NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL: Plywood and veneer

NEW ALBANY — Editor’s note: This is part of an history about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany.

New Albany doesn’t get compared to ancient Egypt too often. They both might have had mighty rivers running through them, and at times the humidity of an Indiana summer can make you think you’re in a desert. But for the most part, no pyramids or mummies have been seen around these parts except maybe on a late October night.

Yet, believe it or not, this river town and the land of the Pharaohs do share a little bit of a common heritage through the art of woodworking, in particular veneering.

In 3000 B.C., Egyptians had a good reason to invent veneer. Few trees grew in their sand filled dunes, and according to some historians, those that did were as expensive as rare jewels. To get the most bang for their buck, these ancient woodworkers devised a way to cover cheaper materials with thin cut sheets of valuable wood. Faster than an asp, the art of veneering was born.

Let’s fast forward 4,900 years to the growing Ohio River town. As the plate glass industry found cheaper natural gas up north at the end of the 19th century and left the area, a new twist on an old business sprouted up along New Albany’s shores. Veneering had made a comeback in America.

Of course, woodworking has always existed in New Albany. It’s as old as the town itself. One of the main reasons the Scribners settled on this land was because of the plentiful timber. Steamboat building in the early 1800s brought some of the most masterful craftsman to the area to construct not only the ships, but the furniture and other decorations inside them. Even after the last steamboats were constructed, the art of woodworking remained among the people.

In 1901, a group of financiers from Chicago were on the lookout for the best place to start a veneer company. They settled on New Albany and opened the Indiana Veneer and Panel Co., the “grandfather of the modern plywood industry” and the first factory in America to produce only veneer and plywood. Plywood is basically layers of veneer glued together which makes a stronger finished product.

Additional companies followed suit and began to build. Plentiful timber, great rail and waterway connections, acceptable humidity and adequate electric helped the town attract the new business, but the skilled laborers sealed the deal. According to a 1963 article in a special Sesquicentennial edition published by The Tribune, a man named John Roberts who built a veneer mill here in 1904 placed much emphasis on the quality of these workers.

“Mr. Roberts felt that New Albany was ideally located for the veneer business of the timber in the area, the local market for veneer, but even more because of the reputation of the local craftsmen,” the article said. “New Albany had become renowned for the fine quality of dedicated wood craftsmen.”

Roberts and others like him increased the efficiency of their work with a little thing called innovation. Roberts created a new knife saw that would slice the wood without much waste. In a 1959 article in the Valley News, the paper featured a man named E.M. Cummings and the way he worked out of his kitchen to invent a new adhesive for veneering.

New technology also helped to sustain the industry, especially during the early part of the depression. Believe it or not, the invention of the radio increased demand for veneer. People wanted a stylish cabinet in which to store their new talking wonders.

By 1920, more plywood and veneer were manufactured in New Albany than anywhere else in the world.

“They said that New Albany was the veneer capital of the world at one time. It’s a pretty unique distinction for New Albany,” said Floyd County Historian David Barksdale.

In a transcript from a 1950s radio series available through the New Albany Floyd County Public Library’s website, the author comments on the extent of New Albany’s significant presence in the market 30 years later.

“Logs are purchased in over 50 countries and in nearly every state in the Union and brought to New Albany for processing. The end products of wood prepared in New Albany go into nearly every conceivable type of manufacture and are spread throughout the world,” the transcription said.

Even today in the river city, companies like Mitchell Veneers, Inc. continue to produce fine woodwork, proving that good craftsmanship, much like the pyramids of Egypt, can always withstand the test of time.