Pearson recreates tents used by WWI soldiers in Spruce Production Division

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

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When Bob Cromwell wanted to display a World War I-era tent at Pearson Air Museum, he wanted it to be as authentic as possible.

Since WWI military surplus gear can be hard to come by, he called the company that made 800 tents for troops at Vancouver Barracks a century ago.

Cromwell recalled that telephone conversation with Armbruster Manufacturing Co., which has been making tents since 1875.

“We gave them the specification number” of the style of tent that housed spruce-mill soldiers at Vancouver Barracks, the museum manager said.

The person on the other end of the phone told Cromwell: “We might have that.”

There was a pause in the conversation, Cromwell said. He eventually heard the drawer of a file cabinet slam shut. Armbruster still had the original plans for that tent in its office. The company made a new 1916 eight-man pyramid tent for Pearson Air Museum.

“We probably were the first group to assemble one in 80 years,” said Cromwell, chief of interpretation at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

The tent now is helping Pearson Air Museum reflect a Vancouver chapter in WWI history, the Spruce Production Division that turned Northwest timber into wood for Allied aircraft.

The inquiry from Pearson Air Museum was not unique, said Hellar Armbruster.

“We’ve done a lot of one-off historical tents for museums all over country. We will make them to the exact specifications,” Armbruster said, thanks to an old file cabinet in the company archives.

“It’s a labor of love for me to reproduce that historical item,” said Armbruster, fourth-generation president of the company in Springfield, Ill.

It’s not only an authentic design. They use the same canvas material and ropes, and the same brass grommets from their original supplier, Armbruster said, “and reproduce them just like they were made brand new in 1916.”

In this case, the company could see a historical milestone approaching,

“We were starting to prepare for the centennial of World War I,” he said.

“Bob (Cromwell) was early on,” but there were other customers requesting tents from that era, including a film company. Armbruster reproduced a British version of the Pearson tent for “ANZAC Girls,” a television series about Australian nurses during WWI.

Authenticity is an ongoing challenge for another company that supplied the centerpiece of the Pearson Air Museum collection, a restored De Havilland DH-4B biplane.

Karen Barrow and Mark Smith of Century Aviation in East Wenatchee used pieces from several vintage aircraft and fabricated other pieces from original blueprints.

Occasionally, neither option is available.

While restoring a Boeing-built 1932 aircraft flown by the Navy, they needed some two-ply mahogany plywood. Good luck with that.

“You can’t buy it now. It doesn’t exist,” Barrow said. But a furniture company in Seattle made a special order for them.

The plywood was a sixteenth of an inch thick, and even though it was 20 feet long, Barrow didn’t need a truck to pick it up.

It was so flexible, she said, that “I was able to roll it up, and I carried it home in my Toyota Corolla.”

In setting up the tent display at Pearson, Cromwell also wanted to stay true to century-old lumbering practices. The spruce-mill tents featured wooden floors and side walls.

“We identified the Army specifications for the wooden platform online — the size and the number of pieces,” Cromwell said. “We wanted a true 2-by-4. We got them from a local mill.”

But some problems are beyond the range of a willing supplier. When Barrow and Smith rebuilt a 1914 Curtiss aircraft, the blueprints were pretty vague for a missing component. Available photos didn’t help.

At the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, they found similar aircraft that were produced right before and right after the model they were restoring. The components were identical in the Curtiss planes at each museum, so they fabricated an exact copy for their restoration project. It fit.

“I can’t say a whole lot of people would know the difference,” she said, “but I have to look at myself in the mirror each morning.”