The rich history of Bemidji's box and crating industry
Jun 08, 2023
Editor’s Note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area. For more information about the Historical Society, visit www.beltramihistory.org.
Logging and lumber were two of Bemidji’s major industries in the 1900s, but an ancillary business was that of box and crating.
Before the advent of corrugated cardboard, everything was shipped in either wooden boxes or crates. Ready access to several railroads contributed to the success of the box and crating business in Bemidji and the Kenfield family figures prominently in that history.
Henry D. Kenfield was born in Massachusetts but at a young age moved to Washburn, Wisconsin. After marriage to Arvilla Wheaton, a widow slightly older than he was, they lived in Minneapolis where he worked in a sawmill.
In about 1900, they moved to Ashland, Wisconsin. From there they moved to Cass Lake where he was instrumental in managing the Kenfield-Lamoreaux plant.
E.E. Kenfield was H.D. Kenfield’s younger brother. E.E. was born in Maine and grew up in Michigan. He married Bertha Wheaton, the daughter of his brother H.D.’s wife, a fact that was pointed out in the social pages of the Cass Lake Times and Bemidji Pioneer several times since it was unusual.
Mrs. H.D. Kenfield and Mrs. E.E. Kenfield often traveled together and attended the same functions. E.E. started his first business in Washburn, where he and a partner, O.A. Lamoreaux, built their first plant shortly before the turn of the century.
According to the first issue of the K-L News in 1919, when they started about 1900, “Mr. Kenfield was foreman of a shingle mill, and Mr. Lamoreaux held the position of chauffeur of a tram horse. An inventory of finances totaled $35, and they borrowed $50 more to make the first payment on the plant. Mr. Kenfield was the plant force, while his partner was the office crew and frequently lent a hand with the wood slabs.”
During the winter of 1908-09, they built a new box factory in Cass Lake. They opened the factory in April 1908, and only a month later the drying shed caught fire and threatened to destroy the entire plant.
Fortunately, when the whistle sounded the alarm of fire almost the entire community responded and helped control the fire.
Kenfield-Lamoreaux built a box and crating company in Bemidji in 1912. The principal buildings included the box factory, 80 by 130-foot, a modern power plant, a 20 by 200-foot storage shed, a drying shed and an office building.
They were located on the south shore of Bemidji near the Crookston Lumber Mill No. 1. When another fire occurred at the Cass Lake plant in 1913, the company had a large number of orders so many of the men were taken to the Bemidji Box Factory to run it at full capacity and to double its output until the Cass Lake location was up and running again.
The Bemidji Box Company, Northern Pine Crating of Cass Lake, and the Washburn plant all changed names as of July 1, 1919, and all three plants became known as the Kenfield-Lamoreaux Company. The president was M.S. Lamoreaux and the treasurer was E.E. Kenfield.
In an old interview with John Kenfield archived at the Beltrami County History Museum, he related that the Kenfield-Lamoreux duo went broke in 1920 during the post-war slump and the two men lost everything. When the plant went into receivership, it was turned over to new management.
The Chicago Box and Crating Company was organized on May 13, 1922, and they took over the properties formerly belonging to the Kenfield-Lamoreaux Company near the Crookston Mill.
In a letter to H.C. Baer, William Wilms of the Chicago Title and Trust Company asked that the public be assured that the new owners would be a valuable adjunct to the industries of Bemidji. A Bemidji man, E.W. Nix, who had been the ancillary receiver of the old company, was chosen as secretary of the new concern.
G.H. Bierbaum arrived in Bemidji from Chicago on June 1, 1922, and took over as general superintendent of the three plants that belonged to Chicago Box and Crating. Lester Achenbach and Miss May Ebough took charge of the books of the company looking after the details of accounting and records generally.
Miss Katherine Markus was put in charge of the payroll records and woods sales and Miss Loretta McKuskor assumed stenographer duties. Edward McNeill was the foreman.
This company evolved into the Bemidji Wood Products Co. with Edward Behlke as general manager before closing sometime during World War II. Eventually, the North Central Door plant was built on the property.
After the Kenfield-Lamoreaux plant failed, another business by the name of Bigelow-Lamoreaux, hired E.E. Kenfield to build a new plant at 111 Park Avenue SW, and then manage and operate it for them.
Kenneth Kenfield was operating a plant for them in Cass Lake which was the original Kenfield-Lamoreaux plant. As the Bigelow-Lamoreaux business slowed in Chicago, Cass Lake, and Bemidji after 1929, salaries for Elmer Kenfield and Kenneth Kenfield were reduced and then halved every few months until the company failed in 1931.
The company owed so much money to the Kenfields (Henry, Elmer and Kenneth), that the creditors settled the accounts by “giving” them the Bemidji plant as part of the settlement.
In 1932, the Kenfields began to build up the Bemidji plant. After Henry Kenfield’s death in 1933, the company became E.E. Kenfield and Sons, owned and operated by Elmer, Kenneth and brother-in-law T.D. Duggan.
John Kenfield recalled, “It was at a time when things were slow, but it wasn’t long until we became the ‘arsenal of democracy,’ and business picked up.”
Kenfield established an excellent account with Perfection Stoves in Cleveland, Ohio, who bought many thousands of carloads of crating stock. Kenfield shipped it all knocked down, and the crates were assembled in Cleveland.
Honeywell was also an account. They didn’t have the facilities to assemble crates themselves and they didn’t want to fool with it. Kenfield shipped those crates also. Box and crating material was shipped by rail to firms such as the Standard Oil Co., Swift and Co., Singer Sewing Machine Co., Cleveland Metal Products Co., Thatcher Mfg Co. and others.
These boxes and crates were used to ship meats, oilcloth, saws, stoves, water heaters, motorcycles, washing machines and sewing machines. Some, however, were used by local concerns for the shipping of Bemidji-made products.
The slab wood or trimmings were sold to Bemidji residents for local fuel consumption, while the shavings and sawdust were used by the company to supply heat for the operation of their plant.
E.B. McNeill, the foreman of the plant, reported that the local plant employed about 200 men in all departments and operated a day shift at full capacity and a small crew at night.
“The new plant was always busy right up to and through the Korean War," John Kenfield said. "Then everything just quit and little by little all businesses just lost.”
Box and crating had seen their day.