Sixty-five obsolete aircraft were not going to cut the mustard when the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. To out-perform Germany, the U.S. needed large-scale military aircraft. Enter the Spruce Production Division, a unit of the United States Army, established in November 1917 to produce high-quality Sitka spruce timber to make aircraft for the war effort. The hybrid military industrial division was part of the Army Signal Corp’s Aviation Section with headquarters in Portland, Oregon. The Spruce mill’s primary operation center was at Vancouver Barracks in Vancouver, Washington.
“The Germans were kicking our butt, and we needed airplanes so we had to build it fast,” explains Clark County historian Pat Jollota, “and we got it up and running in 45 days. We just got it done.”
Workers in the gigantic production mill spanning 40 acres were members of the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, a union organized to support the army’s wood production operations. The LLLL, or four L’s, further served to promote fair labor objectives, including the eight-hour day, equitable wages and health insurance. “We had tremendous labor problems in the lumber industry,” shares Jollota. “Logging and lumbering was dangerous, underpaid, and overworked making it fertile ground for a labor organization, which we were resisting.” Jollota believes the problems around the labor issues are one of the more important aspects of history surrounding the Spruce Production Division.
According to a historic resource study by Ward Tonsfeldt sponsored by the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, at its peak, the Spruce Production Division (SPD) consisted of nearly 30,000 officers and men from the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Soldiers attached to the Spruce division were stationed in lumber mills and logging camps throughout western Oregon and Washington, from the Canadian border south to Coos Bay. Between February and November 1918, the SPD produced 139 million board feet of aircraft-grade lumber.
“They nationalized the logging and lumbering industry in a sense,” explains Jollota of the SPD. “We were already a logging and lumber center. We could float logs down the Columbia River in cigar rafts to our port, and we had the railroad, so we had the infrastructure in place.”
And Sitka Spruce is light and strong, which was ideal for aircraft production. Its long, tough fibers would not splinter struck with bullets. “Spruce was the aluminum of the wood world,” says Jollota.
The SPD played a role in several themes important in 20th century U.S. history, according to the Tonsfeldt study. These include the acquisition and management of strategic natural resources, government intervention in social and political disputes, and cultural response to rapid technological change.
In September 1919, about 10 months after the war ended on November 11, 1918, the Spruce Production Corporation began to liquidate the logging equipment, railroads, sawmills, and timber lands that the SPD had acquired. The timber lands were sold on contract, so the corporation’s life was artificially prolonged as it continued to manage the sales contracts for the government until 1946. In actuality, the government spruce production program lasted only a year, from November 1917 to November 1918.