Robbins Sports, White Lake | Wisconsin thru my eyes
Robbins Sports Surfaces, White Lake

Editor's note: Since publishing this story on October 3, 2006, Bill Gamble of Robbins Sports Surfaces in White Lake was kind enough to send a copy of a 2000 calendar entitled, "Yester Year, Fifth 'Millennium Edition,' White Lake Area Historical Society." We feel most honored to have had access to the photos used for the calendar. We have scanned them and provided them at the close of our original story. The text describing the photos provides a good education on the lumbering-sawmill business. October 19, 2006

October 3, 2006, updated June 15, 2018 with improved history of Rhinelander.

This is an amazing world. You all probably know that.

But while "bumming around" Langlade County on a typical "get-lost" ride, we came into the very small and quiet town of White Lake. Quiet, maybe, but packed with great logging industry history that led the town to manufacture the very finest in contemporary sports flooring.


White Lake's old rail station. The Wisconsin Central still runs a track through the town, but the city fathers must have moved the old train station because there were no tracks here! This is now a museum, opened in 1999.

Instantly the little town was striking. It was August 24, 2006, and the streets of the town were adorned by American flags, everywhere.




This year marks White Lake's 90th birthday. In the 2000 census, White Lake had 329 residents. Our kind of town. Solid Americans here.

As we drove around the town, another landmark caught our eye: a very large factory.


The factory is nondescript for a newcomer on the outside. Fact is, we almost just drove by, except two things caught our attention. First, for a town this size, this is one large factory. You have to wonder, "Why?" Second, the piles of wood sitting outside seemed different than what we usually see at other sawmills we've been at throughout the north country.


We are not wood piling specialists, but we were impressed by the way these cut pieces of wood were stacked. We thought, this is a very good formation! Your editor, an Air Force vet, reminisced, "This is the way we line up everything, whether they be aircraft or supplies in the warehouses. Lots of law and order here."

We have since looked in old time logging books and have seen that the industry has a tradition of stacking their cut lumber well.


These stacks were not in such a tight formation. But unlike the others, they were bound and labeled "floor." The word "floor" caused our curiosity to energize. Not sure why, but it did.

We drove around the area a little more, and then saw a sign that said: Robbins Sports Surfaces.

Ah ha, now the place does have our attention!

White Lake might have only a few hundred residents, but we now realized not to let the town's size fool us. First, we see a big factory in a small town. Now we recognize that this is a factory belonging to an 100-year-old company, one of the very best sports surfacing manufacturers in the country.


Conseco Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers NBA team. Presented by Robbins Sports Surfaces.

The company's floors dominate National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) arenas as well as NBA and US Olympic training centers. They also show up in our primary educational facilities throughout the country.

We later learned that all together, it has produced 350 million square feet of sports flooring of a total of one billion square feet shipped since records were first kept; that's about 35 percent market share, worldwide, making it one of the top five in the country in this business.

What's more, small town maybe, but there is high technology science involved in making these kinds of floors. For all of us who have played our basketball on asphalt or concrete courts, well, we know our knees took a pounding. They provided little to no shock absorption. Flooring for the boys and girls in the big leagues demands resilience, portability, enhancing an athlete's performance and protecting athletes, most especially in the area of shock absorption. It turns out, these are also factors considered by our schools when they go shopping for gym flooring.

Anna Guido, reporting for the
Cincinnati Enquirer back on April 18, 2005, wrote this:

"All research and development for Robbins is done at the Cincinnati headquarters, but the floors -- manufactured under the Robbins Sports Surfaces label -- are made in White Lake, Wis., and Ishpeming, Mich. (The company) has developed a process of testing sports floors for shock absorption that revolutionized the industry. At Robbins, such data is generated by the 'artificial athlete,' an octopuslike piece of machinery that presses its arms on floors to test them."

The factory in White Lake gets the maple from the loggers. One task is to clean it up and cut it to make handling the pieces of wood manageable. A key part of that process is to run the freshly cut lumber through a dry kiln facility. In our case, such a facility provides dried maple ready for floor surface manufacturing. Fresh cut lumber contains a lot of water. Sometimes wood can be as much as 50 percent water when first cut. The water must be removed to produce a high quality finished product.

We'd like to spend just a moment on the subject of a dry kiln facility.


Closed drying kiln chamber. Presented by Nyle Corp.

We don't know how they do it at Robbins, but here is an example of the process. Nyle Corp. is a nationally known manufacturer of wood kiln drying systems. It presents this graphic of a closed drying kiln system, which the company says, "Allows accurate control over critical drying conditions such as airflow, temperature and humidity." This particular graphic displays the company's L1200S.

Well, we are certainly not lumber experts. But, the stacks shown in this graphic from Nyle look remarkably the same as the photo of the nicely stacked lumber we showed you earlier.


We have concluded this wood has come out of the kiln and is dried. Also, we have concluded that the wood is so nicely stacked in order to fit as much in the kiln as is possible to achieve maximum efficiencies.


We hate to get carried away with these stacks of lumber, especially since we know so little about this business. But on closer examination, you see a couple interesting things. First, there are spacers between the layers. You can see them sticking out. That makes sense: the spacing lets the drying process get in there to all sides of each board. While the lumber is outside, the spacers also allow for water drainage should it rain.

You'll also note the wood has been cut and sized, but remains "in the rough." We assume, this is rough sawn lumber. It has been through a sawmill to get it to the desired size, but leaves allowance for future planing. In the hardwood business, the planing process is called surfacing. Surfaced hardwood blanks, which these seem to represent, are "as is," and will go through a final finishing process to making the required flooring. There is a nice explanation of the planer mill flow produced by Timberline magazine.

This is fun, but we need to move on. The question came to mind, "What is the great Robbins Sports Surfaces doing here in little ol' White Lake? To figure that out, we had to delve into the archives, which proved to be great fun.

The company's historic lineage can get complicated. A lot of people got into the lumbering business in the old days, and many of them were in constantly changing partnerships. We urge you stick with us because the Robbins history tells us a lot about the evolution and dynamic history of the logging business in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Historical Society has some very good resource material to start you on any research effort you might begin.

The Robbins Flooring Company was founded by the Albert Abendroth and Chauncey "Cockey" Robbins in 1919. There's an interesting history here. in 1870 Anderson W. Brown traveled up the Wisconsin River and came to the confluence of the Pelican and Wisconsin Rivers. The Pelican is a tributary of the Wisconsin. There was a town there called Pelican Rapids, initially inhabited in the 1860s when settlers from Europe built several cabins. But the town grew through the 1880s. William H. Tuttle is credited as founding Pelican Rapids in 1880. The Pelican River flowed through what was known as Pelican Valley.

Brown foresaw the potential of placing a mill town with a lumber mill here. He visited the site several times over several years and brought his brother, Webster Brown, along with him. The two brothers then convinced good old dad and an uncle to buy the land from the federal government. The name of the town was changed to Rhinelander in 1882 in honor of Frederic W. Rhinelander of New York, the president of the Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western Road. The Browns knew they had to have a rail line nearby if they wanted their ideas to reach fruition. That was the main reason they named the town Rhinelander, to entice Mr. Rhinelander to extend a spur to the area. It took ten years of negotiation, but they got their spur, completed in 1882 running from present-day Monico to Rhinelander. That was the catalyst to success that was needed.


This is a map of the Wolf River, which rises in Forest County in the far northeast of the state and passes through Langlade County, through Menominee County and others. The red dots on the map mark the approximate locations of White Lake in Langlade County and Rhinelander to the northwest in Oneida County, the two towns relevant to our story. We also wish to draw your attention to Menominee County, which is entirely a Menominee Indian Reservation, a federally recognized sovereign nation. It is just south of White Lake.

By the late 1840s, the Wolf River was one of three major lumbering areas in the state, which at that time was known as the Wisconsin Territory. The soft pine forests of the region seemed to have an eternal supply. The Memonimee Indians and settlers from Europe who moved over to Wisconsin from Michigan, frequently through Milwaukee, developed very successful lumber-related businesses.

Railroads transformed the industry at about this time, enabling loggers to move their cut logs by rail year around instead of having to depend on rivers.


Two yoke of oxen being used to pull this load of logs. It is believed the photo was taken in Sawyer County. Presented by The Wisconsin Logging Book, 1839-1939, by Malcolm Rosholt.

This is not to imply the loggers did not move their logs during the winter. Those without access to trains preferred the winter because they could use horse or oxen drawn sleds on the snow. If the surfaces were not slick enough, they would spray them with water to ice 'em up.


This is a "Dinky" 1907 Davenport 2-6-0 narrow gauge locomotive. "2-6-0" is a Whyte notation for classifying steam locomotives: 2 leading wheels, 6 driving wheels, and no trailing wheels. As you can see, she is small. Presented by the Fennimore Railroad Historical Society Museum, Wisconsin.

But the railways really made a big difference. The narrow gauge, usually with a spread between rails of 3 ft. 6 in. or less, was the preferred type for industrial applications such as logging and mining. They were substantially cheaper to build, equip and operate than standard gauge, and could go into places where the standard gauge required bridges and tunnels, such as mountainous areas.

Rhinelander was the first town north of Tomahawk (about 20 miles southwest) to benefit from major logging operations, starting in 1857 with Helms & Co. There was at the time a very heavy growth of white and Norway pine just to the north. There was also a significant amount of spruce. Logging and sawmill companies grew rapidly.


This is a photo that shows a white pine logging operation in Michigan. The logs were piled on a logging sled. More important, though, is to note what intensive logging did to the previously forested land. One result was for many loggers to move over to Wisconsin. Michigan State University has a wonderful photo album of logging in the 19th century at "White Pine Logging Part I" and Part II.

We want to highlight two men, actually two families, who had a major impact the Robbins history: F.S. Robbins and Albert H. Abendroth.


F.S. Robbins. Presented by The Wisconsin Logging Book, 1839-1939, by Malcolm Rosholt.

Frederick S. Robbins, better known as F. S. Robbins, was born in Potter County, Pennsylvania in 1842. His family moved to Michigan when he was a young teenager. He served in the Army during the Civil War and returned to Richmond, Michigan where he became one of the largest loggers in the area, operating a white pine logging operation in the Reed City area. In 1884, he left Michigan for Duluth, Minnesota, where he joined in a sawmill and lumber business to form Graff, Murray and Robbins. He worked that for a couple years, and decided to move to Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where he saw great promise.

At around this time, Albert H. Abendroth, found employment in Reed City, Michigan with William Horner, who ran a planing mill surfacing white pine lumber. Abendroth did that for a while, and then went to work for F. S. Robbins.

Abendroth saw that the pine business was going to decrease in importance as the loggers ran through the pine forests like a hot knife through butter, so he devised a way for Horner to convert his operation to run maple flooring in his planing mill. He slipped over to another company to gain experience at doing this, and came back to Horner in 1891.

In the mean time, F. S. Robbins had joined with S.H. Baird to form the logging firm Baird & Robbins. Their sawmill was built on the southeast shore of Boom Lake in Rhinelander, completed in August 1887. Baird retired and Webster E. Brown, the brother of Anderson, bought in to form the firm Brown & Robbins in 1894. In 1901, the firm became the Robbins Lumber Co. with F.S. Robbins as president.


Anderson W. Brown. The Wisconsin Logging Book, 1839-1939, by Malcolm Rosholt.

A note on the Browns is appropriate here. Anderson W. Brown, known as A. W. Brown, is often called "The father of Rhinelander." He formed a partnership with his brother, Webster E. Brown, to found the Brown Brothers Lumber Co., one of the leading lumber firms in the city for many years. So when Webster Brown and F.S. Robbins joined forces, well, that was a big deal.

In 1893, the Brown Robbins Lumber Co., working through the Thunder Lake Lumber Co., started rail operations from Rhinelander northeast to Pine Lake and then on to present-day Sugar Camp, then known as Robbins. Their objective was to overcome the challenges of moving logs by river. In 1898, the Brown-Robbins Railroad was incorporated as a common carrier. In 1901, when Brown & Roberts became known as the Robbins Lumber Co., the railroad became known as the Robbins Railroad Co.


Thunder Lake Lumber Co. sawmill, one of the largest sawmills in Rhinelander, stood on Lake Creek on the north side of the city. The creek was temporarily dammed to make a mill pond. This mill operated until 1937. Presented by The Wisconsin Logging Book, 1839-1939, by Malcolm Rosholt.

Thunder Lake Lumber Co. also had a major operation in Rhinelander, so Brown and Robbins were teamed with some good players.


A load of logs on cars bound for the Robbins Lumber Co. of Rhinelander, circa 1905. The train has been secured with chains, and equipped with a small snowplow on the front. Standing to the left is George Smith, chief engineer for Robbins, and Jack Mylrea. The location is at Columbus Lake in Oneida County where Mylrea was woods boss. Presented by The Wisconsin Logging Book, 1839-1939, by Malcolm Rosholt.

By the early 1900s, Robbins had two sawmills, two planing mills, extensive logging holdings and a railroad. If a mill burned down, which was common in those days, Robbins simply built a new one. Many others simply abandoned their business. Not so for Robbins. By 1904, his logging and milling operations had become so productive that it was apparent they and the others were exhausting the region's pine in northern Wisconsin.

Firms in the Rhinelander region now turned their attention to hardwoods while many others firms simply died off.

While Robbins was getting things organized in Wisconsin, Abendroth and Horner were getting very good at their planing mill trade over in Michigan. During the period 1891-1919, they joined with other maple flooring producers to form the Maple Flooring Manufacturer's Association (MFMA); Abendroth developed the first single pass flooring machine; and he built and ran a new plant for Horner in Newberrey, Michigan.

F.S. Robbins retired and in 1915 sold his plant to C.C. Collins but Robbins continued cutting until 1919, and then stopped. Robbins sold the railroad to Thunder Lake in 1919 as well.

The year 1919 was a big one for modern-day Robbins Sports Surfaces. Free of his lumbering and rail businesses, Robbins decided to move into the hardwood flooring business in 1919. Also in 1919, Albert Abendroth, who had once before worked for Robbins and now had quite a bit of experience in the hardwood planing business, joined with Robbins to set up the Robbins Flooring Co. in Rhinelander. So, to say that the Robbins Flooring Co.'s history traces to the early 1920s is technically accurate.

Robbins Flooring Co. was led by Albert H. Abendroth, Paul W. Abendroth, James M. Caldwell and Frank S. Robbins.

The familial and prior business connections of the lineage that brings us to modern-day Robbins Sports Surfaces is very interesting. You've already gotten a taste for that. We'll highlight a few more to get you to the plant at White Lake.

Albert Abendroth's son, Walter C., joined Robbins Flooring Co. in Rhinelander after graduating with an engineering degree from the University of Michigan. Fairly quickly he converted the flooring mill from steam-powered belt-driven machinery to an all-electric production. The Rhinelander factory was the first in the US to be propelled this way. The Rhinelander plant was lost to fire in 1948. In response, Walter bought the same flooring mill in Reed City where his father, Albert, had started with William Horner and had, early on, worked for F.S. Robbins.


The Yawkey-Bissell Lumber Co. was picking up some small stuff when this photo was taken in the 1920s north of White Lake. Presented by Photos from Wisconsin's Past by Malcolm Rosholt.


Camp and loading yard for Yawkey-Bissell Lumber Co., north of White Lake. Date unknown, but probably circa the 1920s. Presented by Photos from Wisconsin's Past by Malcolm Rosholt.

Then Walter, and his brother Paul, who had also entered the family business, bought a half-interest in the Yawkey-Bissell Hardwood Flooring Company in White Lake, Wisconsin. In 1959 they bought the other half. The Yawkey-Bissell Lumber Co. had been formed in 1905.

Another Abendroth, Carl, entered the business as well and took over the Reed City plant in 1948.

Walter sold the Robbins Flooring Co. to E.L. Bruce of Memphis in 1962, which in turn joined the Cook Industries conglomerate. When that happened, Carl became president of Robbins.

Then, in 1977 Jim Stoehr, a member of the Stoehr family that had founded the Cincinnati Floor Co., bought the assets of Robbins Inc. from Cook. The Cincinnati Floor Co. had been in the flooring manufacturing and installation business since 1894, founded by Jim's grandfather, Robert A. Stoehr, and run later by his father, James, Sr.

Jim Stoehr's cousin, Robert A. Stoehr III, died in the late 1980s and Jim decided to sell the name Cincinnati Flooring Co. and the assets of its flooring division to Doug Drenik, a loyal member of the company for some time. Then, in 1997, Jim Stoehr sold the residential flooring business to Triangle Pacific Corp. of Dallas. His thinking was that the residential and sports surfaces businesses had little in common other than they both used hardwood. The residential business was getting highly competitive, residential demand was starting to outstrip capacity, and Robbins was a front-running leader in the sports surfacing business, to wit, when in doubt, go to the core business.

Robbins Sports Surfaces today is headquartered in Cincinnati. It operates two plants in White Lake and Ishpeming, Michigan. It is one of five major sports flooring manufacturers in the country.

By overwhelming acclamation, maple floors are the most preferred in sports floors. The MFMA says it this way:

"Northern hard maple has been called nature's perfect flooring surface. MFMA maple is produced from trees grown north of the 38th parallel where shorter growing seasons produce maple with closer, more uniform grain. In a floor, northern hard maple exhibits flexibility, resilience, durability, finishability and low-demand maintenance."

While Robbins can boast of sports floors all over the world at first-class facilities, the people of Wausau, Wisconsin in Marathon County might not know that Robbins manufactured the floor used at Wausau West High School. Here's a photo.


So, there you go Wausau West, and there you go White Lake!

Addendum: Bill Gamble of Robbins Sports Surfaces in White Lake was kind enough to send a copy of a 2000 calendar entitled, "Yester Year, Fifth 'Millennium Edition,' White Lake Area Historical Society. The collections used to tell the "Mill" story for this calendar were from W.W. Gamble III, Anita John Peters and Lucille Brown Alft. Excerpts were taken from published articles in the Antigo Daily Journal, the Wausau Daily Herald, the July 9, 1927 issue of the American Lumberman, the August 1928 issue of the British and Colonial Review, the Soo Line Magazine, the essay of historian, Robert Duerwachter and the 1922 college thesis of Frank Been. Other quotes or commentaries were from community families and their memories of the various mill events and how the specific events related to or affected their families.

We feel most honored to have had access to the photos used for the calendar. We have scanned them and provided them below, with text drawn nearly completely from the calendar's descriptions. The text provides a very nice understanding of the lumber-sawmill process. The editor. October 19, 2006


The Yawkey-Bissell Lumber Co. was just a few years old when this view was taken across White Lake. It was one of the largest and best equipped in Wisconsin. It had saws, a planing mill, lathe mill, three dry kilns, a shingle mill and a flooring factory. The mill kept three shifts of workers going six days per week. Photo credit: Toburen


This was the view looking across White Lake toward the sawmill in 1922. The part of the lake nearest the mill was divided into sections by booms for log storage. The storage area held about 1.5 million feet of logs. The water in the lake was raised about five feet in order that tracks could be laid on a long trestle extending out into the lake from the mill. The logs loaded, Russell cars were pushed out on the trestle by an engine and left there until ready to be dumped. The logs were usually dumped into the pond and taken directly up to the mill since hemlock logs quickly became deadheads if left in the water too long. Photo credit: Frank Been collection


On February 1, 1950, the wind was blowing and a fir of unknown origin broke out in the sawmill. The fire quickly went out of control and the sawmill could not be saved. Firefighters saved the planing and flooring mills and other buildings. The wind luckily died down or the entire town could have been lost. Photo credit: Anita John Peters collection.


These logs have been unloaded from the Russell cars into the log pond. Spike DeHart, Ray Anderson and Mark Richardson, all boom men, took their long poles and pushed the floating logs toward the bull chain. Photo credit: Lucille Alft collection


George Beabeau and Spike DeHart are pointing logs from the pond onto the bull chain. The bull chain was attached by a cable to a steam engine. The log was guided onto the bottom of the chain and pulled directly up the slide passing through a high pressure spray, which washed off the grit and pebble that might be lodged in the bark. When the log reached the top or log deck, it was kicked to one of two sides of the mill depending on the quality of the log. Logs with defects or imperfections went to the right-hand band saw and the logs for sawing into lumber went to the left, which led the saw carriage room. The men operating the kicker decided which way the logs went. Photo credit: Lucille Alft collection.


Rudy Miller, Mr. McCambridge, and Leonard Place were some of the men who operated the log carriage. The log carriage was 20 ft. long and four and a half feet wide. The largest logs cut were 30 ft. long and up to three ft. in diameter. The carriage was fed by a ten-inch steam cylinder. The piston was 3.75-in. in diameter and 38 ft. long. The steam was carried from the boilers under 100-120 lbs. pressure. The mill had two log carriages in rooms next to each other. There were bumpers at each end of the carriage track to prevent damage to the carriage when long logs were being sawn or if the carriage went out of control. The log you see in this photo has been debarked and sawed in half.


This is the sorting shed. After logs were sawed into boards, they were graded by hand. Eight sorters picked out the boards of like grades and piled them onto narrow gauge cars. The grader tallied the number of boards after grading them. He used the grading rules. The loaded cars were lowered by gravity to the storage yard where teams of horses hauled them to a designated site in the yard for piling by hand to air dry. Crews of two put the boards on the piles. When the lumber was suitably seasoned, it was loaded again by hand either onto freight cars to be shipped out rough or were taken to the planing mill to be planed prior to shipping. Photo credit: Yawkey-Bissell Hardwood Flooring Co. collection 1920


The yard superintendent had to estimate the amount of lumber in the yard. He added up the widths of the boards in one tier, then estimated the average length of the boards in the pile. He then multiplied the total number of inches by the average length in feet and dividing by twelve, he obtained the amount of board feet in a tier. He sent in a report once per month. There was also a method used to pile the boards to condition them properly. The docks for the pile were one foot off the ground.


Yard workers Joe Bordeau, Sherman Roe, Bob Boyd and Tom Hansen took time out from their stacking job in the yard to pose for this 1928 picture. They like to stack the piles high but carefully to get maximum drying. The average pile was 14,000 board feet. The aisles of the piles were at an angle to the prevailing winds. There was a space of two feet between each pile and the alleys were about ten feet wide. Maple and birch were seasoned for 60-90 days, while hemlock was seasoned 30-60 days.


Newt Allen took care of the horses for the company. The horse barn was located across the tracks behind the depots. Horses were used at the mill and in the lumber camps. This horse drawn car of lumber was on its way to the planing mill in this 1926 photo. Photo credit: Yawkey-Bissell Hardwood Flooring Co. collection


This was the company's first purchased truck to haul lumber over the road. Mr. Fred Gross, a brother of Ella DeHorn, was the company's first driver.


A view of White Lake taken in 1946-47. White Lake was planned, built and served by the Yawkey-Bissell Lumber Co. It was called a sawmill community. The company provided houses for workers with families, a boarding house for single workers, a store, recreation hall, doctor's office, bank, hotel and a modern school system with a graded and a high school.


In this photo of the mill, you can see a line-up of 22 Russell log cars on the trestle that extends out into the lake.


This is a photo of the mill workers taken in 1926.