Hardboard (Superwood, Superior Fiber Products)

Scores of pulpwood logs are stacked neatly on the ground at Superwood Corporation in Duluth. They are the raw material that will be turned into hardboard panels, ready-to-assemble furniture, and car parts for the automotive industry. (Image: Jeff Lemke)

Dozens of hardboard plants operate across North America. They turn pulpwood logs into essential products used by millions of Americans every day. In the Twin Ports, two such plants competed with each other for their share of the once-booming hardboard business: Duluth’s Superwood Corporation and Superior Fiber Products in Superior. While Superwood excelled at creating hardboard known for its structural performance used in the automotive industry, Superior Fiber Products made a smoother finish hardboard sheet ideal for creating ready-to-assemble furniture. With vast and renewable forests so close to Duluth and Superior, it made perfect sense to build and operate hardboard factories here.

Pulpwood logs, a renewable forest product cut in the northwoods of Minnesota and Wisconsin, have long been used for a variety of industrial purposes. This 1972 view shows a three-man team loading a bulkhead flatcar with fresh cut timber destined for hardboard processing. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

First produced by the Masonite Corporation in 1926, hardboard is a generic term for a panel manufactured primarily from wood fibers and resins consolidated under heat and pressure in a hot press and formed into a long sheet that is typically cut into shorter 4×8-foot finished sections. One of its most popular early applications was pegboard, used everywhere from factories and retail stores to home workshops and garages—it was indispensable in allowing shops and stores to become more organized. Paneling made of hardboard lined dens and basement rec rooms in American homes for decades. Due to its versatility, the automotive industry uses hardboard to create dashboards, head liners, interior door panels, and spare tire covers. You’ll find it virtually everywhere being used for product displays, signs, garage door panels, jigsaw puzzles, toys, wagons, and blackboards. (If you’re old enough, you probably remember the perforated hardboard back panels on radios and TV sets.) Perhaps the most recognizable use of hardboard today is in ready-to-assemble home and office furniture.

Area railroads transported pulpwood logs either on bulkhead flat cars or modified gondolas like Soo Line 8833 seen here in 1965. Look carefully. The temporary bulkheads on this load are actually fashioned of logs placed vertically into the car. To keep the logs from shifting in route, the top of the load has been secured with chicken wire. While many man hours went into cutting the wood, many more went into loading the rail car, securing the load for travel, and unloading everything at the other end of the line. (Image: Karl Henkels, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

Superwood
In May 1945 Lloyd Johnson and Don McDonald founded Superior Wood Products to make furniture. In the late 1940s the company built a mill at the elbow of Duluth’s harbor front and Rice’s Point, the plant was bordered by Railroad Street, Harbor Slip C, and 12th Ave. West—the former site of Zenith Dredge Company’s Ship Building Division where 30 steel-hulled Navy ships and tankers were constructed during the second world war. The company changed its name to Superwood in 1954 when it shifted from furniture to hardboard.

The Duluth plant started with a single forming line. Over the decades the plant expanded one section at a time, creating a rather hodge-podge look to the overall complex. More production lines were added until the plant had five in total, four in constant use, with the No. 1 line shut down. Of the four operational lines, the No. 3 and No. 5 lines produced most of the volume. The No. 5 line, which was the newest and largest, produced fully 50 percent of the plant’s capacity.

At Superwood in Duluth semi-trailer trucks brought in the majority of pulpwood logs and pulpwood chips. Some years there was more of one product than the other. A line of trucks circles the pulpwood pile waiting for their turn to unload chips in the truck dumper. (Image: Jeff Lemke)

The Duluth plant was capable of making board as thin as 1/10th of an inch to as thick as 3/16ths of an inch. While the majority of these early hardboard products began as simple, flat shapes, new techniques were developed during the 1960s to make possible forming the board into different shapes. After that, about 40 percent of the plant’s production became dedicated to making parts for automotive fabricators who supplied fully finished and formed hardboard parts to Detroit’s auto makers. Ford actually bought the first hardboard for automotive use during the 1950s and used it for the interior door panels for their Fairlane sedans. Ford and General Motors always used a large percentage of Superwood’s production capabilities.

The hydraulic truck dumper helped to increase production capacity at Superwood. Trucks backed onto the ramp, detached their tractor, and then quickly dumped their loads into chip handling machinery. It only took a few minutes to get those chips out of the truck trailer and into the production line. (Image: Jeff Lemke)

At Superwood more than 80 percent of the raw material (Aspen logs) arrived pre-chipped in trucks. The other 20 percent arrived either in trucks or in railroad cars as logs that needed to be chipped. Superwood’s property was served by two railroads, Chicago & North Western (formerly the Omaha Road) and Burlington Northern (formerly Northern Pacific) on four surface tracks. Three tracks were located at the southern end of the complex. Two of them went inside the building for boxcar loading and the third was an outside track for unloading pulpwood flats. Pulpwood was stored on the ground here prior to chipping. A fourth track ran into the property from the northern end. Trucks unloaded their chips and logs at the southern end of the property. The chips could be direct loaded into the facility via a hydraulic truck dumper and conveyor system.

The “front door” of the hardboard manufacturing process is where raw material physically enters the plant. Note the two lines of pulpwood logs straddling the conveyor that takes the logs in for chipping. Look closer and you will find the three railroad tracks on this end of the factory, on either side of the larger chip pile. (Image: Jeff Lemke)

Environmental concerns about industrial pollution of the ground and waterways are now omnipresent. It wasn’t always that way. During the early 1980s Superwood’s operations were inspected. The results revealed a concern that actually created a business within a business. A new process was developed to extract molasses from factory waste water. This process solved the environmental concern and also created an entirely new revenue stream for Superwood. The new molasses business brought in an extra $100,000 annually. The former boxcar loading track on the north end of the property was converted into a molasses loading track. Empty tank cars were spotted here, then loaded with molasses that was sold and shipped to Cargill for use in cattle feed.

 

Here’s a more complete view of the truck dump, chipper, and conveyor line where raw material is fed into the factory for processing. The pallet shop and painting line are along this side of the main building. Railroad Street borders the property along the top of this picture with the body of water being harbor slip C. (Image: Jeff Lemke)

Superior Fiber Products
Across the bay in 1964, Superior Fiber Products built a new manufacturing facility with one high-volume production line. Superior Fiber was a subsidiary of Permaneer Corporation, founded by Allen Portnoy in 1960. Permaneer made doors, paneling, furniture, and other wood products. Superior Fiber Products manufactured high density hardboard paneling from debarked Aspen logs known locally as round wood. About 150 cords per day were debarked, chipped, ground and digested into the manufacturing process. The final product was a smooth, one-sided hardboard panel. A quarter of their sheet production had a painted or printed top coat, and 80 percent of production was cut to exact specifications mainly for the ready-to-assemble furniture market. The plant was located on Connors Point in Superior just east of the ex-Peavey/Continental Grain elevators, now owned by Gavilon Grain LLC. The property had a single track served by the Lake Superior Terminal & Transfer Railway.

The business end of Superwood is the general office, lower left with the white roof. The large open doorways are where supplies and raw materials where unloaded from trucks including the resin used to bind the chips into hardboard. The warehouse and loading docks were here too. (Image: Jeff Lemke)

Superwood bought out Superior Fiber Products in 1985. The combined companies were then acquired by Georgia-Pacific (G-P) in 1986, but continued to operate under their pre-merger names until their eventual closings due to downturns in the wood products industry. The first closure affected 117 employees when Superior Fiber Products was shuttered in 2001; 117 employees lost their jobs. Elkhorn Industries purchased the facility in 2003 for industrial storage, manufacturing, and warehouse floor space facility. In 2006 Elkhorn experimented briefly with the idea of reopening the hardboard line using an environmentally friendly closed-loop system to power the machinery and provide the steam used in pressing the hardboard. G-P, formerly a publicly traded corporation, was taken private in a December 2005 purchase by Koch Industries. Superwood closed in August 2012, sending 141 more employees to look for work. The last 20 Superwood employees stayed on until mid-October that year, ending 67 years of successful hardboard production at the Head of the Lakes.

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Story by Jeff Lemke; originally appeared on Zenith City Online December, 2014.

Inside the building at Superwood hardboard was created by rolling together the ground chips and resin under heat and high pressure. Five production lines were built over the decades making Superwood a high production facility. The combination of chipped aspen logs, resin, and steam heat produced a strong, unmistakable aroma along parts of Rice’s Point and the harbor front of Duluth—unique to Superwood. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
Duluth’s Superwood plant looking east reveals the hodge-podge of small additions that were added over the years. Productions lines No. 3 and No. 5 were located along the north wall of the plant closest to Railroad Street, at left. Production lines No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 were all bunched together at the opposite end of the factory, kitty-corner from the general office building. (Image: Jeff Lemke)
This view of Superwood from the slip C side shows the arrangement of many small buildings that made up the entire plant. Wet and dry production lines and painting lines on the inside of the plant went in just about every direction. What the plant floor may have lacked in modern organization it certainly made up for in utility. Superwood made the most of this piece of property. (Image: Jeff Lemke)
The eastern end of the Superwood facility had several uses. The office building lower right was the plant office. The parking lot was for employee parking and was also the bone yard where old equipment was placed prior to scrapping. A tank car track handled outbound tank car loads of molasses that went to Cargill to be used as cattle feed. (Image: Jeff Lemke)
The two large silver tanks behind the tank cars were for molasses storage. No doubt the molasses processing contributed to Superwood’s odor. Anyone who ever visited Duluth when the plant was in operation can likely remember that strangely pleasant, sweet, woody smell wafting through the air. When the plant was examined in the early 1980s it was discovered that molasses waste could be captured instead of being discarded. This business within a business brought in an estimated $100K of additional revenue annually. (Image: Jeff Lemke)
Here’s a pair of Chicago & North Western locomotives pulling past Superior Fiber Products in Superior with a transfer from Duluth in 1984. (Image: Bob Johnston, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
This was the public-facing side of Superior Fiber Products on Connor’s Point in Superior. The entire building was painted a light blue-green color through 1988 when this picture was taken. By the following year most of the structure had been repainted a light tan color. (Image: Jeff Lemke)
This backside view of Superior Fiber Products shows in stark contrast the difference between this facility built in 1964 and Superwood that was created a piece at a time beginning in the late 1940s. Superior Fiber Products was a much newer facility, had one long production line, and was a model of efficient manufacturing. It used exclusively, debarked aspen logs that were made into super-smooth hardboard distributed throughout North America. (Image: Jeff Lemke)
Here’s the face of change on Connor’s Point. The Lake Superior Terminal & Transfer Railway that once switched Superior Fiber Products has long since been absorbed into Burlington Northern. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe then merged to create the BNSF Railway that still serves Connor’s Point today. This view shows the BNSF’s Connor’s Point Job that switches the industries out on the point. The old Santa Fe paint job will disappear soon too. More importantly, this picture was taken in 1999—Superior Fiber Products is two years from closure. The eventual closing of Superwood is still 13 years away—but sadly, unstoppable. (Image: Jeff Lemke)

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