The Best Thing Since Sliced Sycamore
Michigan Maple Block Company, located in Petoskey, Michigan—the heart of hard maple country—is one of the largest and oldest manufacturers of butcher block products in the nation. The success and renown of its Wood Welded® butcher block is due in part to its continuous operation, by one family, for over 125 years.
End-grain laminated hard maple butcher block was developed as the practical answer to the needs of the meat cutting industry over 100 years ago. The harder, close grained, less porous cutting surface of laminated butcher block quickly replaced the sycamore rounds, which were the meat cutting surface of the day. Even today, hard maple butcher block remains the preferred preparation surface because of its durability and ease of maintenance.
In the early 1880’s, Petoskey was a small working village at the end of Little Traverse Bay in northwestern Lower Michigan. The lumber industry was booming, and on the nearby Bear River, two businessmen, Mr. Baker and a Mr. Forbes, founded a woodenware manufacturing plant. After a few short years they sold the business to Frank and Fred Bauerle, who ran it until the turn of the century.
Then two Chicago businessmen with ties to the meat cutting industry, Charles H. Broman and Frederick J. Schmitt, recognized the problems inherent in the standard meat cutting block of the day, a log section of southern sycamore. Not only did sycamore split as it dried, but the size of the cutting surface was limited by the size of the log. Schmitt and Broman determined that laminated hardwood is the answer to a better meat cutting surface. Broman bought out the Bauerle brothers to begin manufacturing, while Schmitt traveled the country as the national sales representative.
The new company, known as The Petoskey Block and Manufacturing Company, invested in timberlands and purchased cut lumber from local sawmills. They built their own sawmill on the factory’s 13-acre site and constructed enormous dry kilns powered with the hot air supplied by burning the plant’s scrap wood and sawdust.
By 1903, Schmitt had become the company’s majority stockholder. He refined the appearance of the butcher block, making many design improvements. From 1907 through 1916 he obtained several patents for his “Butcher’s Chopping Block” and most importantly for his technique of laminating, known today as the “Wood Welded” process.
Supplying the Good Wood
The name of the company was changed from Petoskey Block & Manufacturing to Michigan Maple Block Company, when Schmitt perceived that, “everyone knew where Michigan was and knew that Michigan maple was the good wood.”
By 1907, Michigan Maple Block employed over 60 employees with a payroll of over $41,000.00 annually. They had become “the largest sectional block manufacturer in the United States,” according to a 1906 catalogue.
The butcher block business grew steadily and by 1908 Michigan Maple Block was producing butcher blocks, reversible blocks, bench tops, cutting benches, mallet and die blocks and custom cutting boards. Custom blocks were produced for shoe factories, glove factories, envelope factories and shirt factories. Specialty boards were constructed for leather harness factories and cigar makers were using Michigan Maple Block butcher block for cutting boards. The plant covered 25,000 square feet of floor space. The circulating air dry kilns could handle 15,000 board feet of lumber each.
“We are better situated for maple lumber than any factory in our line of business today, as we own large tracts of maple timber lands and operate a separate sawmill in connection with our block business,” a 1908 catalogue explained. “We cut the lumber—to the very best advantage and sort out and pile the best quality in separate piles to be used for blocks, which we do not use until thoroughly seasoned. We have on hand several million feet of seasoned maple all the time.”
The patents Schmitt received in the early 1900’s focused on “improvements in sectional wood blocks and cutting boards…to provide a sanitary, durable and efficient butcher’s block intended to be used in the cutting up of meat or other food products containing more or less moisture.”
He patented “a composite of built up block, made of a series of wooden segments securely fastened together to form a substantially homogenous mass.”
Subsequent refinements to this, the standard “Wood Welded” Michigan Maple Block, included a variety of tool hangers, disappearing drawers and scrapers—conveniences to the meat cutters.
Don’t Talk War, Talk Wood Welded Blocks
With an eye on expansion, Michigan Maple Block Company looked east to Bally, Pennsylvania, where they found a wood products company whose primary product line included caskets, cedar chests, windows, window sills and furniture. In 1926, the company started producing butcher block and in 1929, Michigan Maple Block purchased the Bally Block Company. Their combined strengths and distribution networks would now serve Eastern and Western Markets, making them the largest butcher block company in the United States.
With such a functional product, even the Great Depression did not stop the output of butcher block products. Already the largest industry of its kind in the US, by the 1940’s Michigan Maple butcher blocks were being used by the food industry and specialized cutting industries across America. Kroger Grocery and Baking Company, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, the United States Army, and myriad smaller customers were using Michigan Maple Block Company products.
The characteristics of laminated maple butcher block created unusual demands for its use. Maple is resilient, durable and does not conduct electricity. So in the 1940’s, the University of Chicago used Michigan Maple butcher block as insulation at its research site of the top-secret Manhattan Project, for the first atomic bomb.
In the 1960’s, the space industry turned to Michigan Maple Block to fabricate three round blocks to press out the nose cone of the moon rocket. These blocks, 72″ in diameter and 36″ deep, weighed over two tons each. They are thought to be the largest laminated blocks ever fabricated in the United States.
Wood Gets Greener
Improved and more modern technologies have resulted in significant changes in methods of fabrication. The introduction of the electronic gluing machine has increased the speed of the laminating process and resulted in a stronger “weld.”
The factories have undergone a variety of changes. The old 500 horsepower steam engine, which was used to feed all the plant’s waste wood to generate electricity, no longer drives the long line shaft to power the machinery. In 1963, the old WHS class Whitcomb gas locomotive, which had hauled loaded flat cars of logs from the railroad to the mills and later, cut timber to stock piles, was replaced by a 25,000 pound capacity fork lift truck. The original dry kilns have been replaced with new electronically monitored forced draft kilns, capable of handling 270,000 feet of lumber at a time. Techniques that enhance production and reduce overhead are instituted regularly. Wood waste and sawdust is now used to heat the plant and dry the lumber.
To respond to the tastes of consumers and kitchen designers, we’ve introduced six additional wood species: white ash, black walnut, American cherry, red oak, exotic teak and the eco-friendly, plantation grown, lyptus. These additions complete the line, offering a full spectrum of color and texture for any taste.
Most importantly, John Dau, the grandson of Frederick Schmitt, inherited his deep love for wood and concern for the quality of the product. The warm beauty of modern butcher block, whether and end-grain meat cutting block or an edge grain counter top, is a source of pride to everyone at Michigan Maple Block Company.
“There is probably no surface other than butcher block that can take so much hard wear and tear, be repaired without special technique or skilled craftsmen and come up looking as good as ever.” That observation by Christian Science Monitor writer, Marilyn Hoffman, epitomizes the practical appeal of hard maple butcher block products.
Beyond the practical, there is a romance to wood. Fine wood products, hundreds of years old, are prized as antiques, revered for their warm patina, coveted for their implied history. Wood, unlike many other materials, has the ability to age gracefully. The fine hard maple of butcher block embodies these practical and aesthetic qualities.
For a brief time, in the mid 1950’s, plastic was considered a wonder product that would replace wood cutting and food prep surfaces. The very properties that made plastic initially popular caused a return to wood—the porosity of wood allows cleaning agents to penetrate below the surface, effectively sanitizing the work surface, unlike plastic which, because it is self-healing, cannot be thoroughly sanitized.
Even still, butcher block endures as the preferred cutting surface. It’s warmth, durability, and cutlery-friendly surface continues to win the hearts of butchers and bakers the world over.
“If you own a piece of butcher block, the laminated individual pieces of wood come together in a unique pattern of colors and grain. It’s like a fingerprint. No two pieces of wood are ever the same. That’s rather unusual today! What else can you say uniquely belongs to you?” Dau remarks.
Michigan Maple Block butcher block products are sold around the world, to people who recognize and value these qualities. A list of individuals who have butcher block products in their homes or work places would read like a celebrity who’s who.
Michigan Maple Block can be found at the FBI headquarters in Vandenberg, VA, The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. One of our largest end-grain counter tops graces the kitchen of Gwenyth Paltrow. Our cutting boards and preparation tables can be seen on many of the most popular celebrity cooking shows and our locker benches are used by World Champion sports teams like the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field and The Detroit Red Wings.
When you’re in business over 125 years, you witness products, materials and trends in constant flux. Funny thing is, through it all, wood stands strong. Its warmth, durability and functionality are timeless. Maybe it’s because what living brings in, sandpaper takes out. Or perhaps it’s our inherent human affinity to all things natural. Whatever it is, wood just works.