A Brief History of J. H. Hamlen & Son, Inc.
In 1846 James Hopkinson Hamlen arrived in Portland to make his fortune. And why not — the city was prospering as reflected in its fine brick residences and busy port filled with commercial ships. Young Hamlen strolled down to the waterfront where ships from around the world were being loaded with barrels of goods for transport. What intrigued young Hamlen were those hundreds of barrels, the essential containers of nineteenth-century commerce. In front of him was an opportunity: he would supply those barrels. That vision was the genesis of the James H. Hamlen Cooperage and Lumber Company.
However, before that vision could become a reality, Hamlen had to learn the cooperage business including the distinction between a “cooper,” the craftsman who made barrels, considered the better half of the trade, and the “white cooper” who made pails, bucket, churns, tubs, and other staved vessels. Some barrels were built to hold liquids, usually molasses or rum from the British and French West Indies. Other barrels held dry contents.
Cutting and shaping the staves, treating them to hold liquids, especially distilled spirits, and then securing them with hoops required highly skilled workmen. In 1846 a master cooper would do well to turn out no more than two barrels a day. However, Hamlen’s shop did not ship completed cooperage as it was not profitable. To make it so, Hamlen shipped what were called “shooks,” finished barrels disassembled, the staves and headings packed in small bundles to be assembled at their destination by the purchaser. Reducing the shipping space of a barrel enabled Hamlen to ship 5,000 shooks annually, a considerable number for that time, and substantially increase his profit margin.
By 1855 machinery was available for part of the production of the staves, thereby increasing output. And by the turn of the century, the hand craftsman was superseded by machinery, resulting in a growing demand for more affordable wooden containers. But Hamlen had already begun expanding his company in the latter part of the nineteenth century to meet the worldwide demand for his barrels. He opened stave mills in Nova Scotia, Kentucky, and later Arkansas to process quality timber, particularly white oak. By 1885 the company expanded yet again and began operating its own fleet of shipping vessels.
In 1869 James Clarence Hamlen, J.H’s son, entered the business. After two years of apprenticeship, he became a full partner with his father. The firm’s name then changed to “J. H. Hamlen & Sons, Inc. — Manufacturers of Cooperage and Southern Hardwood Lumber.” In the years that followed, two more generations of Hamlen sons managed the company until James H. Hamlen, II, great grandson of the founder for whom he was named, sold it to the Wyerhauser company in 1988.