The Northwestern Compo Board Co. continued on Lyndale until 1939.

In 1901 two C.A. Smith employees, Arno Mereen and Charles Johnson, invented the industry’s first Horizontal Slab Re-saw. The innovative saw and a newly introduced box press machine were so much in demand that they started the Mereen-Johnson Machine Company. For a number of years their company was at the C.A. Smith mill. In 1916 the sales had increased so much that they built their own factory at 4401 Lyndale Ave. N, directly across the street from the C.A. Smith office building. Mereen-Johnson remained on Lyndale for decades. In 1973 they built a second factory in Webster, North Dakota and in 1995 started shifting production from the Minneapolis factory to the one in Webster. Mereen –Johnson still had offices at 4401 Lyndale until 2012.

This historic brick building, along with the building next door and the one across the street are reminders of the lumber industry that was such a big part of our local Camden history.