Before We Went Underground and Wireless…
When I was a youngster, I remember waiting anxiously during the summer and autumn months each year for mail from my beloved grandfather. Granddad managed tree farms for a New Jersey-based company—they grew Blue Spruce and Scotch Pine primarily, for the Christmas Tree business—and he spent long months away from us in Michigan and often in Ontario and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Canada. The letters and postcards he sent about his travels and his work in the forests and on tree farms were fascinating and fun to read.
Edwin Fisher Conger loved trees, too—pines, yes, but especially chestnuts, those tall, majestic perennials from which he would eventually derive many hundreds of thousands of poles that would help carry telephone conversations and electric power to communities throughout the eastern United States.
So, as I looked over the surviving papers regarding the business career of this influential New Jersey native that Conger’s eldest daughter had recently left to the Virginia Historical Society (Mss1C7604a), I discovered an immediate affinity with him. This proved especially true because he turned out not only to be an astute and talented entrepreneur but also someone who appreciated the value and importance of reforestation long before that became a popular environmental cause.
Edwin F. Conger (1887–1974) attended the first real forestry school in America, held on the Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and after graduation in 1910 worked eighteen-hour days for Western Electric Company as a chestnut pole inspector. In the process he learned about preservation treatments to make the poles to which telephone and electric lines were being attached last longer. After broadening his experience in the lumber and wood preservation business, he created his own enterprise, E. F. Conger Creosoting Company, after World War I and built or acquired large treatment and shipping yards in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, most notably at Waynesboro. Over the years he expanded his operations, owning the Piedmont Company in Augusta, Georgia, and for a time, the Norfolk Creosoting Company, which gave him a plant on deep water and the means of expanding his operations into the coastwise trade and broader national markets. His biggest customer was Southern New England Telephone Company, but he had contracts with numerous companies, and his poles played a crucial role in the development of this country’s early electric power and communications infrastructure.
After more than thirty years in the business, Mr. Conger began to divest himself of his many assets and retired to his home in Staunton, Virginia. But he did not give up his great love, spending significant sums to protect and replant forests in the American South and being ever the generous local philanthropist before his death in 1974 at the age of eighty-seven. Few today know the name of E. F. Conger, but his surviving records, now processed through a generous grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), reveal just how visionary and talented this tall, generous man had been. I think my grandfather would have liked him very much.
Lee Shepard is the Vice President for Collections and Sallie and William B. Thalhimer III Senior Archivist at the Virginia Historical Society.