Return to HOME PAGE
Illini Tales: ONLY A LOGGER
This is the only family story I have from our grandparents. Well worth passing on, it comes from Mom's (Ronda Mann Hemphill, Univ. of Illinois 1943?) father, Arthur S. Mann, Kankakee, Illinois (b. Kankakee IL 1891 d. Tucson AZ 1958; U of Illinois, Engineering, 1914?). During the depression, as I understand it, Art Mann gave glass slide lantern shows to groups like his Rotary Club about his lumberjack experience in Michigan following WWI. He was in the furniture business (Kroehler's) in Kankakee IL; later, a county industrial engineer in Pima County. I've inherited the beautiful wood handmade boxes with the slides and this script which I've edited very little.. Anyone with information about appropriate historical collections that might be interested in housing these slides kindly email.
This article, illustrated with archive photos from Michigan History's files was finally published in the July/August 2001 issue of Michigan History. Life as a Shanty Boy is the cover article!
MICHIGAN HISTORY Website
THE VANISHING LUMBERJACK
Arthur S. MannThe old-fashioned, red shirt loggers have snapped their gallowses (Colloq. pair of suspenders) for the last time. The logger has his back to the sea in the Northwest. Michigan has her abandoned sawmills, pine stumps and empty snuff boxes. In the old days a logger was isolated in the woods for six months; then he would hit town for one wild week in the bars, or until he was broke.
Now the logger smokes cork tipped cigarettes, wears a white collar, wrist watch and rayon underwear. He jumps into his car at the camp garage and goes to the theater or ball game. The old time lumberjack has vanished with the timber. He will fade into history and take his place along with the Kentucky pioneer, the '49er and the rest who put their lives into the making of America. Civilization, in the form of modern machinery, is chiefly responsible for the change.
I had only been out of the army a short time [following World War I] when someone gave me the idea that a season in the north woods would be good for me. I had no idea of the work done by a lumberjack or I probably never would have asked the employment agent for the job. I had never been in the woods, except to hunt squirrels back in Illinois, and now I was headed for the Taquemenon [sic] River Lumber Company of Canada. Thirteen dollars a month and "cakes". Well, I certainly was familiar with the scale of pay and was hoping that the cakes would be better than those Uncle Sam had been feeding me for the past year.
I met other men at the boat. After listening to their conversation for a while, I learned that they were camp inspectors, or lazy lumberjacks who floated around, working only a short time in each camp. At Company headquarters we were directed to the tote [Colloq. haul] road to Camp 2. We soon caught a jumper sled [a kind of sled which consists of a box placed on runners] hauling supplies for the camp. Sleds are used in the woods the year ‘round instead of wagons because of the rough, wet ground.
I soon discovered that the Bully of the camp was well named. When the new employees were assigned to their work, I was given a "spasm" that I would liked to have seen given to the employment agent. As the Bully looked at me he ordered me to the cook shanty as a chore boy.
My work started at 2:30am by building fires in the various camp buildings, blowing the rising horn, and calling the men to meals. Later in the morning I took the lunch to the woods. Then I cut more wood, carried water, got the mail, and if no one saw me, took a snooze. As I became familiar with the woods life, my job became easier. One thing about lumberjacks-- they all seem to know how to work and make it seem like play.
My first day was a long one and did not end 'til lights out at 9 pm. My rest seemed short as I dragged myself out of bed to start building fires for another day. It always seemed early because darkness still covered everything. The early teamsters harnessed their horses and were off to the skid way where their sleds were already loaded.
I ate with the cook and his assistant, the "cookee", the woods boss, barn boss and blacksmith. What a breakfast: cereal, prunes, eggs and sow belly bacon, pancakes and syrup, coffee and doughnuts. If all the meals were as good as breakfast I knew I would like the woods!
I found that cutting wood for camp stores was an endless job. The stoves were wonderful heaters and I don't think ever had indigestion from too much wood. I also learned that the cook preferred green wood to bake his marvelous cakes, pies, bread, doughnuts and cookies. How that man could bake and cook over that camp range! I don't think that camp cooks are given enough credit for the wonderful food they turn out with the equipment they have.
Every camp had its root house for fresh vegetables. In another closed house, meats, butter and lard were kept. In winter meats were preserved by the cold; in summer they could be kept indefinitely because all flies and other insects were kept out.
I soon discovered that where the best food was found in the woods you would find the best crew of lumberjacks. He who could make good pea soup was a favorite with the men. I have seen the cook make sourdough bread that would weigh 4-5 pounds per loaf. A slice of that bread gave immediate relief to an empty stomach! No wonder the jacks were not allowed to talk at meals; if they did, they were losing valuable time when they might have been putting away wonderful food.
The Great Outdoors and good food seemed to be driving away my Army fever; each day filled me with new experiences that helped me forget the war. With the return of my strength I longed to be turning my old circus flips, but the jack-boots seemed to love earthly contact.
We worked in the woods from sun-up to sun-down. Certain work with equipment and horses was done by the blacksmith and barn boss after sundown. The midnight oil was always burned by Johnnie Inkslinger, the time keeper, who worked on camp books, checking supplies and the log tally. By the light of oil lamps, the Bull of the Woods would talk with the straw bosses about the next day's cut. In the cook shanty would be found the cook and his helpers baking cakes, pies, cookies and bread.
The law was maintained in all camps by the Bull of the Woods or camp boss. Only a newcomer ever had nerve enough to challenge this law; thereafter he would be a lover of peace. If he was still fistically [sic] inclined, the gloves would be brought out; seldom did a man ask for a fight after that.
I do not wish to give the impression that there wasn't camp rivalry. On the contrary, the camp boss saw to it that it was ever present. The Company realized that such spirit produced more timber. Excitement was what every camp of jacks craved. Then jacks would fell trees like super humans and later the teamsters would kill horseflesh to break a record of another camp or year.
All sort of supplies such as tobacco, clothes, candy and hinkey [sic] pills were carried in the camp store. Everything was put on the cuff since men were not paid until they went out in the spring, when all purchases were deducted from their pay.
BUNK HOUSE LIFE
On the deacon's [meaning "to read aloud"] bench in the bunkhouse gentlemen of leisure told stories of the great Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox. Other men would be found stretched on the double decked bunks which lined each wall. The heating stove in the center ate all the wood you could put in it. Above the stove, running the full length of the house, was the community line for sweaty clothes. Poker, rummy, blackjack, or cribbage were played while others would sing or dance until lights out. Then we crawled into the wool and slept until the chore boy roused us with his roll out.
Because the jacks believed cleanliness was next to godliness, they washed their clothes and bodies in lieu of church services on Sundays. Frequently a transient missionary would dispense religion at a nearby school or church, while others would go visiting.
My introduction to a Finn Bath will never be forgotten. It took place in a small 10x10 log house with a hole in the roof for a chimney. Out of this came the smoke from a fire built to heat stones. Later the fire was put out and cold water allowed to run from a barrel over the hot stones. Steam would rise from the stones and soon the men would be sitting along the sides of the shack, sweating as in midsummer. When sweat out the men dashed out and rubbed themselves vigorously with snow. In the bunkhouse they had another rub with a towel, then dressed in their clothes. The real enjoyment was after the bath since the snow rub was taken in temperature which was probably below zero. Very few lumberjacks ever had a cold or any other ailment, because of this healthful outdoor life.
After new camps were located and built, logging would start in earnest. Roads were laid out and sawyers started felling trees to make saw logs. The swampers then swamped or cut out a skid road to drag the logs out to the log decks. Here the logs were decked high with jammers and high leads. As the piles of logs appeared this became known as a skid way. Here the logs were assembled and, after snowfall, loaded on slides for the log dump. Decking logs has always been considered more dangerous than steel erecting, yet from the self abandon of the men you would think it to be play. It seems that these men who flirt with death seldom are hurt because of their constant vigilance.
Lumberjacks originated in Maine and moved west through New York and Pennsylvania. They never really settled down 'til they reached northern Michigan and the closer portions of Canada. This part of the United States probably had more sawmills operating than any other part of our country before or since. Today the 'jacks are making their last stand in the great Northwest with their backs to the Pacific. What a contrast between the old Michigander and the present day domesticated "softie". Now they are paid every week so they can drive to town on Saturday night. Machinery has taken the romance from modern logging; tractors have replaced horses and oxen, the railroad has replaced the tote-road for hauling logs. Electric lights, radios and electric washing machines are common in today's camps.
In 1900 every man in camp was a dyed-in-the-wool jack; in 1920 only half of the men had ever worked in the woods before. No self-respecting lumberjack would permit himself to work with such a pink tea outfit. How well I remember the first railroad logging camp used in northern Michigan. After sending new men in every week the Company decided to find the reason for so many men walking out. Old Tom Gann was sent in to relieve the straw boss but only stayed a week when he returned and announced that they weren't going to make a sissy out of him, living on one of those camps on wheels. Gann had spent the last 40 years of his life as a sawyer in the best camps of Michigan.
CHORE BOY COPS STUNT NIGHT
Every jack looked forward to evenings in the bunkhouse. Then the gang played pinochle; others played tricks with the broomstick, such as crawling around in under or jumping through. Sometimes we picked up the needle or engaged in Indian rasslin'.
[Before Uncle Sam] I had taken part in all sports and entertainment. I realized that I would soon be called upon. My circus training made it easy for me to do tricks of all kinds. I remembered vividly the classic call for volunteers to drive the colonel's car in the army and how well the same men pushed a wheelbarrow. [crossed out: So I bided my time.] Hard work and the great outdoors were rapidly bringing back the old pepper, so with a little practice I could do most of the stunts offered.
The annual camp Stunt Night was announced for the following Saturday night. Everyone was expected to do a stunt or else... Thanks to the tradition of the woods, little was expected of the chore boy, so I had plenty of chances to practice my stunt. Even the cook, my boss, did not suspect that his third assistant was planning on "copping" first place. Winning might bring some notice from the Bull of the Woods and maybe a job for me in the woods!
All day Saturday the camp buzzed with speculation as to the probable winner. Night came and the gang gathered in the bunkhouse for the show and the gang all gathered in the bunkhouse for the show. The barn crew started off with some very clever tricks. Bets were being exchanged and razzing was the order of the evening for those who pulled the usual easy ones. The crowd wanted something new. So far Jim, the high climber, seemed to have things his own way.
Suddenly the cook called for the chore boy. Until now I had watched the proceedings from the edge of a bunk, so I jumped to the floor. A round of laughter broke out as the cook placed a 2 to 1 bet that I would win the prize. The Bull of the Woods took the bet.
I walked to the middle of the floor and jumped up and caught the rafter with both hands. Slowly I raised my legs without bending either legs or arms, until my toes touched my hands. I was not surprised to see several of the men rush forward to be the first to do the trick.
The first two men moved their feet half way and gave up. The third went a little higher before he stopped. Then the call went out for Jim, the high climber. He seemed reluctant after seeing several stronger men fail. The trick required the strong abdominal muscle training that came from doing many back flips and other acrobatics. I felt sure that if Jim could not do it, no one in our camp could.
Jim slowly raised his feet, loudly cheered for his apparent success. To lift the feet the last 12 inches before touching the hands is the most difficult effort. At 12 inches he stopped and dropped to his heavy feet. No one else ventured to try after Jim failed; he was still their favorite, even though I was given first place. To assure the men it was no trick, I repeated the stunt five times in succession. Applause broke out and I was given the blanket toss, usually given for conspicuous service.
The chore boy was now accepted as a regular. The next day I was called in to see the Bull of the Woods. My past was my treasured secret; it was little the Bull found out. A job as assistant scaler with a bunk in the office was given to me at once.
A challenge was immediately dispatched to headquarters that Camp 2 would compete at once with any other camp for stunt honors. To be doubly sure we would win, I taught Jim, the high climber, my trick, while I practiced so that if necessary I could do it ten times in succession. Much to our disappointment we had little competition. Suspicion was soon rife that Camp 2 had the best men, so few bets were made. This inter camp show would up all the activities until the annual log rolling contest which was staged after the river drive.
The walking boss arrived early and went into conference with the woods boss. More trees would have to be felled before the next snow fall so that the cut could be made before the haul began. Every gang attempted to outdo the other in timber cutting. As scaler, I now had an opportunity to learn more of the real logging.
In cutting the large trees, the 'jacks made a bed of brush for them to fall upon. By so doing, they reduced the chance of the tree splitting or breaking due to the fall. This is the origin of the term "to bed a tree". Many times before a tall tree was felled, the high climber would challenge death by climbing 200 feet aloft to saw off the top, and then cling perilously near to the top as it crashed to the ground. The high climber has the only spectacular job that has not been modernized. Nowadays a high climber will tie several sticks of dynamite around the trunk with a fuse hanging down to light when at a safe distance, instead of sawing off the top.
The notcher precedes the head faller and undercuts the tree to direct its fall and also to prevent the butt log from splitting as it falls. Swampers a path from the log deck to the tree. After they swamped off the branches, the tree was cut into saw logs to be dragged out by the teams or high lines. In the old days all logs were decked on the skid way by a jammer. The skid ways were soon lined with many log piles that kept the scalers busy. Every log had to be scaled and marked with a steel hammer.
WINTER ROAD BUILDING AND HAULING
Then it snowed and the thermometer dropped to the bottom of the glass. Have you ever been so cold that your breath burned and your eyelids froze? It was 35 below and the wind was blowing the snow so hard against your face that it cut until your face bled. The snow came fast and continued for 10 days, when it lay 4 feet on the ground.
Cutting was now over and the sleighs were brought out and repaired. Roadwork was started with the snow plow and sprinkler sleigh. Light loads of logs were hauled to break a track and the road monkeys really started to build roads. Since most of the roadwork was done after the snow falls, it was easy to fill in the low spots with snow. Rocks had to be blasted out so that the road could be a level as possible. Water holes were also blasted at intervals along the road to supply the sprinkler sleigh with water to ice the track. After regular hauling started, the snow plow and sprinkler would have to work nights to keep the road in first class condition for the heavy sled loads in the day hauling.
On small hills the sleds were held back by placing pine boughs in the track, but when a sleigh haul went down a steep hill a sand hill was used. For this sand was dried on a piece of boiler plate over a fire and then placed on the sled tracks by the road monkey to hold back heavy loads.
Before sunup the early tote teamsters were out; often they hauled long after sundown too. The hauling season continued uninterrupted every day including Sundays, because an early melt might ruin the road and the logs would then have to be left to rot in the woods. The top loaders were breaking down new skid ways as soon as the sled tenders could supply the top loaders. The snow never seemed to cease falling so the road monkeys had plenty of work and tow teams were often called to give extra pull of a a low spot.
WINTER IN THE WOODS
Having arrived as a buckwheater or green lumber man, I was fast learning that when the drive started, hauling logs must go on in spite of the weather. Fine sand snow, falling at 40 degrees below didn't seem to both anyone except those working in the cut over land, where they were not protected by the trees. Frozen feet or hands were oddities to the lumberjack. The clothes warm of a jack were made of virgin wool so that they would turn water or keep in sweat, which kept the wearer from taking cold.
One thin inner pair and one heavy outer pair of heavy wool socks were worn in leather topped rubber packs that were 12 or 14 inches high. High boots were never worn because they prevented easy working of the leg muscles. Heavy woolen slacks were worn over two piece woolen underwear. The jack liked to wear both belt and gallowses. The bright colored woolen jack shirts were worn under the jumper coat, and in cold weather a Mackinaw was also worn. A woolen helmet or skin cap covered the head while leather mittens with cotton linings kept the hands warm.
CLOSE CALL ON THE ICE
Frozen rivers had always meant skating to me as a kid and yet, once while crossing one I nearly lost my life. I had taken the shortest route across the river, directly above the rapids. The day was cold and the snow was blowing like sand as I pushed out on the ice into the open. The same snow and wind had polished the ice until it was smooth as glass. Without warning as I stepped into the open, I lost my footing and sprawled upon the ice. The wind caught me like a kite so I spread out my arms and legs hoping to create enough friction to keep it from blowing me down the river to the open water of the rapids. Now as I collected my senses I realized that darkness was falling like a huge curtain which would further handicap me.
While walking in the woods I had not noticed the wind which was now slowly but surely blowing me to certain death in the rapids. No man could expect to save himself were he once in the rapids where the water flowed so swiftly that no one remembered its freezing for 30 years. I tried crawling on my stomach but it seemed that I was making no headway. Ice that would have been a paradise for skaters was now to be my undoing. Now as the wind was blowing me over the ice, I saw the visions that come to one who is facing inevitable death. If I could only grab something that would stop me before I reached that cold water! Suddenly I felt the rougher shore ice and crawled faster. Then I struggled to my feet and ran as fast as the ice would permit me to the shore. Never in my life was I so thankful to sit down in the snow and thank the Good Lord for saving me. My prayers while out on that ice surely had been answered.
Snow in the woods seemed to add a special magic to the hills, valleys and lakes. The moon silhouettes the shadows of the trees upon the snow in weird shapes. An indescribable silence, almost deadly, blankets the night. Now we hear a tree creak in its frozen sleep, as thought it were trying to shake the snow from its grotesque shape. The stars are out and shining like diamonds in the sky. Even the deer seem to stalk their stealthy way to the water holes or to the back doors of the cook camp for handouts. The wolves seem to think they are safe as they crouch in the shadows; now and then a gray fox will flash across an open space and disappear as quickly. The long needles of the white pine shield and comfort the partridge from the cold. The heavily packed snow makes food for these and other fowl hard to find, so for that reason they are frequently found along the tote and sleigh roads. Truly all nature seems to be asleep on a winter night.
Moonlight and the Bull of the Woods have nothing in common except a means for inspecting the ice road at night to see whether the night road crews are working the snow plow and sprinkler sleigh.
The softwood logs were hauled and dumped on the ice covered river. Here they awaited the spring thaws when the flood waters carry the logs down the river to the sawmill. Hard wood logs are usually dumped on the banks where they are hauled by the big wheels or flat scows to the hot ponds.
SPRING RIVER DRIVE
Spring drive marked the breaking up of the log camps and the starting of the saw mills River logging is spectacular work, dangerous and exciting. The jacks who worked on the river were known as river rats when they exchanged their axes for peavies [lumberman's cant hook, having a spike fixed in the end of its lever] and "picaroons". There were log jams to break up by finding the king log in the center of the jam and loosening it. When this happened the jam cracker appeared and dropped a stick of dynamite to break the jam and soon everything started again. Dead heads or sunken logs were pulled from the shore with pike poles and floated with the other logs.
To give the rivers plenty of water for the drive in the spring, a dam were built to hold back the waters until the proper time. Then again dynamite was used and the drive was on. As the drive began, the river organization composed of the river boss and boom rats preceded the "wanigan" [wangun, a place for keeping small supplies in a lumber camp], the floating cook house or kitchen. The river man must eat at least two hot meals a day. At noon he "tied on the feed bag" unless he was close to the "wanigan".
Many daring stunts were necessary in the river drive. When shooting a jam, someone must ride it out, Old John McGillvary was riding a jam when a wild log turned end over end and knocked him--peavey from his hand as he disappeared--into the wild rush of logs and water. We all realized that Old John was badly hurt, else he would never have dropped his only weapon, the peavey. At the bend in the river we saw him struggling to ride a log and then jump for a low hanging branch on a tree, though only for an instant, for another log struck him in the back. It surely looked like lights out for Old John. We all went to the rescue but no trace was found of him. Next morning we found him lying upon his face near the water's edge, down the river about a mile from where we saw him disappear. We took him to camp, still unconscious, where we found that we suffered a serious back injury, and arm and a leg break. Old John still lives in the North, spinning his yarns to the younger generation of log rollers.
As logs left the Taquamenon River they were poled into sorting gaps. From the different boons in the gaps they were sent to the soup pond at the saw mill. Here the logs were caught by the bull chain on the jack ladder and hauled up to the mill deck where they were caught by "niggers" and rolled onto the carriage. Like lightening the carriage took the logs back by the big circular saw where the cut was made, while the dogger on the carriage threw a bucket of water on the saw to cool it. The saw made a vicious snarl as it hit a knot while the head sawyer held "her" steady to give it a chance to pick up. Then he signaled the setter to move the saw over for a 2" cut. This work must be done as the carriage makes its lightening return.
Today most mills use single and double cutting bands. In the old days the big circular saws were most common. Then came the circulars with removable teeth, only to be discarded because of the wasteful kerf [strip, piece or quantity cut off]. Several of the old big sawmills used two circulars, one directly over the other, to accommodate the large logs. Still more speedy and faster cutting saws were wanted, so the band saw came into use. These saws required much better mill settings to keep them running true. Many large, soft wood mills used large gang saws that literally ate the cants [slanting surfaces?] and made 20 to 30 boards at once. The terrific hum of the big saws drove the men to sign language.
Indians make very efficient mill hands and they worked quite steadily through the cutting season. I remember that the fireman of No. 1 Mill was a full blooded Chippewa who had been educated at the Indian school in Oklahoma. On returning from school he taught his friends the national game of baseball. He admitted that he could pitch and soon had nine men playing pick-up teams when the cook decided that he would collect a bunch of cripples and beat them. Considerable razzing went on throughout the game which soon had its effect on the Indian pitcher. Indians are very subject to "banter" and are much too serious to play baseball. Soon the cook and his cripples were giving the Indians a terrible trimming. That evening in the bunkhouse the game was played again and the Indians were none too gracious in the acceptance of defeat.
At the sawmill the next morning special "attention" was given the fireman who had pitched for the Indians. At noon, unable to stand the razzing anymore, he heaved his shovel in the fire box and disappeared completely. Thus we discovered one of the weaknesses of the early Americans. I will say however that they are good workers when they are allowed to follow their own dictates and habits of life.
A big moment in the island sawmill life occurred when the lumber hooker, or boat, arrived to take our product to the furniture manufacturer.
What a story some of the antiques could tell in your home some evening it you had but to wave a hand causing them to speak. Romance such as no writer can produce; hardships that present day loggers know nothing of—why should they--since all of their work is done by machine. Their life is so different—paid every week, even a garage for their car so that they can be at the movie in time for the evening show. Married men go home over the weekend. The old 'jacks were single because no wife and her family would want to be without their family from fall till the spring drive. In the old days the only transportation to and from camp was that afforded by snow shoes.
No, we would not care to turn back the hands of time, but we have still in our memories the old legends of the Paul Bunyans of yesterday and have tried to set them down as carefully as they were given. In this brief account I have tried to use the countless expressions that were used so much by the Jacks of old.
The trees did not last forever. Some communities that boasted of more than 100 sawmills are now long since abandoned. So the loggers snapped their gallowses and took another westward jump, just as their fathers and grandfathers and followed the ever moving timber line toward the sunset. Civilization has destroyed the old lumberjack, the ox teams, the ten cent whiskey and the snows of yesterday.
Transcribed/edited by Jeanne Taylor Hemphill, granddaughter, email
Return to HOME PAGE