Spinning Gold-The Wire Grass Industry of St. Paul

Article excerpt

Wire grass (botanical name carex stricto) grows wild and tall in the peat bogs of the Upper Midwest. From the beginning of time it had no practical use. Animals won't eat it; Native Americans made nothing from it. Apart from occasional placement in landscaping, it has no use or value today.

But, for one historical moment, roughly 1895 to 1935, wire grass brought forth an industry (Figure 1). It inspired the ingenuity of engineers and mechanics and excited the hopes of investors and the imagination of crooks. Wire grass built factories, furnished houses and hotels, and gave work to thousands of men and women (and not a few children). And then it was gone.

This is the story of a unique American industry.

Oshkosh Origins

The story begins in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in the mid-189Os, and it begins with twine. The mechanical reaper and later improvements created a huge United States market for binding twine. The reaper and self-binder (which bound the grain into sheaves mechanically) enabled farmers to work vast tracts with small crews. But they had to have twine, miles of it. As one contemporary observer put it, "if the supply of twine for one harvest were suddenly to be cut off'it would mean not simply a national but an international calamity No twine, no wheat.

But during this period, the 188Os and 189Os, the binding twine industry was new and unstable. Most of the fiber came from Mexico and the Philippines. It wasn't cheap, and Americans-especially the harvester makers-disliked foreign control of so vital a commodity. Control, and profit too, belonged in the U.S.A. Whoever developed a domestic source of binder twine stood to make a fortune.1

Wire grass grew abundantly in the Wolf River lowlands near Oshkosh. Its long (three to four feet), slim, clean, leafless, and unjointed stalks caught the attention of one or more curious minds as a possible source of twine fiber. Eastern capitalist James F. O'Shaughnessy gathered investors and put inventor George Lowry on the case. Lowry, a skilled hand with fiber in the cotton industry, devised a machine to twist and join staggered stalks of wire grass into lengths of passable twine. O'Shaughnessy built a small factory in Oshkosh and armed it with Lowry machines; an industry was born.

O'Shaughnessy and his partners soon decided that St. Paul, not Oshkosh, was the best place to make a fortune in wire grass. Headquarters of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads, St. Paul was the rail transportation hub for the grain-growing regions of the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains, enormous markets for twine. What is more, carer stricto sprouted every spring in tens of thousands of acres of peat bogs nearby (Figure 2).

In 1899 O'Shaughnessy and company formed the American Grass Twine Co. (from two companies they already controlled, Wisconsin Grass Twine and North Western Grass Twine) (Figure 3). It was a Delaware corporation with its main office in New York City, but St. Paul was the center of manufacturing and distribution. American Grass Twine and its successor, Crex Carpet Co., dominated the national wire grass business then and for the next thirty-five years.

The company bought and remodeled a big (63 x 328 foot) seven-year-old cordage factory, added an enormous (68 x 580 feet) warehouse, then added a brand new, three-story factory building, 78 x 414 feet. It filled the factories with Lowry machines and their attendant web of belts, pulleys, and conveyors. AGT acquired vast expanses of marshland and set up a dozen permanent harvest camps complete with bunkhouses, mess halls, smithies, stables, and warehouses. It kept the original Oshkosh factory and set to work building another one near Duluth. The investment gushed, all in the hope of turning wire grass into gold.2

Spinning Gold

The wire grass industry was made possible by the creation of a set of new or adapted machines, implements, and processes.

Everything began in peat bog country near St. …