Atlas Plywood: Moosehead mill managers straddle two worlds

By Bruce Marsh

In the spring of 1940 William R. Marsh (1918-2009), my father, fresh from Bliss Business School in Lewiston, made a remarkable trip from Greenville across Canada to, what became in many ways, a sister village on the shore of Lake Superior, establishing a connection persisting to this day. The motivation for this trip centered on the ongoing success of the Atlas Plywood mill in Greenville, which had been established there by 1920. Wanting to expand their operating sphere, the New England based Atlas Plywood Corporation sought to purchase additional veneer mills along with large stands of fine hardwood timber, mainly maple and birch, from which to make veneer. Their forte was originally based on making tough, lightweight packing crates with the slogan: “Carry the Weight, save the Freight.”

Based in Boston and beginning with three veneer mills in Vermont and one in Greenville, Atlas Plywood acquired a major contract to handle the shipping of tea from Africa and India to Great Britain. The veneer mills previously handling containers for tea shipping were primarily in Latvia, Estonia, and Finland and with approach to WW II these mills all ended up under control of the Soviet Union and became off limits to international trade. Veneer making had been invented in France in the mid-1800s and by the 1930s there were literally tens of dozens of plants throughout the U.S. But the Atlas Plywood Corporation was carefully run, highly profitable, and careful in branching out. The Munising Veneer Company on the south shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula caught their eye. This successful mill had closed in 1939 when a severe storm had blown down a critical smoke stack and Atlas was able to make a good deal on the purchase of the entire mill and some land holdings.

1978_2_61a atlas plywood

1978.2.61A Atlas Plywood Mill

To facilitate bringing this mill rapidly back on line, the Atlas leadership decided to take a group of managers and supervisors from Greenville directly to Munising. They hired a train and along with these people they took all their household belongings, lock, stock and barrel, straight across Canada to Munising. From Greenville came Douglas M. Cowie as plant manager, Alfred (‘Fred’) Boucher as plant superintendent, along with his wife, Elaine, and sons, Clifford and Paul, and as plant supervisors, Wilbur Carter and Woody Harris. Wilbur (‘Rosie’) Carter –related to Charles Carter in town today—was married to Florence Marsh, my father’s older sister.

After nearly a year in Munising, Florence and Wilbur wanted to have their car brought out and, jobs being scarce for freshly minted accountants, Dad agreed to drive their car out to Munising. Grandmother (Bessie, 1882-1960) Marsh carefully equipped the touring car with pies, vegetables, and other foods along with a bearskin robe and other special items from the farm. For the 1,000 mile plus trip across Canada, some companionship was needed, so Harold ‘Pat’ Hubbard –future husband of Dad’s sister Etta—and Mr. Cormier, son of Vic Cormier — signed on as able bodied travelers. They all set off from Greenville in mid June for Michigan. The route, of course, led straight across Canada, through Montreal where Grandmother’s brother, Harry Wood, lived and had a large family. Grandmother’s (Elizabeth Jane McGown Wood Marsh) family, like the Marsh family, had deep colonial roots, stemming originally from Philadelphia. As family lore has it, with the onset of the Revolutionary War, they found they were Loyalists and when General Henry Clinton evacuated Philadelphia with 15,000 troops on 18 June 1778, the British fleet also carried away many Loyalists. Some ended up in Boston, but the Wood family chose to continue on to Prince Edward Island, where they resumed their lives, eventually coming back into Maine and to Greenville in the later 1800s. While these three twenty-year old young men were enjoying life in Montreal the pies and other perishables, naturally perished. Arriving in Munising, they stayed with Florence and Wilbur, and Dad immediately went to the Plywood mill to visit with the other Greenville transplants.

Lumbering in all its manifestations was deeply ingrained in all aspects of the Marsh family existence. Although in the summers Grandfather Marsh (William D. Marsh, 1888-1949) was a highly successful fly fishing guide, leading canoe trips sometimes upwards of 200 miles, in the winter he had his own logging operation, cutting hardwood logs for plywood at Rainbow Lake, Prong Pond Mountain, and several other locations. He employed as many as thirty men and was unusually keen on judging the best timber, laying out roads, and doing most of the cooking. He taught all his sons (Dad, and Carl, Norm, Cobe, Clair, and Lee Roberts) how to scale logs for board feet and also how to carefully and quickly analyze the quality or grade of a log.

After meeting with all the Greenville people, Dad was taken through the mill, which was now up and running at near maximum capacity. They ended up at the log-receiving end of the mill out in the log yard, where there was a man they wanted him to meet. From a distance Dad observed the log-grader and scaler who surprisingly more often than not after looking a log over simply just wrote down the grade and board footage without even using the scale-stick or rule, giving a receipt to the logger. Dad’s Dad could do this with accuracy, but he had never known of another man to be able to do this. When he asked about this man’s accuracy, Doug Cowie said: “He’s perfect. Spot on. Let me introduce you to him.”

This was Gordon ‘Earl’ Steinhoff, a man who would forever change Dad’s life, becoming his fast friend, his father-in-law, and our Grandfather (1899-1983).

The Steinhoffs were also loyalists, having come here from Germany in 1700. When the war broke out they headed for Canada to pair up with General Burgoyne’s Hessian mercenaries fiercely fighting against, oddly enough, the Marsh Family at Saratoga in the autumn of 1777. After the war they set up shop near Niagara on the Lake, later slowly making their way westward to southwestern Ontario. Earl was one of six boys and a couple of girls, immigrating to Northern Michigan with his mother Catherine (Robbins) Steinhoff (1855-1920) and two older brothers when he was about five. The Steinhoffs were all highly talented, playing most any musical instrument, making violins, rebuilding complex engines, inventing all sorts of devices, and were generally pious, sober, and much revered. Earl was no exception. He had worked at various millwright jobs, built a beautiful cabin cruiser in his backyard in 1936, and had worked extensively in logging camps as a timber grader, scaler, and bookkeeper. By this time, now 41, he was bored with the whole lot of grading timber, and his real interests were in the genetics of breeding and raising mink. It was all the mill supervisors could do to keep him interested, as he was apt to go off for trapping season, and in mid-winter leave for the outer islands on Lake Superior to catch lake trout. The scene and conditions were ripe for Dad to take over Earl’s job handling log procurement for the Atlas Plywood.

Earl took a real liking to Dad. He had sons Dad’s age, and he immediately took him home to dinner where he met Earl and Roberta’s daughter Audrey, who within a year he married. Audrey was determined not to marry but to gather funds enough to go to nursing school, but Dad’s Maine persona won her over. She was very much in the fashion of Dad’s sisters, fun loving, athletic, and intellectual. Although as the relationship became serious, Grandmother Marsh cautioned him to, “Be careful, before making a decision, come back to Greenville and breathe some fresh Maine air.” But the die was cast; Dad would spend the rest of his life in the Northern Michigan woods with summer trips back to Greenville. A new corridor of shuttle diplomacy opened to and from Greenville, where Dad’s parents and sisters, Etta and Virginia, came off and on to Munising and Mother’s brother Bill Steinhoff went to Maine to experience the Allagash Country with Grandfather Marsh.

The fit between our New England father and his new family in Michigan was tailor made. Mother’s family was large, loaded with aunts, uncles, and cousins, with a family life that revolved around woods and waters for both livelihood and recreation; in fact, there was really no boundary between the two. Both sides of Ma’s family came from Canada around 1900 following the booming lumber economy of the Upper Great Lakes — a response to the ravenous housing market in cities of the lower Great Lakes — and they were all well versed in the lumber business in some fashion. Not long after joining the Atlas Plywood, Dad took over Gramp’s job as log scaler when Gramp moved on to mink, and in this role Dad distinguished himself, not only in buying and evaluating timber but in managing rough and tumble men, the lumberjacks, truck drivers, sawyers and all the others who kept the log and lumber system running. His keen skills were no secret among the other mills in town, and in 1956, when the Atlas Plywood closed down, Dad went to work in the forestry division of the Kimberley Clark Paper Company, the principal employer in the county. This job brought him even deeper into woods operations where he honed his skills and expanded his range of operation over several counties, always with a transcendental curiosity about the lands he covered.

He loved the woods with an affection deeper than can be described. At its root was an eternal fascination with forested landscapes. No matter what their character, he found them endlessly interesting, even the mosquito-infested swamps, and this fascination included the people who lived and worked in the woods as well, where they came from, how they lived, and how they thought about things. In the 60 years he devoted to the Northern Michigan woods, he never forgot a single place, section corner, person, logging operation, or related event. A particular day spent cruising timber in, say, mid-January 1968, he might recall 20 years later with uncanny clarity and detail translating into a candid, modest story stretching on to an hour or more. The central section of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, an area of some 5,000 square miles, became his backyard, and he knew it so well that he moved through its most remote parts with an intuitive sense of direction and distance equal to any of the great explorers.

After WW II, the global market for plywood became highly competitive with foreign producers coming into the picture. By the mid 1950s Atlas had 33 plants, but their leadership had become troubled and to enhance revenues a number of plants, including the one in Munising, were liquidated by selling off equipment to other companies as far off as Texas. By this time most of the original Greenville people had retreated back to Maine except for Fred and Elaine Boucher who Dad continued to visit, sharing news on Maine and mutual friends. Dad’s strong Maine accent always stood out to others as my friends sometimes said, “Your Dad talks funny.” And it was then that I realized I had become bilingual, often translating a word or two of Dad’s to the local Lake Superior dialect, which all added to his universally recognized Maine charm.

Our connection to Greenville now took on a new dimension in the form of periodic summer vacation trips to Grandmother’s farm now under the guidance of Uncle Lee Roberts, which became a high point in our lives, traversing Rte. 17 across Canada and staying at all sorts of quaint cabins along the way, eagerly spending our allowances on odd items in odd gift shops and all the time trying to save some for the Indian Store. Riding horses, milking cows, delivering milk around Greenville, fly fishing, listening to stories, and bathing in swarms of Maine relatives made Greenville forever special to us.

In the end, it turns out that Greenville and Munising have much more in common than simply similar timber. Each is a small town at almost the exact same latitude near the Canadian border, on large bodies of water, with readily accessible beautiful bays and islands, and a rich heritage. The biggest differences are the lack of real mountains in Michigan, the huge integrated network of rivers and lakes in Maine, and the general relative preponderance of high, swamp-free land in Maine. On the other hand, Lake Superior being 650 by 150 miles in size and almost 2,000 feet deep in places is a body of water to be reckoned with. No sane person ever used a canoe on Lake Superior where, with miles of large picturesque sandstone cliffs, there is no place to hide and waves can get to 15 feet, occasionally breaking in half 750 foot ore carriers. Above all, each terrain furnished our Maine and Michigan families with an incredibly rich playground to explore, fish, hunt, log, and learn the ways of bygone days.

These similarities are also seen in many others regardless of their original heritage. In a recent conversation with Becky and John Dobbin, I asked how they ended up coming from Florida and establishing a summer home at Harfords Point. It seems they looked all over and narrowed it down to two beautiful places. The other place, they said, is also picturesque and charming, but was a place I would never have heard of.

“Try me,” I responded, and John said, “Munising, Michigan.”