Little evidence left of important business in Brainerd’s past
The J.J. Howe Lumber Co. played a key role in shaping Boom Lake in Brainerd’s past. But scant evidence of the business remains at the lake today near the popular Kiwanis Park.
BRAINERD — On a recent sunny summer day, children playing at the popular Kiwanis Park in Brainerd and their parents seemed largely unaware of the area’s historical significance.
The area around the East River Road park sandwiched between the mighty Mississippi and Boom Lake was once the location of a brewery and a recreational ski jump. The natural channel for the Mississippi River got its name as loggers collected floating timber there into a log boom.
The J.J. Howe Lumber Co. played a key role, in particular, in shaping Boom Lake and the surrounding area. But little evidence of the business remains at the lake south of the park.
“In the late 1880s, J.J. Howe & Co. was second only to the Northern Pacific Railroad shops as the most important business in Brainerd,” according to local historian Ann M. Nelson.
Nelson is the author of an article for the Crow Wing County Historical Society titled "Along the Mississippi from Rice Lake to Boom Lake" and provides context for Howe’s place in history.
The mill had boomage for 2.5 million feet of logs, two rotary saws, shingle and lath saws and a separate shingle mill, which cut shingles from the logs as taken from the river, according to Nelson.
The local body of water was called Boom Lake because loggers used to transport timber to the lake using a technique called booming, according to local historian Carl Faust, but the variety of large lumber mill buildings surrounding the lake are now gone. A log boom is a barrier used to contain floating logs.
J.J. Howe Lumber Co.’s mill had a 250-horsepower engine and a 150-horsepower engine to operate the planer.
“A dynamo provided power for the electric light plant so that a night force could be used anywhere in the mills, yard or boom,” Nelson wrote about 150 men employed year-round.
The company manufactured between 15 million and 25 million feet of lumber per year, which was piled in the yard and shipped by rail. But with so much flammable wood, tragedy would strike in the form of fires threatening property and men alike.
A fire broke out at about 9 p.m. Dec. 31, 1892, in the stacks of the dry kiln. Almost before the alarm gave its warning, the fire had made such headway in the dry timbers of the stack, it was impossible to save the building, according to Nelson.
“It was only with the greatest difficulty that the planing mill, which stood barely 15 feet from the kiln, was saved,” Nelson wrote.
The capacity of the sawmill, running 10 hours a day, was 90,000 feet of lumber, 150,000 shingle and 30,000 lath, so the amount of lumber and wood for the fire to feed on was tremendous.
“The flames, fanned by the wind, at times seemed to roll right over the mill, but the firemen, holding a large sliding door between themselves and the flames to protect themselves against the intense heat, held their ground and continued to spray a stream of water against the end of the mill keeping it thoroughly drenched, while another crew on the roof kept a stream playing on the top of the building,” Nelson wrote.
The kiln and the connected lumber shed were destroyed in the 1892 fire, according to historical records, and the kiln at the time of the blaze contained 100,000 — and the shed over 250,000 — feet of lumber. The dry kiln cost more than $6,000, which made the total loss over $18,000.
“There was $4,500 insurance on the kiln, and only $500 on the lumber, which made the company’s net loss very heavy,” Nelson wrote of the 1892 fire.
Fires occurred two more times, with one on Aug. 28, 1896, and another March 5, 1899, when the property was owned by A.B. Barton of Minneapolis, and the buildings had been boarded up.
“The dry shed, containing 40,000 feet of finishing lumber, the office building, warehouse and blacksmith shop were entirely consumed,” Nelson said of the 1896 fire of indeterminate cause. “A strong wind from the south was blowing and it did not take long to wrap the buildings in flames so that it was impossible to get the contents out.”
The old sawmill was destroyed by another undetermined fire in 1899. The mill had not operated for at least five years but contained all the expensive machinery that made up a large sawmill, and all of it went up in flames, according to Nelson.
“The building was an old dilapidated affair and was of very little value, but the mill machinery, including the mammoth engine and boilers, was very expensive and was a total loss,” Nelson wrote.
The contents of the mill cost more than $30,000 and were estimated to be worth $20,000 when burned. But the then-property of A.B. Barton of Minneapolis was not insured.
Historic markers now at Kiwanis Park provide information about the Boom Lake Spur Line, including an inter-city railroad laid in 1871 that served the J.J. Howe sawmill between Boom Lake and the Mississippi River.
“In its heyday, the mill produced five or six rail cars of lumber, shingles and lath daily. The spur was long and gradual to accommodate the 55-foot drop in elevation from Brainerd to the flats by the lake,” according to the marker.
The track ended near the one-time brewery site and the spur grade is part of the park’s walking trail that walkers, joggers, bicyclists and outdoor enthusiasts enjoy today.