There have been many forms of industry begun that were comparatively short lived and still provided needed employment at the time they were in operation. Such was the wire grass industry that flourished from the turn of the century and up to about 1925. The American Grass Twine Co. of St. Paul, later and better known as the Crex Carpet Company had land holdings north of the twin cities and primarily west of Wyoming, Minnesota of some 12,000 acres. In addition to this land, the company also owned meadowland of 23,000 acres near Grantsburg, Wis. Because of their operations in the nearby Grantsburg area I hand on occasion talked with men who worked there as well as having seen some left over equipment, namely reapers and several high wheeled wide tired wagons. These wagons were special built and used to transport wire grass bundles off the boggy ground to be stacked and later baled. The bales were later shipped by rail to St. Paul where it was manufactured into grass rugs, commonly used at that time. Apparently, Japanese competition is what eventually ceased the Crex company operation. This company did make twine from wire grass but did not prove a good product. The knowledge I had gathered was rather sparse until I talked with Oscar Anderson from Stacy Minn., who attends many annual thresh-bees. He says to me, 'You bring your wife and come to our place for dinner and then I'll take you over to Art Bergesons at Wyoming, who was foreman of the camps set up in the Wyoming, Minn., area. He has a collection of pictures and can give you the answers, and even has some horse bog-shoes left from that time.' After that delicious dinner, Oscar and I went to Arts. What we found there was enough evidence and knowledge to write up a book rather than gathering a few notes for an article such as this. Here was first hand knowledge and would that someone could use his pictures and print up those pages of history. Pictured is Art and Oscar holding a pair of bog-shoes. These 'shoes' were shaped of oak and fitted over the regular horse shoes and held in place by a metal strap. These added bog-shoes were necessary to carry the horses from mireing in the boggy areas where wire grass grew so abundantly.
Harvesting of wire grass begun in June and proceeded until late fall. Reapers were first in the field, and since this early hay required considerable drying prior to stacking much hand labor was involved. The bunches of hay left by the reaper (see photo of two reapers at work) were turned to dry and placed so as to make one swath out of two rounds. This process was called 'flopping' and done by hired help called 'rubber-backs'. All hired labor received $1.00 per 10 hour day or $35.00 per month, plus board and room. Foreman wages were roughly $125.00 per month. Reapers working in the boggy ground actually pulled 'uphill' all the time. In spite of precautions, there were soft spots and horses often mired and help was summoned to the rescue, as pictured. In this picture, the man standing behind the mired horse is Gust Johnson who worked as a foreman in the Grantsburg area. This area comprised of three camps and employed up to 75 men at each camp. It was also a common practice for local farmers to contract hay stumpage and put up the hay at the rate of $12.00 a ton. They would receive $6.00 at the time it was stacked and furrows plowed around the stacks as a fire protection. The other half was paid when the hay was baled and loaded in box cars. One such a bidder was a Mr. Dahlquist who is shown with the girls he hired as 'rubber backs'. Dahlquist is at the right of the picture. I was told the girl, third from the left in the light dress, later became Mrs. Art Bergeson.
The next procedure was to get these swaths into bundles. The grass to be processed into rugs was to be kept straight. Although bundles were for a long time tied by hand using pre-cut lengths of twine, the company started using a machine called a Domen. This machine pictured was mounted on a scoot affair pulled by a team of horses. A traveling apron and a knotter were driven by a tank cooled gas engine mounted under the feeder apron. Three men walked on either side and placed the grass on the apron. Seated on the front of the machine is Gust Johnson. The water boy with his jug also got in the picture.
The process of bundling the grass was later simplified by the use of Gleaners. This ground driven machine had a pickup attachment much like our field balers. The team of horses were spaced far enough apart to straddle the hay swath.
Late in the fall when the wire grass was matured and dry, the grain binders were put to use to harvest this crop. See photo of 6 binders at work.
Bundles were then gathered using their special 'Crex-wagons' and hauled to higher ground to be stacked. These hay stacks were often up to 20 tons in size. In the hay stack picture taken at Camp I in the Wyoming area a crew is enjoying a coffee break. Pete Goff is the man to the far right displaying bog-shoe intact. The seated man, second from left, is Art Bergeson himself. This picture taken in 1911 at which time Art was in charge of 152 men, about 50 head of horses, 21 reapers, 12 gleaners, and 5 balers.
These balers were indeed heavy, 4 horses were used to move them about. It was my hopes to locate one of those wood hay presses or at least the remains of one but no such luck. Hay bundles were placed from the top of the bale chamber till it was filled up. Then the header (open in the picture, note the heft of it and handles to pull it into place) was clamped down on top. A heavy cable by some leverage mechanism, raihed the bottom of the baler to the height of the feeder table. This cable was pulled by a capstan operated by a horse going in circles. This winch had a lock catch to sustain the pressure on the bale while 4 wires were tied crosswise. These bales averaged 250 pounds but at times exceeded 300. Perhaps someone can come up with more information on these hay presses, their construction, who built them etc.
When World War 1 broke out, the Crex project almost came to a standstill. Horses were later replaced by tractors. One such attempt at combustion power was the use of several Beltrail tractors. This tractor had a single 18' crawler tread and front wheels for steering. Art is shown operating same, pulling a binder that had the knotter removed to make a swather. Fordson tractors with extension rims proved a better deal than the Beltrail. By 1920 the company no longer hired help but for several years paid contractors up to $15.00 a ton to harvest the hay and ship it as previously done.
In summing up this episode it should be added not all was glory at these ventures. Perhaps little or no complaints came from the meals served, using tin plates and tin cups. The bunk houses were bed-bug infested, the barns harbored rats. Pigs were raised in camp for meat, but rats greatly outnumbered them at the feed troughs. Horses likewise were pestered with rats vieing for food. Art tells how they imported Ferrets to chase off the rats but even at their best only held the rats down in number. A set back was encountered prior to 1917 when horses on this project began dying off from Glanders disease. This form of sickness was not only contagious, but incurable at that time. A state Veterinarian was called and he disposed or the affected animals. Gust Johnson tells of how he and three other guys 'stole' a certain pet mare called Flora from the barns and hid her on an 'island', and thus she was spared and did not get sick either.
Enroute to the grist mill I noted a neighbor had spotted an old grain binder on a pasture hill. My inner urge of curiosity prompted me to stop for a check up. Said Alvin, the neighbor, he drug it out a couple weeks ago to make room for his tractor mounted equipment. I was moved with compassion. This old 6' Champion had cut grain before 1900. The wood bull-wheel with adjustable spokes, the wood platform, chain drive knotter and canvasses still fair. How could I leave it to the elements after its many years of service and to think I had threshed the grain it cut for a stretch of ten years. Perhaps some museum could use it. It now sets next to my Champion wobble gear mower, it too of 1890 vintage.
A Norwegian got a chain saw and cut 4 cords of wood in one day. A Swede came along and showed him how to start it and that day he cut 12 cords wood.