The story of Connor Forest Industries began in Wood County, Wisconsin, in 1872 – one hundred years ago.
It started with three brothers from Stratford, Ontario, Canada, John, James and Robert Connor, who came across Michigan into Wisconsin looking for pine. John and James came first, and were already clearing the land when Robert arrived a few months later. Together the brothers planned the village of Auburndale, built a store with post office, started a school, and constructed a saw mill. In the first few years the outpost reached 10,000,000 board feet, a sizeable amount for that time. The original firm, founded by Robert Connor Sr., was known as R. Connor and Company.
W.D. Connor, Robert’s eldest child, had planned to study law. After finishing district school, he had gone to Lake Forest Academy and Oshkosh Normal. But his father called him from his education to assume responsibility of the business.
W. D. began expanding the business by buying timber in nearby Marathon County. In 1894 he built his first band saw mill at Stratford, a town named after his birthplace in Canada. This mill was operated successfully by the R. Connor Company until 1930.
In 1896 the offices of the R. Connor Company were moved to Marshfield and this became the center of an expanding logging and manufacturing program which included several mills in addition to the ones at Auburndale and Stratford.
That same year W. D. Connor came to Forest County, where he helped cruise fine stands of hardwood which he soon purchased.
In 1900 he organized the Connor Lumber and Land Company. It is said he trekked into the Laona area from the village of Mountain, packing in his supplies. Moving north along the proposed railroad line, he located the best available mill and town sites. He bought several of them.
When he arrived at Laona, he saw that site offered the best future because of its chain of lakes and comparatively level approaches for track. He first considered laying a town on the shores of Silver Lake, but seeing this as a future summer resort he decided instead to build a dam on the nearby river and locate the town site on Beaver Lake.
The first sawmill at Laona, with two band saws and a re-saw, was purchased from the Davis and Hand Lumber Company of Eau Claire and was moved here by rail from Little Black, Wisconsin. The mill was replaced in 1925-26 with a modern electric three band, three re-saw mill on the same site.
The beginning of the Connor Lumber and Land Company in Laona was described in a History of Laona written for the community’s 50th Anniversary, Golden Jubilee, in 1952. This history was compiled by Mrs. Robert Oman with the help of students from Laona High School.
An excerpt states:
“The coming of the Connor Lumber and Land Company was witnessed in 1890. The vast stands of hardwood of this area were first cruised by Mr. Langor. Mr. Connor purchased the land and set plans for the establishment of a saw mill. He chose the site of Laona for the new mill. With the coming of the mill and possibly of a settlement, there had to be a means of transportation to the mill and thus came the difficult task of building a railroad. First came the job of laying the railroad. This task took three years and was under the direction of Barney McKiney. This task was completed in 1901 and the new section of railroad stretched from Wabeno to the present site of Connor’s Store and a year later it was extended to a junction with the Soo Line.”
The history goes on to say:
“Around the fall of 1902, a cyclone went through this area and knocked down some valuable timber. The company moved a saw mill to this area and this is how Camps 9 and 10 originated. Logs were cut all winter and summer with a one rig circular saw run by steam. These camps were located between Birch Lake and Blackwell.”
“Many camps were used by Connors in the cutting of the timber. Among the first camps of Connor was Camp 1 on and around the boarding house; Camp 2 was near Padus; Camp 3 was near the cemetery; Camp 4 was in the Gruman settlement; Camp 5 was near Connor’s farm and Camp 8 was on Connor’s railroad.”
The Connor company constructed many buildings in Laona; among them a store, a hotel, two boarding houses, all of the homes north of the store and the buildings on Hwy. 8 on the north side of town. The original hotel and store were both wooden, and were destroyed by fire. They were replaced by brick buildings in 1916.
After his father’s death in 1896, W. D. Connor became president of the R. Connor Lumber Company. He continued to preside over the affairs of both this company and his own Connor Lumber and Land Company, until his death in 1944, at the age of 80.
W. D. was more than a businessman and lumberman. He also was much involved in civic affairs and political affairs. He was prominent in the Republican Party, serving as delegate to many state Republican conventions. He was a delegate to the national convention of the party in 1904.
He served as Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin under Governor James O. Davidson in 1907-08.
He was a member of the Wood county board of supervisors for more than 20 years, serving a considerable time as chairman. He made possible the establishment of the Marshfield Public Library. He was president for a time of the American National Bank of Marshfield and the First National Bank of Stevens Point. He also served as trustee of Carroll College, Waukesha, and Wood County Normal School.
After the death of W. D. Connor, his son Richard M. Connor became the president of Connor Company. He served from 1944 until 1965. During this time, Williamsburg Company nursery furniture was acquired in 1956-57 to add juvenile furniture production, with lumber, flooring, wood flour, plastics and other by-products that Connor Lumber and Land Company produced.
Gordon R. Connor, present president, has served since 1965. In 1968 the company name was changed to Connor Forest Industries. Wausau Toys, the newest company division, was added in 1969.
Connor Forest Industries now employs approximately 1,053 persons in two plants in Michigan and three in Wisconsin.
Late in the winter of 1968, a fire destroyed the three carriage saw mill and decks at Laona. The new streamlined mill which replaced it was opened in August of 1970 with a ceremonial ribbon cutting. This mill has been called by Gordon R. Connor, “The most modern hardwood sawmill set-up in the world.” New innovations include a $40,000 chipper head, a combination board and bull edger and a board un-scrambler. From this mill lumber goes on to the flooring, trim and molding departments, and to the juvenile furniture divisions, wood flour plant and other by-products.
Fourth and fifth generation members of the Connor family are now associated with the business. Five Connors serve on the 1972, 14-man board of directors. Many present employees of the company are also fourth and fifth generation members of the first families who were employed by Connor so many years ago.
By changing with the times, and growing to meet modern demands – by foresight and a sense of responsibility toward and respect for the country’s timber – Connor Forest Industries has completed 100 years of operation.
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