I saw this postcard of the Masonite Plant on ebay recently (and no, I’m not addicted. Yet) and snatched it right up because it reminded me that we have our own Laurel, Mississippi to thank for all that pressed wood masquerading as clapboard on houses around the country. But then when I did a little digging at the archives, I realized how much else Masonite was and is used for. The material was a necessity during World War II, used in the construction of the once-ubiquitous Quonset huts, airplanes, tanks, land mines, and ships.
I came across a great article from the December 1945 Manufacturers Record recounting the history of the Masonite company and giving us some insight into why a material made of wood particles pressed together became so important in the nation’s economy.
Another $1,000,000 for Mississippi
Masonite Demand Heavy, Company Expands at $1,000,000 Cost–Mississippi Site of Extended Facilities
When the board of directors of the Masonite Corporation authorized expenditure of over a million dollars for expanding the Laurel, Miss., plant by more than 30 per cent, the action focused attention on a southern industry that has grown from an idea to a great manufacturing operation within the short span of 21 years.
The story of the Masonite Corporation began at Laurel, Miss., in 1924. It was then that the late William H. Mason, after whom the company is named, developed the basic process by which pressed wood products are made.
From the humble beginning of a handful of men with a new idea, the company has grown to be one of the largest industries in Mississippi, employing an average of 2,000 men and women in the state and producing 90 per cent of all pressed wood hardboards manufactured in America.
Beginning with the small shack at the edge of Laurel where Mr. Mason developed the process for producing pressed wood, the plant has grown to occupy approximately 40 acres of an owned tract of 350 acres. Wages and salaries paid by the company in Mississippi during the fiscal year ending August 31, 1945, amounted to $4,173,000, and taxes paid into the State Treasury amounted to approximately $200,000.
The proposed extension is evidence of the company’s faith in the future of its operations in Mississippi. This appropriation, Masonite management has pointed out, is in line with the company’s policy of anticipating expansion and development. A three-year program of expansion completed in 1941 enabled Masonite to meet the greatly increased demands for wartime use of its production in the manufacture of Quonset and Pacific huts for housing workers and service personnel, airplanes, tanks, radar equipment, parachute flares, land mines and ships as well as in the preparation of the atomic bomb.
Mr. Mason, for 17 years an associate of the late Thomas A. Edison, first went to Laurel in 1920 to develop a process for extracting naval stores from southern pine lumber during curing. While engaged in this work he conceived the idea of turning to good use the thousands of tons of wood chips and lumber ends then considered waste and consigned to the huge trash furnace of a nearby lumber mill.
When, in 1924, Mr. Mason had developed the process for exploding wood chips under high steam pressure and then by means of heat and pressure converting reassembled fiber into the pressed wood hardboards, practical uses for the new product were soon found. In the formation of the company in 1925, to manufacture the new products, it was decided to locate the manufacturing operation in Mississippi because of the plentiful supply of raw materials, power, water, labor and good transportation facilities.
In time, the waste from the lumber mill ceased to be a sufficient raw material supply. Today the Laurel plant uses approximately 800 cords of wood a day, bought through contractors from Mississippi farmers and other owners of woodlots and timberlands. Masonite itself wons timberland reserves of 162,095 acres in the state.
To avoid depletion of Mississippi forest resources, the company in 1936 began a program of tree planting and education in the growth, protection and harvesting of trees, a valuable annual crop to many farmers. Carrying on its program in cooperation with the State Agriculture Extension Service, Division of Vocational Agriculture of the State Department of Education, the State Forestry Commission and other interested agencies, the company annually distributes free of charge more than 1,500,000 seedlings to farmers, 4-H and FFA Club Boys, and provides instruction for proper planting and care. Those who plant the seedling are free to dispose of any trees harvested as they wish. Masonite was one of the first wood products companies in the country to inaugurate such a forest development program.
With the coming of peace again the Masonite plant at Laurel has no reconversion problem in manufacturing operations as do so many industries which were also engaged almost entirely in war production. The products which the company manufactured for war uses are, with few exceptions, identical with those made for peacetime consumption, and the management has reported that it appears that the demand from all major channels of consumption of Masonite products will be large.
Masonite pressed wood products have a wide variety of uses. They are employed by industry in the manufacture of automobile, trailer and railroad car parts and fixtures, refrigerators, furniture, store fixtures, desk tops, telephone booths, signs, display booths, toys, and many other industrial products, as well as by the building and decorating trades in the construction and remodeling of homes, commercial structures, prefabricated homes and farm buildings. Masonite die stock, first employed in aircraft production, is used in assembly jigs, router dies, templates, chucks and form blocks, and in the electrical industry.