Issue: March 2008
The Great Cork Experiment

In the 1940s Charles McManus, a self made Baltimore industrialist, made the Eastern Shore and Tidewater Virginia a proving ground  for his campaign to put an end to this country's dependence on foreign . . . cork? Yes, cork.

by David Taylor
photography by Michael C. Wootton

It was an unseasonably warm November day in Annapolis, perfect for a careful search of the grounds of the State House. It was a tree I was looking for--a cork oak, to be exact, aka quercus suber. It had been planted here in 1946 by, among others, Maryland Governor Herbert O'Conor. I knew this because I had an illustratedpostcard depicting the event, and, with the help of Joe Altemus, current head of the capitol grounds maintenance department, I was using the photo to figure out exactly where the tree had been planted.

Before Altemus arrived I had prowled around alone, to no avail. There were deodar cedars, magnolias and a few oaks--one of them planted in 1994 in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., another, a "freedom tree," planted in 1978 for POWs and MIAs. But no cork oak. Now, though, with Altemus on the case, using the photo and lining up the columns and walkways just so, we had at last zeroed in on the spot--the east side, near the old cannon and the front steps. And there, right there where it should have been . . . was nothing. No cork oak. No nothing.

Oh, well.

That seems to be the case with nearly all of the thousands of quercus suber planted hereabouts in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It had been a patriotic but also unabashedly self-serving campaign led by Charles McManus, head of the Crown Cork & Seal Company, an immense bottle-cap and container company then headquartered in Baltimore. McManus had patented Nepro, one of the first synthetic versions of cork, but that made him no less passionate about reducing the United States' dependence on foreign sources of natural cork. His vision was to turn the Eastern Shore and Tidewater Virginia--and indeed anywhere else in the U.S. where the climate was right--into a cork-growing region that rivaled those of southern Europe and northern Africa. He devoted much of the last years of his life to this campaign, distributing millions of cork oak acorns and seedlings to all takers and persuading governors in 11 states to endorse the campaign by planting seedlings on their capitol grounds.

And then, not long after the ceremony in Annapolis, McManus suffered a fatal heart attack. Had he lived, he might soon have died of a broken heart anyway, because the great cork experiment didn't last much longer. The campaign continued for a while without him, but cork, once the dominant material for gaskets, seals, stoppers and dozens of other mechanical and industrial uses, would soon become obsolete. The millions of seedlings planted as part of the McManus Cork Oak Project, would be forgotten. And most of them, especially here in Maryland and Virginia, would succumb to the cold winters. But chances are at least a few of them survived. That's what I hoped, anyway, even after finding no survivors in Annapolis. Because there were more southerly places to look for lingering evidence of McManus's dream.

Charles McManus was born in 1881 on Preston Street, near Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station. The son of a carpenter and small-scale building contractor, he studied at parochial schools until, at the age of 11, he was accidentally shot in the face by a classmate. The incident left him partly blind and forced him to leave school. As a teenager, McManus worked in factory jobs and steel mills. Then, when he was working as a barman in a Doylestown, Pa. watering hole, the family story goes, he overheard a man saying, "If somebody could make a cork that doesn't fall apart, he'd make a million dollars." That sounded like a decent business plan to the young bartender. By 1900 McManus was studying chemistry at night and experimenting in his kitchen with ways to make better cork products. Invention was the spirit of the age: people were applying for patents left and right. In one test, McManus blew up his oven. In another, he stopped up his plumbing beyond repair. But the clogged pipe was in fact a triumph. It proved the validity of his new concept--a thin disk of cork inside a tin bottle cap. A gasketed bottle cap, that is. On the strength of that innovation, and with many other cork uses emerging at the turn of the century, McManus launched his first business, New Process Cork.

The cork oak, one of many evergreen or "live" oaks (and not to be confused with the ornamental cork tree of Asia) is native to Mediterranean forests, and has proven adaptable to moderately warm climates everywhere. The tree's unusually light and resilient bark can be peeled off in huge sheets without damaging the tree. The bark's combination of low density and surprising elasticity give it remarkable sealing ability and buoyancy. Both the Greeks and Romans made good use of cork--as a shoe liner and vessel stopper, among other things--but it wasn't until the 16th century that the material found its niche as the ideal stopper for wine bottles, a development that of course turned it into a truly valuable commodity. Because a single tree could be peeled every decade for over a century--as had been shown in the cork plantations of Spain and Portugal--none other than Thomas Jefferson had his eye on cork as a renewable resource with great possibilities. He had become intrigued with cork's utility while he was ambassador to France in the 1780s, and he subsequently spent decades trying to popularize the tree back home. But the fragile seeds couldn't weather the weeks-long Atlantic crossing from Spain or Portugal. By 1875, though, with faster ships, things had changed. Some cork trees had taken root in South Carolina and elsewhere, including Maryland's Eastern Shore. Well into the 20th century, one of the country's oldest cork trees stood in Onancock, Va., rumored to have sprouted from seeds smuggled out of Spain in 1847. It stood on R.L. Poulson's Cokesbury estate.

By the early 1900s cork had become important not just for bottling, but also for industrial applications like insulation and everything from automobile gaskets to woodwind instruments--in short, anywhere an airtight seal was needed. By then there were 62 cork factories in the U.S., employing well over 2,000 workers. And the leader of that industry was Baltimore's Crown Cork & Seal. And that is what brought McManus back to his hometown. He bought shares in Crown Cork and then took over the company in the mid-1920s.

During Prohibition, when the prospects for cork had dimmed somewhat, McManus saw an opportunity: soft drinks. The man called "Mr. Mac" never shied away from a gamble. At the horse track, he'd tell his son, "Never bet the popular one, always bet the long shots. You might not win for years, but when you win you win." So he expanded the business, buying up cork companies in Brooklyn, N.Y., San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as export facilities in Europe and North Africa.

"Soft drinks just went boom," says Charles Jr. The son, who still lives in Towson, Md., recalls going with his father to cork-harvesting operations in Portugal and watching as a platoon of workers expertly sliced cork from a tree, forming a huge ring that could stand by itself in the shape of the now-absent trunk. "It's unbelievable to see," he says of the harvest operation, still practiced from Portugal to Algeria and eastward as far as Sicily. In 1937, Crown Cork posted a record volume of business and a net profit of more than $20 million in 2008 dollars.

On September 16, 1940, a 15-alarm fire burned over nine acres of the Crown Cork stockyards, "sending skyward a vast pillar of smoke that could be seen as far away as Annapolis," one newspaper reported. The blaze, said the Sun, was "the most spectacular and intense fire Baltimore has seen in many years." Four hundred firemen raced to battle the flames. Sparks from the cork bales wafted toward the fuel tanks of a Standard Oil Company facility just 200 yards away. More than 100,000 spectators watched from empty freight gondolas along the railroad tracks on the cork yard's west side, "crowded like bleachers at a ball game," according to the Sun. "The cork bales crumpled and roared in a mass of sparks." The fire consumed over a half million dollars' worth of cork--a year's supply. The ashes had hardly cooled when newspapers reported rumors of sabotage. As World War II loomed, cork had become crucial to national security. The U.S. was using 60 percent of the world's total cork, much of it in defense, where cork was essential insulation in fighter planes and rockets.

Today, McManus' son pooh-poohs the sabotage theory, but he concedes that the fire made the country aware that it depended nearly entirely on foreign sources for its cork. His father, rushing back from an out-of-town trip, issued a statement reassuring the public that the company's remaining cork reserves were adequate and would soon be boosted with more shipments.

The specter of Nazi sabotage persisted, though. In February 1941, another Baltimore fire destroyed four buildings where defense contracts were handled. And in September, the New York Times reported that a fire consumed part of a cargo of 300,000 pounds of cork on a ship docked in the East River. In the Baltimore case, FBI agents arrested a fire-safety employee at Crown Cork & Seal on suspicion of sabotage after wooden plugs were found blocking up several fire extinguishers.

When Germany blockaded ships bringing cork from Europe and North Africa, the threat stirred great anxiety among officials. New federal regulations asked the media not to publish information about cork or other "strategic or critical materials produced, imported or in reserve." Six weeks before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Department of Commerce published a report with a map of the Mediterranean habitat of cork on its cover, and the headline "Cork Goes to War."

Not long before that, McManus, traveling for a bottling convention, had been startled to find several large cork oaks growing in California's Sonoma Valley. While cork oak had never grown prolifically in the eastern United States, the healthy trees in California opened McManus' eyes to possibilities in the West, and with world events confirming an urgent need, he threw himself into planting cork trees from coast to coast. The McManus Cork Oak Project, designed to reduce America's dependence on foreign sources (and of course, help Crown Cork's business), trumpeted self-sufficiency, progress, and entrepreneurship. McManus commissioned a U.S. map showing the climate zones most favorable for growing cork (the Eastern Shore and Tidewater Virginia appeared in a promising green), and targeted those areas. He made a national survey of places where cork oaks already grew in the country, finding some 2,000 trees, most in California but also from Virginia to Florida. He recruited 4-H clubs and Boy Scout troops to plant trees from Maryland to California. He orchestrated Arbor Day plantings, with governors' speeches, radio broadcasts and commemorative postcards. Magazines touted the virtues of cork-growing and millions of young people responded. Crown Cork & Seal distributed over five million acorns during the 1940s, most planted by volunteers: Future Farmers of America chapters, government agencies, university students and others.

For the campaign, McManus commissioned foresters and volunteers to collect acorns from the mature trees in California. A forester named Woodbridge Metcalf made surveys of the West Coast trees and sent samples to the Crown Cork lab for analysis. Metcalf had become interested in cork trees he found in the Sacramento area as early as 1929. With the McManus campaign, he expanded his efforts. "Many of the oldest trees apparently go back to the shipment of acorns brought in to San Francisco by the Patent Office in 1858," Metcalf wrote in a journal called Economic Botany. He found large cork oaks in Santa Barbara, Calif., and the largest in Napa County. These became the seed trees for the campaign.

McManus even paid for a harvest of acorns from Morocco's Atlas Mountains and a plane to fly them straight to Maryland, where they were quickly planted in the state's forestry nursery near College Park, Md., (the Moroccan acorns were specially chosen to resist Maryland winters). He knew this would be a long-term effort--it would take 25 years before a cork seedling yielded any marketable cork. But he saw the project as the foundation of a domestic cork industry. His research team had worked out the nursery techniques needed for growing the seedlings, and figured out the seasons for planting in each zone. By the 1942–1943 season, the campaign had scaled up nationwide distribution of acorns, from 500 pounds two years before to 7,500 pounds. At its peak in the last year of World War II, the project sent out 13,800 pounds of cork acorns. The acorns and seedlings came with planting instructions, notes on potential insect problems, and watering suggestions, all illustrated.

Baltimore County historian John McGrain still remembers as a boy sending away for acorns and receiving a sodden box in the mail, with the acorns packed in damp moss. He nurtured the shrubby cork seedlings to a height of twelve feet. "They had extremely dark leaves," McGrain recalls. "Dark, dark green."

To publicize his campaign, McManus aimed to put cork trees on the capitol grounds of every state where they could grow. For each of those dozen or so states, he offered a tree for ceremonial planting and acorns for youth groups and garden clubs, provided the state government met three conditions: first, the governor had to plant the tree personally during an Arbor Day ceremony; second, the program had to be sponsored by a local women's organization (for example, a garden club); and third, a local radio station had to cover the event.

Maryland's Governor O'Conor took him up on the offer. On April 5, 1946, he marked Arbor Day by planting a cork sapling on the capitol grounds. All told, the governors of 10 more states did the same, and the trees appeared on the lawns of county seats across Georgia and South Carolina.

But this chapter in the history of cork was a short one. In June of 1946, just two months after the Annapolis ceremony, McManus suffered a massive heart attack and died at the age of 64. His sons Charles and Walter took over Crown Cork & Seal and kept his campaign alive, but with the post-war emergence of new materials, cork was soon replaced by more durable synthetics, particularly in industrial and mechanical uses. Many of the young trees died; McGrain says those he had nursed eventually succumbed to Maryland winters. By the time the company was sold in 1960, the quixotic tree-planting project was just a memory.

Several months after my visit to Annapolis, my wife Lisa and I drove to Salisbury, Md., where Crown Cork & Seal had operated a facility for decades, hoping that perhaps there we would find some surviving McManus trees. It was easy enough to find the warehouse of corrugated tin, which Crown Cork left in 2002 and had since become a sports center. A painted yellow crown, the company logo, still brightens the four-story-high fuel tankin front. But there were no cork trees here either.

So we headed farther south into Virginia, to Capeville, near Cape Charles. There, following directions I'd gotten from Tom Saunders, a horticulturist by training and a project manager for a building developer nearby, we at last found a cork oak tree. Just as Saunders had said, it was 15 feet off of Seaside Road, to the east, about half a mile south of town. And it was just as he'd described it: nearly 60 feet tall and a bit wider than that at its crown, with a trunk that was some 13 feet around at chest height. "I noticed this evergreen oak on the side of the road," Saunders had told me of finding the tree a few years ago. "I wasn't even thinking about cork oak." His horticulture training made him curious and he went about identifying the tree. When he felt the bark, he knew.

Now I walked up to the same trunk, touched the irregular bark--and, like Saunders, I immediately knew this was my quarry. It had that unique spongy feel. The tree was long past its prime, with only a few limbs still showing green leaves. Its cork probably hasn't been peeled in over half a century, if ever. And, it turns out, it's far too old to be one of McManus's trees. It was probably planted around 1907.

Nevertheless I lingered there. I walked around the trunk, patted the tree's gnarly skin, then stepped across the road and snapped a picture. It may not have been exactly what I was looking for--a living testament of the great cork oak experiment--but it offered me a small hope. It proved that it was possible for a cork oak to live for a century in Chesapeake country. Some day, somewhere, I might yet stumble across an artifact of Mr. Mac's buoyant dream.

David Taylor lives in Alexandria and is the author ofGinseng, the Divine Root. He is
currently stalking locales described in the WPA guides to Maryland and Virginia for a documentary on the Federal Writers' Project.