Forest History Center

Location: Grand Rapids, Minnesota

Webpage: Minnesota State Park

General Description: Minnesota is made up of three biomes: the mixed conifer and hardwood forests of the north, the deciduous forest of the south and southeast, and the tall grass prairies of the west.  The Forest History Center is located on the Mississippi River at the confluence of all three of these biomes.  The most common boreal forest trees are black and white spruce, tamarack, jack pine, and balsam fir with hardwoods such as birch and aspen.  As you move south you add in white and red pine and hardwoods such as maple and basswood.  It is this mix of species that attracted the logging companies beginning in 1839.  Logging in Minnesota peaked in 1905 with over 2.3 million board feet of lumber begin cut to fuel the demand for building material in the midwest.  For obvious reasons, the early logging was along rivers, especially the St. Croix and Rum Rivers.  The rivers provided not only abundant trees, but also transportation and power for the sawmills.  Logging was done in the winter for two reasons.  First, the dirt roads became ice roads that when properly prepared could be used to haul 20 ton sleighs with a single team of horses.  Second, the spring thaw would swell the rivers making it more economical to float large masses of logs to the sawmills.  This method was prevalent until the 1890s when railroads began to penetrate deep into the woods.  Due to the practice of floating logs to the mills in the spring, sawmills concentrated at locations where natural falls occurred, the most notable being St. Anthony falls in Minneapolis.  However, with the advent of the steam engine in the 1870s, the sawmills began to move closer to the harvesting operations.  After the peak in 1905, logging began to drop off rapidly and by 1920 the white pine boom was over.  It took a long time for the forests to recover, however, efforts by the CCC in the 1930s and land owners since has created a sustainable harvest of timber and pulp from Minnesota’s forests that rival the peak of the boom.  The Forest History Center has a number of great exhibits about the history of the forest industries including a great video about the “last” timber drive and another about the devastating frequent fires that followed the logging boom. In addition to the museum exhibits is a reconstructed logging camp with a detailed presentation by three “loggers” in the camp.  The “story” is that you are new recruits to the logging camp in the dead of winter in 1900 and they are giving the lay of the camp along with its rules and expectations before you start working in the morning.

Impressions:

1) The Visitor Center has some great hands-on exhibits about the logging industry both past and present.  There are also two great videos about the last log drive and a devastating fire that was all too common post-logging.  For an old forester, I could have spent most of the day in the museum alone.

2) The highlight of the Forest History Center is the reconstructed logging camp.  They have built barracks, store, mess hall, horse barn, blacksmith, and outhouse of a typical temporary logging camp around 1900.  Since these logging camps would be moved every year or two, the construction is obviously temporary, although sturdy.  There are three period interpreters that act the part of introducing you to your new job of logging in the dead of winter, although it is currently the middle of summer.  They each do an excellent job presenting what your life will be like in the camp.  Of particular interest, there was a huge water sleigh that would be used to bring water to build the ice roads.  I have seen pictures of these massive sleighs, but never seen one before.  It is amazing how much weight two horses can pull over these ice filled ruts, nearly ten times what they could pull on wheels!!  They even had a demonstration of how the horses would pull logs up a two board ramp to the top of a load on a sleigh.

3) On the river is a reconstructed Wanigan that served as a kitchen during the river raft floats.

Wannagun

4) There is also a 0.5 mile loop trail through their modern forest practices area.  Along the trail are numerous interpretive signs about managing red pine plantations, clear cutting birch, and managing wildlife.