A 1940s American Cork Dream

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In the 1940s, cork was such an important commodity that one man, Charles McManus, led a campaign to reduce America's dependence on foreign cork. David Taylor, a reporter for Chesapeake Bay magazine, talks to Andrea Seabrook about McManus' vision for cork tree farms.


Picture this scenario: America has become dangerously dependent on foreign sources of a particular commodity. Sinister forces abroad seem able to block the supply, threatening national security. What to do? Well, the time is the early 1940s, the sinister forces are Nazis, and the commodity is cork. That's right. Cork. And it was so important, one man, Charles McManus, led a campaign to reduce America's dependence on foreign cork.

This story is in the latest issue of Chesapeake Bay magazine, and David Taylor is the writer. He joins me here in the studio. Welcome.

Mr. DAVID TAYLOR (Writer): Thanks, Andrea.

SEABROOK: So, I take it that before and during World War II cork wasn't just used for stopping wine bottles. It was much more important than that.

Mr. TAYLOR: That's right. As it turns out in the early 20th Century, there was a sort of fascination with industrial processes to make it do more. And it had a unique physical property that made it an ideal insulation for everything from engine gaskets to bomber planes.

SEABROOK: In case people don't know, there's a kind of oak tree that cork comes from. It's the bark of this.

Mr. TAYLOR: That's right. It's native to the Mediterranean so it grows around Spain, Portugal, North Africa. But it's this outer, it's the bark and it can be a couple inches thick. And you can peel it off every ten years. It's almost like shearing the wool off a sheep. It doesn't kill the tree and just peel it in a way you practically stand up the bark by itself in the shape of the tree.

SEABROOK: So, tell me about this guy, Charles McManus, the Johnny Appleseed of cork oaks.

Mr. TAYLOR: Right. And he was exactly the person to do it. He was intent on being an inventor. He didn't get much schooling. In fact, by an accident he was shot in the eye when he was in middle school and really couldn't go back to school, couldn't write much. And so he was fascinated with just experimenting.

And tried out new ways of making cork sealant for bottle caps and took it from there.

SEABROOK: He later bought Crown Cork and Seal, one of the biggest bottle top and cork companies in the country, which was out on the eastern shore of Maryland.

Mr. TAYLOR: That's right.

SEABROOK: You explain in your article that there was a big fire at Crown Cork and Seal that burned up most of the company's reserves of cork.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, actually it was really on the eve of World War II and it was the biggest fire in living memory. You could see it from Annapolis.

SEABROOK: Thirty miles away.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah. So it was a massive fire. It did burn about a year's supply of cork. And so there are rumors of sabotage that this important material, you know, what being, you know, burned up and taken from American supplies that were needed for the defense industry.

SEABROOK: So he got this idea that we need to relieve ourselves from foreign sources of cork.

Mr. TAYLOR: That's right. Self sufficiency, and it was the American way and so he enlisted 4-H Clubs and ladies and garden clubs and governors and urging people to grow their own cork trees. And, of course, it was a great publicity move for Crown Cork and Seal, it brought it into the public eye. But I think he also believed that it was a worthy effort to try to make this happen.

SEABROOK: He picked a certain region of the United States that he thought would grow cork oaks well.

Mr. TAYLOR: From Maryland kind of a crescent south into Louisiana across the southwest to California, he thought that was a good habitat for growing cork trees.

SEABROOK: And I have to say, I'm from Annapolis, Maryland, that's my hometown, and I don't remember ever, ever seeing a cork tree. That was one of the places corks were planted there on the state house lawn. What happened?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, that is a good question. I think apparently it needed more TLC than it got. But McManus died and synthetic substitutes replaced cork in these industries. And so things changed and people forgot about cork and so I think the trees died as a result.

SEABROOK: I love the idea of this vision he had of creating this giant cork forest on the eastern shore, on the east coast. It's a little sad, I don't know, to see it not there.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, he dreamed big. And he liked to go to the racetrack. And his son recalls going with him and getting this advice. McManus would tell him, you know, always bet on the long shot because you may not win much but when you win, you win.

SEABROOK: David Taylor's article is called "The Great Cork Experiment." It appears in this month's Chesapeake Bay magazine. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. TAYLOR: Thanks for having me, Andrea.

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