St. Paul is not particularly known as a manufacturing center today. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the city was home to factories that turned out a wide range of products, including cigars, brooms, shirts, furniture and, in at least one case, rugs.
From about 1905 to 1930, a factory located on Front Avenue at Mackubin Street, just east of Lake Como, produced floor coverings that adorned porches and verandas across America.
The plant’s owner, a New York City–based firm initially called the American Grass Twine Co., was formed in the 1890s to supply binding twine for grain harvested by the new mechanical reapers. The twine was constructed of wire grass, a species of sedge that grew abundantly in the bogs of central Minnesota and Wisconsin.
American Grass Twine acquired thousands of acres of that marshland and set up a dozen harvest camps that operated from midsummer well into the fall. St. Paul was chosen as the principal manufacturing site for the twine because it was a railroad hub in close proximity to both the wheat-growing region and the bogs.
The grass was cut and dried in the fields before being bailed and shipped to St. Paul. There it was combed, spun and twisted into rope or twine.
Nearly 900 workers were employed in the Front Avenue plant at the peak of business, more than half of them women, many living within walking distance of the plant.
There was, however, a sharp decline in demand for grass twine starting in 1903, and it dried up completely within a couple of years.
To survive, the company pursued several new business avenues, one of which was the manufacture of wicker furniture using fiber from the Front Avenue plant. And it put renewed emphasis on marketing its grass floor coverings—rugs that were lighter and less expensive than conventional ones.
“Nature’s Carpet of Health—from the fragrant green fields to your home,” was the fanciful imagery of one advertisement.
A Minneapolis furniture and carpet store advertised a sale on Crex carpets with a loom operator on the premises to show how they were made.
“All interested in the development of our Minnesota industries, as well as those looking for a most meritorious floor covering, should attend this demonstration,” the ad suggested.
American Grass Twine was renamed the Crex Carpet Company in 1908, “Crex” being derived from carex stricta, the botanical name for wire grass, which the company sometimes referred to as “prairie grass.”
The company enjoyed nearly 20 profitable years, but once again competitive forces began working to its disadvantage.
The wicker business had gone bust by 1920, and by mid-decade cheap Japanese imports were taking more and more of the Crex carpet market share. The last wire-grass harvest took place in 1931; the St. Paul factory closed in 1934. The company filed for bankruptcy the following year.
Today, the Front Avenue plant site is home to Crossroads Elementary, a St. Paul public school.
While all traces of the company vanished long ago, the name lives on at the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wis. There, 23,000 acres of habitat were once owned by the carpet company, as were 8,000 acres of the Carlos Avery State Wildlife Management Area near Forest Lake.