Plywood Pioneers

The Olympia Veneer Co, one of the earliest plywood factories in the Pacific Northwest, opened nearby in 1921. Founders Ed Westman and JJ Lucas turned to immigrant Swedish Fraternal Lodges for investors.  Organized as the first worker-owned cooperative plywood factory, 120 Swedes, Finns, Norwegians and a few Irish immigrants comprised the investor-workforce.  Initially pay rates were equal among staff; the plant manager received the same wages as those sweeping the floors.  After a slow start the plant secured orders to manufacture door panels, drawer bottoms and automobile floorboards and showed profits by 1923.

By the mid-1920s, the plywood-manufacturing boom was on.  Investors lured Ed Westman away from Olympia Veneer to start Washington Veneer Co., located near this site.  Better financed and more modern than Olympia Veneer, Washington Veneer was operating by 1925.  In 1929, Olympia celebrated the construction of a Washington Veneer’s new 225-foot smokestack as a symbol of local prosperity.  As part of the festivities, a couple exchanged marriage vows on the top of the stack.  However, both factories suffered in the early years of the Great Depression and operated intermittently.  A large order of plywood for construction of the 1933 Chicago “Century of Progress” World’s Fair finally put mill crews back to work full time.

Larger companies bought out Olympia’s plywood operations in the 1940s.   Weyerhaeuser purchased controlling interest in the Washington Veneer Co just before World War II.  The St Paul and Tacoma Lumber Co bought Olympia Veneer in 1946 and Georgia Pacific acquired the Washington Veneer plant from Weyerhaeuser in 1948.  By then the postwar building boom was on and demand for plywood increased through the 1950s.  In 1951, Georgia Pacific constructed this building as their new main office in Olympia.  Intended to highlight plywood’s versatility, it’s modern design utilized plywood throughout in many ways, from rough construction to finish work and even in furniture.

By the late 1950s, larger more modern plywood plants rendered Olympia’s older factories obsolete.   By the late 1960s, Olympia’s pioneer plywood factories ceased production.  The smokestacks were demolished in the early 1970s and Olympia Veneer’s last warehouse was razed in 2008.   The former Georgia Pacific showcase office is one of the few reminders of Olympia’s pioneering plywood industry.

Sources

Historic Property Inventory Report for Georgia Pacific Hardwood Veneer at 600 Capitol Way N. Olympia. WA 98501 Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.
Georgia – Pacific Plywood Co. Office Olympia Docomomo WEWA http://docomomo-wewa.org/endangered_detail.php?id=10   accessed 5 May 2012.
“Olympia Veneer Company” Plywood Pioneers Association, 1969.
“Washington Veneer Co” Plywood Pioneers Association, 1971.
“Olympia Veneer Plant Sells Out” Ellensburg Daily Record, 27 August 1946.
Stevenson, Shanna. Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater: A Pictorial History. Norfolk, Va: Donning Co, 1985., 218.


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