Everything starts somewhere — also the forest industry. Pioneers through time replaced each other and eventually developed an industry that became the backbone of a country. The Swedish Forest industry started with sawmills during the 1700s and took off during the 1800s. I recently had a peek into a small part of this history and noted another truth – nothing is forever.
A visit to the cradle of the forest industry
It started with an invitation to a wedding. My sister’s youngest was to be married somewhere up north and as the child’s Godfather, I was expected to be present. Far far away, 1000 kilometers by car and then a ferry to an island. Stuck on an island until the ferry went back two days later. It turned out to be an exciting place for a geek like me.
Today this island, Norrbyskär, is a place for recreation. Summer houses and a youth camp dominate. A museum and some abandoned wrecks of timber barges give a hint of the history of the place.
J.C. Kempe enters the stage
During the 1700s the sawmilling business was developed into a significant industry in Sweden. In the village Mo on the banks of the River Mo (Moälven), a water-powered sawmill was located, Mo Såg (Mo Sawmill, or to be accurate, Mo Saw). In 1836, this sawmill was bought by Johan Carl Kempe who started the journey toward one of the major forest industries in Sweden and internationally.
In 1864, J.C. Kempe started a new steam-powered sawmill in the village of Domsjö. After he died in 1872, his heirs formed the limited company Mo & Domsjö AB – MoDo, of which Frans Kempe became the managing director.
An ideal society on an isolated island
In 1894, the water-powered sawmill at the River Mo was outdated and replaced by a modern steam-powered mill at a new location. An island that was completely empty as the forest was worthless and nothing could be grown there according to the local farmers. Here, Frans Kempe created his ideal society with a big sawmill in the center. Now named Mo Steam-mill, a part of Mo & Domsjö AB. A planer mill was also built on the island.
You may have guessed the name of the island … Yes, it’s Norrbyskär.
The idea was to create a society for the sawmill workers, so they never had to leave the island until they retired or died. Modern houses were built, just like a school, a grocery shop, a smithy, a carpentry, a bakery, a butcher shop, and eventually a church. A big potato field was established for the workers to share. As the soil on the island was poor, the ships taking lumber from the sawmill all over the World brought soil back to the island as ballast. This made it probably the most international potato field in the World, with species coming up that were never before seen in Sweden.
It took eight years to build the new village with all the necessary services. The standard of living was better in Norrbyskär than the average standard in Sweden. For example, electricity was installed in all houses already in 1907. The accommodation was free of charge for the workers. If a worker passed away, the widow could stay on the island in a special “widow-house”. The company took care of staff and their families.
All this made it attractive to work at Mo Steam-mill, but the terms were hard; Total loyalty to the company was demanded, drinking was not allowed, and it was not allowed to sleep in the kitchen if you were not a bachelor, were some of the regulations to follow. The workers had to fight for a church as Frans Kempe found that detail less important. Kempe also managed to keep the trade union away until 1919.
At the mill’s peak, some 1500 people were living on the island. 95000 cubic meters of lumber was produced annually which made it one of the largest sawmills in Europe at the time.
The Mo sawmill closed in 1952. Apart from short periods after that, no people lived on the island permanently. Most of the houses there are today private summer houses. The sawmill manager’s house is a simple hotel.
Arriving by ferry to Norrbyskär is like coming to a summer resort. The ferry ride is 15 minutes. Most visitors are by foot or bicycle, the ferry only takes one car and it’s quite expensive. On the other hand, the island is small, and you really don’t need a car. You can see it all on foot or on a bike. In the summer, sightseeing is offered by “train”.
You don’t see much of the industry that once was here. But if you pay attention, you will see concrete foundations, like in the photo at the beginning of the article, and some wooden remains that could have been part of the sawmilling business.
On the north-western headland of the island, sawdust was loaded on ships for further transport. But a lot of the sawdust was also dumped here which is noticeable when you walk on the soft ground. Here you will also see some wooden construction in the water that could have something to do with pulling timber out of the water(?).
A lot of shipping took place here. Timber was brought in by towboats and barges, and lumber and sawdust were shipped out. So, a lot of the shorelines were adapted for shipping. One visible sign of that is a breakwater that was built toward the east to dampen the waves coming from the open sea (the Gulf of Bothnia, the northern part of the Baltic Sea).
The museum is in the old steam engine hall of the sawmill. The sawmill itself doesn’t exist anymore except for a miniature model that is a playground for children. Outside the museum, there is a frame saw from Söderhamns, a classic item in the sawmilling history. Inside the museum, there is a model of the whole island as it looked when the sawmill was at full steam.
Norrbyskär and the museum are worth a visit. To stay two days like I did may be overkill but as a day trip, I would say it’s perfect. At the museum, you can get something to eat and drink in the summertime. Then you can walk/bike or take the sightseeing train to look around.
You will find Norrbyskär some 40 kilometers south of Umeå, the hometown of Komatsu Forest and their new factory. So, if you are in the neighborhood make sure to fit a visit to this island into your plans.
The environment on the island
“Nothing is forever”. That’s true. The sawmill is gone and as you can see in the photos in this article nature takes back what we have “borrowed”. That’s one of the nice things about the forest – it comes back.
Unfortunately, the sawmill business left toxic substances in the ground of the island, e.g., dioxins. Therefore, the present landowner, the municipality of Umeå, is for the moment carrying out a clean-up project where they remove vast volumes of contaminated soil. The removed soil forms big ponds here and there. The ponds shall afterward be filled with clean material and nature will come back here.
What became of Mo & Domsjö AB – MoDo?
The sawmill in Norrbyskär was only one of many units within the company. MoDo kept growing into one of the major forestry industries in Sweden and internationally. During the 1920s and 1930s, sawmilling became less profitable, and production of pulp- and paper became increasingly important. MoDo was no exception in this development. Also board production became a big part of the MoDo product range, just like houses, chemicals, and tissue.
Several competing companies were bought and incorporated into MoDo over the years, two of them were Holmens Bruk AB and Iggesunds Bruk AB. Around the turn of the millennium, the name MoDo was changed to Holmen AB, and one part of the company, MoDo Paper AB was sold to Metsä Group.
The brand MoDo is however still around as an ice hockey team in the Swedish hockey league. Their probably most famous player was Peter ”Foppa” Forsberg who gained a reputation in the NHL and the Swedish national team.
(FYI: The wedding went well. The party was great, the newlywed couple seemed happy and without regrets.)