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Young, William John
(February 27, 1827–June 8, 1896)

–lumberman—was born in Belfast, Ireland. In 1846, at age 19, he emigrated to the United States. Working as a grocery store clerk, he gained some knowledge of bookkeeping, which he used to obtain a job with a railroad contractor, which in turn led to a position as a freight agent with the Cincinnati, Logansport & Chicago Railroad. During his railroad career, some Cincinnati men offered him the opportunity to open a lumberyard at Clinton, Iowa, for the Ohio Mill Company. At about the same time, in 1858, he married Esther Elderkin, of Richmond, Indiana. They had six children.

    The Ohio Mill was located at La Crosse, Wisconsin. Young's job was to receive rafts and sell lumber at Clinton. When one of the Cincinnati partners died and the company was dissolved, Young did all of the business in his own name for several months, then became a partner in the reorganized firm, which was named W. J. Young & Company, and convinced his partners to move the mill from La Crosse to Clinton, leaving Young in charge of both sawing and selling. Slowly the business prospered. With improvements to the mill over the years, lumbermen generally recognized his mill as having the largest sawing capacity under one roof in the world.

    Young, Chancy Lamb (also of Clinton), and other millmen responded to the vast demand for lumber, lath, and shingles as new settlers populated Iowa, Nebraska, and adjacent states and erected countless houses, barns, and city buildings. In the process, they depleted the northern forests.

    Young and other downriver millmen engaged in rugged competitive log buying and transportation until they formed the Mississippi River Logging Company in 1871. Frederick Weyerhaeuser led the downriver men to share logging facilities far beyond the capacity of individual efforts. They triumphed over the upriver millmen to obtain timber, and competed with them for the western trade. Young was the first vice president of that service company, the purpose of which was to get logs to the mills. For many years, he and Chancy Lamb held the two largest interests in the "pool."

    In 1865 Young experimented with steamboats pushing log rafts, and he introduced the brailing system of making the rafts. The old way had been to rank logs together and secure them by fastening cross poles, which involved drilling logs with augers in order to fasten ropes, branches, or pins. That method ruined much of the lumber or relegated it to lower grades. With brailing, workers ranked logs loosely side by side and placed other logs, or "boomsticks," around them. Then they roped or chained the outside logs together; those were the only ones that needed to be bored, thus saving much timber. The new method was less expensive and replaced the old system almost entirely by the end of the 1880s.

    W. J. Young & Company became a corporation in 1882 with capital of a little over $1 million, including the value of more than 60,000 acres of Wisconsin pinelands that Young obtained through his association with John McGraw of Ithaca, New York, who bought out Young's earlier partners but left the management to Young. After McGraw died, Young purchased his former partner's interest for $7 million and continued to head the firm until his health failed in 1893. He died at his Clinton residence in 1896. The firm tapered off operations in 1893 and ceased sawing entirely in 1897.

    A man of immense physical strength and energy–and sometimes awesome temper– Young's demeanor did not invite familiarity, yet he and strong minded Chancy Lamb could be delightful associates of other mill-men. The people of Clinton knew Young as an employer who would not tolerate them entering saloons, but also as a man who gave generously to the Methodist Episcopal church and to build a club for boys and who kept his mills running during hard times to provide as much work as possible.
Sources The W. J. Young & Company Collection is in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. The most complete secondary source is George Wesley Sieber, "Sawmilling on the Mississippi: The W. J. Young Lumber Company, 1858–1900" (Ph.D. diss., 1960); and three articles by George Wesley Sieber in Annals of Iowa : "Sawlogs for a Clinton Sawmill," 37 (1964), 348–59; "Railroads and Lumber Marketing, 1858–78: The Relationship between an Iowa Sawmill Firm and the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad," 39 (1967), 33–46; and "Lumber at Clinton: Nineteenth Century Sawmill Center," 41 (1971), 779–802. See also L. P. Allen, The History of Clinton County, Iowa (1879); an obituary in the Clinton Herald, 6/9/1896; Ralph W. Hidy, Frank Ernest Hill, and Allan Nevins, Timber and Men: The Weyerhaeuser Story (1963); and Patrick B. Wolfe, ed., Wolfe's History of Clinton County, Iowa (1911).
Contributor: George W. Sieber