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SouthBear's History of
Laurel, Mississippi

William H. Mason: The Man Who Went to Lunch



Depletion of the Forest and Mountains of Waste

As the lumber mills of the "Big Four" made Laurel the lumber capital of the United States, they were at once speeding toward their own demise and creating the waste that would give rise to the industry that would replace it during the Great Depression. The virgin timber that had first lured the Gardiners, Eastmans, and Rogers to the South was very quickly depleted. The forest compensated with second-growth stands, but these lacked the height and circumference that enabled the mills to produce hundreds of millions of lumber-feet per year. The resource that was the lifeblood of the lumber empire of Laurel was quickly drying up. Organized conservation, including seedling preplanting was an idea that had not even been considered before the Depression. The Laurel lumber barons operated with the basic assumption, as did so many other American industrialists of the era, that the resources of America were indispensible. Forty years after the big lumber mills began production, the forest was almost gone, and the mill owners' assumptions were proven wrong. What were left were mountains upon mountains of useless wood chips produced during the milling process. It was in these mounds of waste that a secondary industry would arise that would be the salvation of the Laurel economy during the Great Depression. The industry was known as Masonite, and it relied upon a product that was invented quite back accident in 1925.

William H. Mason: inventor of Masonite
William H. Mason
William H. Mason was a Virginian who had married into a lumber family from Wisconsin that had opened the Wausau Southern Lumber Company. He studied engineering at Washington and Lee and Cornell and apprenticed under Thomas A. Edison. He was fascinated with wood and became obsessed with finding a profitable use for the mounds of wood chips left behind at the lumber mills. Because his wifeís family had mills in Laurel, they moved here so that he could use the waste products of Wausau Southernís mills to experiment. In Laurel, Mason discovered a profitable process of extracting turpentine from the lumber produced at the companyís mills. The extraction method reduced the weight of the lumber and improved its quality. Masonís methods were initiated by Wausau Southern in 1921.

William H. Mason & Thomas A. Edison
William H. Mason with his mentor Thomas A. Edison during a visit to Laurel and the Wausau Southern Mill, ca. 1921
Still, the mountains of wood chips loomed, and his attention returned to them. He had long been convinced that steam pressure could be used to reduce the wood chips into useful wood fibers that might be used to create quality-improved paper products. He created a cannon-like mechanism from parts assembled at Laurel Machine and Foundry. By heating this apparatus, Mason produced enough steam during an explosion to create the pressure needed to reduce the chips to elemental fibers. After receiving further funding from his northern benefactors at Wausau Southern, he attempted to create a more powerful device to create even more pressure using several Stanley Steamer engines. He and his assistant, Charles Westphalen, realized that the engines were too leaky to produce the necessary pressure created by his older cannon model. In spite of this, Masonís investors were arriving in Laurel for a demonstration of his method. He was required to play a slightly dishonest trick on them in order not to disappoint them. He demonstrated the Stanley Steamer apparatus, and while the investors were diverted by the noise of the explosion, Westphalen replaced the unusable fibers of this device with the superior fibers of his old cannon device. They were impressed, and continued funding. As it turned out, the fibers did not create the quality paper that Mason had hoped that it would.

Undeterred, Mason began to search for other useful applications for his fiber. He decided that perhaps they could be used to make a suitable lumber replacement similar to plywood. He hoped to develop a material that would be more sturdy and provide more insulation than currently produced plywood of the time. But first, he realized that he had to find a more sophisticated machine to create the pressure necessary to produce such a material. To prove to himself that it could be done, he sent a large sample of the wood chips to a paper mill in Wisconsin owned by the Wausau group funding his endeavors. The Marathon Paper Mill in Racine had presses used in the production of paper that were powerful enough to achieve this. At his request, they applied the presses to his fiber with favorable results. Yet it still wasnít exactly what Mason had in mind.

William H. Mason, inventor of Masonite
William H. Mason after the invention of Masonite
Back in his laboratory in Laurel, Mason continued to experiment with other presses. One that he used had an undetected leak in a pressure valve. This leak allowed high pressured steam to react with the fibers in the press. In the middle of a particular experiment one day, Mason stopped to go for lunch. He neglected to release the pressure on the press before leaving. This allowed the leaking steam to react with the fibers for an extended period of time. When he arrived back at work following his lunch, he discovered that the press was smoldering with intense, pressurized steam. When he released the pressure, he was able to inspect the fibers with the press and discovered that the steam had created a particleboard that had more strength and durability than natural lumber. In addition, it could be manufactured in thin sheets that was valued by the construction industry. Thus Masonite was invented.

In order to further finance the creation of an industry to manufacture Masonite, Mason and his Wausau benefactors agreed to negotiate with other Laurel lumber companies to achieve the necessary investments. They negotiated with the Eastman Gardiner Company and together they formed the Mason Fiber Company, with Charles Green as its president.

Masonite could not have come at a more opportune time on the eve of the Great Depression. Because it could be produced cheaply, the savings could be passed on to consumers, who appreciated the availability of a strong building material at a cheap price during such hard financial times. After the lumber mills of Laurel were forced to scale back following the Crash of 1929, the lumber industry in Laurel never recovered. If it had not been for Mason and his invention, the economy of Laurel would not have been able to sustain the effects of the Depression. Even after the American economy recovered, Masonite continued to provide much of the building material of the country. Americans had learned to value the quality and strength of the product. Lumber could never be replaced on the massive scale that it had been in the years before the Depression. What was produced was simply too expensive for ordinary use.

Masonite Corporation, as the Mason Fiber Company had been renamed, became a major source of funding for the replenishment of the depleted forest. In cooperation with state and Federal agencies, Masonite employed hundreds of foresters to scientifically replenish the forest and manage those resources once they matured. These new conservation policies ensured that a steady supply of wood would always keep the Masonite plant in operation. Masonite Corporation, as a result, became a model for the Conservation Movement in the South. Because of Masonite's efforts, other forestry-related industries were able to do business in Laurel and the Pine Belt. Forest agriculture emerged as a primary force in the economy of the entire state.

And it all began when a frustrated inventor took a break and went to lunch.


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This page was created on: 23 March 2002
Date of last revision: 23 March 2002