Lumber Milling in Iowa

As forests in Minnesota and Wisconsin were cut and the logs moved down river, Iowa became a center for milling lumber. Towns in Iowa milled the logs into wood products for homes. The products were shipped all over the country.


Iowa’s lumber milling industry grew rapidly after the Civil War and the Mississippi River towns boomed with milling as the major industry. Iowa lumber was shipped all over. Steamboats carried it south and railroads took it east and west. Some of the wealthiest citizens in towns like McGregor, Guttenberg, Dubuque, Davenport and Muscatine were mill owners. For a while Clinton held the reputation as the largest producer of finished lumber in the world and boasted of 17 millionaires in lumbering and related businesses. Planing mills, such as the M.A. Disbrow and Company, in Lyons, Iowa—now called Clinton—mass produced doors, windows, staircase posts, pillars, moldings and all sorts of fancy gingerbread ornamentation that covered many older Victorian homes in the mid-1800s. Homebuilders, who thumbed through the Disbrow catalogue, took part in a kind of mail-order architecture. Whole front porches, bay windows, fancy scroll work were clearly displayed in the catalogue so practically any town or farm house could be shown off with the latest gothic or Queen Anne style. The Disbrow firm was quite successful and later opened branches in Omaha, Cedar Rapids and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

By the late 1890s, the vast pine forest in Minnesota and Wisconsin were logged out. There had been no plans to reforest the area and the wasteful logging methods lead to the gradual decline of the industry. After a 50-year boom period, the Mississippi River was no longer choked with huge log rafts. Most of the lumber barons moved their operations to pine forests in the South or Pacific Northwest. And many of the mills that once dotted the riverbanks were left to decay. Some were converted to grist mills.

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