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
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
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.