Camden’s lumber history

The opening of the new Walrus Art Gallery, in what is often referred to as the “Castle Building” at 4400 Lyndale Ave N, got me thinking about the history of that building and the history in Camden it represents. This building, along with the building next door which was originally the Northwest Compo Board building, and the Mereen-Johnson office building across Lyndale are collectively designated as the C.A. Smith Historic District.

That brick building, which was built in 1892, was originally the office building of the C.A. Smith Lumber Company. 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, which burned down two months later. It was one of five Minneapolis mills destroyed by a large fire.

In 1893 the business was incorporated as the C.A. Smith Lumber Company. The company was established on 20 acres along the west bank of the Mississippi River in what was then Camden Place. It began by building the largest, most expensive and most complete mill erected in Minneapolis. Lumber milling was a major industry in this area at that time. The C.A. Smith Lumber Company was one of seven lumber concerns along a stretch of the Mississippi in Minneapolis then. In the 1890s, the C.A. Smith mill was reported to employ 800 men at a time and produce 750,000 million board feet per day.

During the peak white pine lumber production years of 1900 to 1910, Smith significantly expanded his operations here in Camden. In 1904 Smith served as the president and primary stockholder of the Minneapolis, Red Lake and Manitoba Railway Company. Smith used the railroad to transport white pine from the pineries of Bemidji to his Minneapolis sawmill.

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, garnered national attention in the lumber industry for its commitment to eliminating waste and maximizing the raw material for each and every log. To do this it did things such as adding a ‘box shooks’ (bundles of wood that, when assembled, formed a wooden box) manufacturing factory to the plant that would utilize wood that would have been waste. It also used sawdust and shavings for fuel rather than throwing it away.

The building just north of the castle building, which currently is home to Guilded Salvage Antiques, was originally the Northwestern Compo Board Co. building which was also owned by C.A. Smith. In 1892 Smith secured the patent for a “composite material designed to take the place of ordinary plastering,” from George S. Mayhew. Smith would call the material, which was a composite board with three principal parts (the surface of heavy paper, the wooden core and the cement) “Compo Board” and he would produce it in this Camden factory. It was advertised as an interior finishing product that could be installed on all surfaces of a home. Smith incorporated a separate company, the Northwestern Compo Board Co., to produce this composite material.                                                                                               

It’s good to see these historic buildings that were so integral to Camden’s past being used again to now be part of Camden’s present and hopefully its future.

Note: The Walrus art gallery held their grand opening in early March. Learn more at