greatnorthwoods.org - A Logging Camp c. 1900

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Part 1 - Boarding house on the way to the Logging Camp.


I went as far as the train went; to the most remote of the logging camps - that of Jacques Freneau in the very heart of the woods. The camp was in a clearing beside the tracks. It consisted of a group of several buildings and an eighth of a mile of "landing" to which the logs were drawn from the forest, and from which they were rolled on to the platform cars. With the exception of one or two little shanties of boards the camp buildings were of logs made weatherproof by having their cracks chinked with moss. Their rude construction and the lonely winter forest that formed their background made them seem exceedingly primitive and out-of-the-world.

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Freneau's choppers numbered about fifty. They were not making a clean sweep of the forest, but only taking out the spruces and pines, so that they left woodland behind, though a good deal thinned and devastated. To see the wilderness changed to the desert I would have to go up another valley where the "king contractor" of the mountains was at work. He employed seven hundred laborers and had built for them a whole village of houses laid out regularly in streets. The mountains when he finished were shorn of everything but brush, and invited the farther despoiling of fire and storm, so that it seemed doubtful if the forest glory of which the heights had been robbed could ever return.

(Ed Sanders comment: This was about 1900 and look at all the trees now! Trees grow back, just as the grass on your lawn after it's mowed. If you want to see how much the trees grew back, go to the panoramas section of this web site!)

A well-worn road led back from Freneau's camp into the woods, and I followed it until I found the choppers. They were working in genuine forest that looked like the undisturbed handiwork of nature, and the trees grew crowded and stalwart. In the past these trees, when they waxed old, had added their forms to the ancestral mould among the rocks where they had stood. But now blows of axes and the grating of sharp-toothed saws were heard among them; and those tiny creatures -- those destroying mites known as men -- were bringing them down untimely in youth and sturdy prime and dragging them away.

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The men sawed off the larger trees, but used their axes for the lesser ones. They usually chopped two to a tree, from opposite sides, and I noticed they could work equally well right or left handed.

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When a tree is about to fall, the choppers at its base shout to warn such of their companions as are near. At first the tree sways from the upright very gently, and a little snow sifts down from its branches. Then its motion becomes more and more rapid until it crashes to earth. The impact causes a great cloud of powdered snow to burst up like smoke into the air. This slowly drifts away, and by the time it dissipates, the men are working along the prostrate tree trunk, cutting off the branches.

The woodsmen are portioned into crews of four -- two choppers, a driver, and a sled-tender. It is the duty of the last-named to help the driver load, and while the team is making a trip he is busy rolling logs to the road ready for his companion's return. The driver has a single broad sled truck. To this the logs are chained, allowing the rear ends to drag. These ends furrow very smooth and hard tracks, which you have to tread most gingerly or your feet fly from under you with astonishing suddenness. The loads go skimming along the decline at a trot, and in a few minutes are at the landing, where are men who unchain the logs and load them on the cars.

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A good deal of rivalry exists between the different crews, and they are always eager to compare records when these are made up in the evening. They work with especial ardor on Saturdays, for it is quite an honor to come out ahead in the week's total. The boss does all he can to cherish this rivalry, and sometimes offers prizes - perhaps two plugs of tobacco to the crew which accomplishes most in a day, and one plug to each of the three crews which come next.

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The logs were marked and a record of them kept by two scalers. The scalers were the aristocracy of the camp, and had a separate cabin of their own. In it, besides the inevitable box stove and a big wood-box, each man had a board desk roughly nailed together and fastened to the wall, and an equally rude bed. Not much factory-made furniture is imported into the camps. The woodsmen get along with what they can construct themselves. Instead of chairs they use benches, though the scalers had been inventive enough to supply a rocking-chair for their cabin. The main substance of this article was a flour barrel with a portion of the staves sawed off and inserted for a seat. On the bottom were nailed a few short lengths. of boards to form a platform, underneath which were fastened edgewise a couple of boards fashioned into rockers. I tried the chair and found it more comfortable than I would have imagined, though its makers apologized for its lack of upholstering, and for certain nails that were apt to restrain you when you rose.

. The man who was chiefly responsible for this chair was a very ingenious sort of a Yankee. Among other things he had whittled out a birch broom, and each winter he was in the habit of making with his jackknife quite a number of slender toy barrels, about six inches high, which he filled with gum and sold -- some of them to workers in the logging camp who wanted to send away a forest souvenir, some of them to chance visitors. The barrels were very neatly done in white poplar wood, and were marvels of patience.

Camp visitors were usually either pedlers or people from the mountain villages who came on some sort of business. Possibly on a Sunday a priest or a Protestant home missionary might find his way to the camp and hold service, but none had been to Freneau's this winter, and the only manifestation of religion was the regular appearance of salt codfish on Fridays. One of the most recent of the pedlers was a man who took orders for tailor-made suits. His prices ranged from thirteen to twenty-two dollars, and he did very well; but a fellow with watches and jewellery was much more successful. In a single night he sold one hundred and seventy-five dollars' worth. The pedlers received payment in the form of orders on the boss, who deducted ten per cent for his share in the transaction.

Nearly all the men in Freneau's camp were French from Canada. They cleared from fifty to one hundred dollars by their winter's work on wages varying from seventeen to thirty dollars a month, the sum depending on the individual's ability and the work he did.

The men were all young, and they seldom came more than two or three seasons. The probability was they were struggling to pay for some little farm that cost about a hundred and fifty dollars, and when this was accomplished they stayed at home to take care of their property. There was rarely any loitering on the part of these Frenchmen after the labor of the four white months in the forest solitude was done. They started promptly northward with their earnings almost intact; but the Irish and Scotch from Nova Scotia, who made up a considerable fraction of the mountain choppers, were apt to celebrate their release and affluence by a grand spree.

In Freneau's stout log barn were twenty-six horses. He had no oxen. Indeed, the latter are scarcely ever brought into the mountains now. Some of the valley farmers have them and get out lumber from the woodland borders with them; but twenty years ago they were in common use everywhere, both in the forest and out. It was thought then that oxen could do rougher work than horses. The present view is that horses can be put in places where oxen cannot, and their superior intelligence and quickness make them accomplish decidedly more. The only oxen I learned of in the woods were two yoke in a camp a mile below. Their owner was an old-style farmer who was getting timber from his own land. He had a tremendous voice, and on a quiet day could be clearly heard by the men at Freneau's, shouting to his creatures, "Gee off there! Whoa, back! Whoa, hush! Whoa, ho!" etc.

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The power of his tones suggested a man hardly less bucolic than the creatures he was directing. I concluded I would go down to see him. During the winter he had employed several choppers, but these had now gone, and only he, and his wife who did the camp housekeeping in the little log cabin, and their son were left. When I approached the clearing I saw that father and son were engaged in loading a car, and were about to put on a long spruce. This was in a pile three or four rods up an incline from the landing, and they were considering whether it would go where it ought if they simply let it roll. With very little trouble they could have set up stakes to stop it on the lower side of the landing, but they guessed it would go all right, and heaved it loose. Off it went, bumping along, and the men watched it with interest. One end gained on the other, and when it struck the car it only partially lodged on the load, and canted up with the small end down on the track. The men were inclined to blame each other for this outcome, but they soon fell to work again, got their yoke of oxen hitched on to the log, and after considerable trouble succeeded in properly adjusting it. Next they dragged a heavy beech out of the snow on the edge of the woods. It was rather short for the landing, and they were half minded to lay down some skids to make sure it should not go astray. But when they talked this over they guessed it wasn't necessary. "Seems to me it'll do," said the old man; "only be careful; yes, be darn careful!" They edged the log along, and so far as I could judge they were "darn careful," and yet at the last moment down went one end between the car and the landing. Luckily the other end caught up above. Even so it was a bad predicament, and the men hitched on the oxen with the remark that if one yoke couldn't draw the log out would bring their second yoke from the barn and see what both together could do. But a single yoke sufficed, though not without a great deal of exertion on the part of men and beasts, and a melancholy waste of time. There was little pleasure in watching such. awkward work, and I soon retraced my steps to Freneau's, where things were not done by haphazard guesswork.

Evening was now approaching, and I went into the lodging-house. The entrance opened on a low, dark apartment which was called the bar-room, though there was no bar, and no liquors were sold in the camp. Its correspondence to its name lay in its being the men's loafing-place when they were not at work. In one corner was a long sink, with a barrel close by into which excellent water flowed from a spring up the hill. A cracked box-stove stood in the centre of the room, and there was a big grindstone near a window, and several rude benches against the walls. The dining room adjoined. It was nearly filled by four long tables. Separated from it by a slight partition was the office of the camp, serving also as a storeroom and retail shop - a small, narrow room with a box nailed against the wall for a desk, and many shelves piled with gatherings of all kinds. Here were axes, chains, rope, parts of harness, and a supply of old periodicals presented by some religious society. Then there were socks, mittens, overalls, and undershirts for sale, and, in the way of luxuries, plug tobacco, of which the men consumed great quantities.

When it began to grow dark the workers came trooping in to supper, and, that disposed of, adjourned to the bar-room to spend the evening lounging and smoking. They enjoyed the heat and the relaxation, and I suppose did not mind the gloom, only slightly mitigated by a single lamp and stray gleams from the cracks of the stove. At nine we all went upstairs to the loft where we were to sleep. This loft was even more barnlike than the rest of the house. On the floor around the room borders was a row of bunks, and above these was another row, all made of boards and furnished with straw mattresses and coarse blankets.

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The men did not disrobe much, save to take off their jackets and shoes, and soon the dim lamp which had furnished us with light was extinguished and the scattering talk lapsed into silence. Yet there would still be an occasional cough, or some one would rise on his elbow to spit on the floor. These manifestations of wakefulness also ceased presently, and no sound could be heard save the heavy breathing of the sleepers. I did not drop off as readily as the others; for the situation was new to me, and the bed was too densely saturated with stale tobacco fumes that had been accumulating all winter; and, besides, I had the fancy I might be attacked by crawlers. My concern on this score proved needless, and when I finally slept I was awakened only once. That was about midnight. One of the men was singing in his sleep, and he went leisurely and melodiously through a long ballad in French.

Morning was welcome, and I was up with the first risers and went down to the kitchen -- a commodious lean-to immediately beyond the dining room. The work there was done by a little old German and his wife assisted by a boy. Around the walls were shelves and broad counters, and everywhere were boxes and barrels of supplies, piles of tin tableware, pots and pans, and tubs and kettles; and a trap-door in the floor gave access to an excavation in which were stored potatoes. The cooking was done on a great flat stove.

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During the winter the fifty men consumed a barrel of flour each, sixty bushels of beans, two hundred bushels of potatoes, seven hundred pounds of olemargarine, one hundred pounds of tea, and a vast amount of meat and fish. There was almost no variation in the daily fare, except that on Friday salt codfish was substituted for meat. Bread, butter, tea, and molasses appeared on the table at every meal. The tea was not very strong, but it was unlimited in quantity, and it was kept long enough on the stove to acciuire plenty of color. It was served without milk or sugar. Sugar was formerly supplied, but the men were wasteful, put in half a dozen spoonfuls or more and left the bottom of their cups covered with half-dissolved crystals after they had drank the tea. They seemed to have a particular fondness for molasses, and hardly a man failed, three times a day, to pour on his tin plate a generous puddle in which he proceeded to sop his bread.

Beans and brown bread were the breakfast staples, but these as served at Freneau's were not considered first-class, for they were baked in the stove oven. Most camps have a bean-hole -- an excavation three or four feet deep in the ground just outside the log dwelling. A fire is built in it, and when the wood is reduced to a great heap of coals the bean-pot is put in with some tins of brown bread on top. Then the pot is covered with coals, and ashes and earth are heaped on. It is left thus through the night, to be exhumed the following morning, and the woodsmen all agree that bean-hole beans are far superior to the oven product.

At noon Freneau's men had potatoes and boiled meat. The meat was usually beef, but occasionally was fresh pork. For supper the meat and potatoes were served again, this time chopped into lumps and mixed together. Doughnuts appeared on the table morning and noon, and cookies at night. I was told that this fare as compared with what the Canadian French had at home was paradise; but it was a good deal humbler than that in the average of the camps, and stories were related of Yankee camps where they had steaks and ham, cake, bread, and raisin pudding, and two or three kinds of pie.

I wondered that those two old people in Freneau's kitchen could care for their large household. They looked to be about seventy years of age. Both were thin and gray, the man crooked and stooping, the woman wrinkled but upright. They worked hard and made long days.

"I gets up at three o'clock every morning from dot bed," said the man, pointing to a rude couch in a far corner, "and I have on my underclothes and nightcap, and I don't stop not to put on nothings more but my rubber boots, and then I makes to start the fires here and in the next room and in the bar-room, and about in twenty minutes I get them all roar. " Then my wife she get up, and we begin get breakfast. The boy what is suppose to help, we not see him until one-two hour later. He like an old man -- he so careful of hisself. He would be kill to get up like me. We have the breakfast at half-past five, but these las' few week it is not so soon, for the men they get not up when I rings the bell. They work like a tiger when they come at the begin of winter, but now they have got kind o' balky and will not to hurry.

"These French, they are as more like cattle as anything I have seen. All they have not is the horns. They eat like cattle, and sleep like cattle, and they have not care nothings about your house if it is clean or not. They spittin' everywhere -- on the floor everywhere. An American man, he take off the stovecover and spit in, or he go outside. But not so the French. Look, too, the way they eat. At the family table, which is what I call to make high tone of it same like hotel - dot where is set the boss and the teamsters who mos'ly not from Canada, and they eat jus' one-quarter what do the others. They have the same kind, but they take not so much. How much bread you think I makes every day, hey ? It is so much as fifty loaves!

"All the time these French, they feelin' good. The least little thing they will laugh, and so hearty! -- it seem to them so awful funny. They are jus' like colored people, I make it - so easy to please as a child. But they do not play much - only checkers sometimes, and one more game, which you lean over mit your face in your hat and put your hand flat out behind you. The others they all stand round, and some one he slaps your hand, and you jump quick mit your eyes out of your hat, and try if you can see who it was. If you say right, dot one takes your place. They play dot game much and for long time and laugh and think it more funny as anything in the world. Other camps they play card; but Mr. Freneau do not allow card for because they gamble their money and perhaps they fight. Last year some they play in the blacksmith shop of our camp, and the boss he found about it and turn them off.

"On Sundays we do not our breakfast eat until eight, and the men that day lie much in their bunks, and some read papers. But the half, they cannot read at all, they are so ignorant; and so one man he may read aloud to a good many. They mend their clothings on Sunday, and perhaps they wash clean their underwears and hang them to dry, and they might whittle out some axe-helve. It is now coming spring, and we begin have warm Sundays, and the men they go out and run to chase themselves and crow like a rooster and blat like a sheep and all sort of noise, and see which the strongest man at rolling logs.

"You might thinks we be lonesome here, but we have to keep too busy for dot. I have intend, though, not to come into the woods again another time. It is too much cold. This kitchen, it is like one icehouse. There are cracks so many the heat all go out. We had one night thirty-four below zero, and my bread it all froze and had to be thaw before I could get a knife into it. Dot most scare me. We tries to be neat, and we wants to mop the floor often, but when it cold the water freeze right on the boards. Oh, you can't think there is no fun sometimes.

"The taters what we use now have got freeze, too, and most all the days until this week the windows are frost all over so thick we cannot look out, and I have to fight and fight to get the wood dot we burn. I want not to meddle mit anythings not my business, but how we can cook if we have not the wood ? It is the dry wood only we use from trees dot are dead and stand up - and you be surprise the wood in them so dry as one bone. If they fall they get full of wet in no times. It kind of small work chop wood for stoves, and the men not like to spend the time to bother. I wish not to fight, but it is hard not to do dot mit some beoples. You have keep shut your eyes if you don't want to have troubles mit them. That wood makes me much worry and extra works."

The cook while he talked did not pause in his labor save now and then to cast his eyes toward me at the more important points and make sure that I understood. But now he stopped both his remarks and his work to peer out a pane of glass in the low back door. "Did you never see this bird ?" he asked at length.

I went to the window, and there was a woodpecker digging away at a haunch of beef that lay over a barrel outside. Later I inquired of one of the scalers about the wild creatures of the winter woods, and he mentioned seeing bluejays, chickadees, and flocks of snow-buntings. Red squirrels were plentiful around the camp and made away with a good deal of corn from the storehouse. Often he came across fox and rabbit tracks on the snow, and some of the men had seen a deer.

Nearly all the time I was in the logging camp it snowed, though never with much vigor, and there were spells when the storm would cease and the clouds lift, disclosing the mountains rising in serene majesty all around. I could as easily have believed their ghostly heights were dreams as realities, so unexpectedly did they loom forth from the void, and so strangely transformed and unsubstantial did they appear with the snow delicately frosting their tree-clad slopes to the remotest peak. But these wider outlooks were as fleeting as they were enchanting, and soon the veil of failing flakes would droop over the crystal summits, and the world would quickly dwindle to a little patch of snowbound forest close about. This latter view was the most characteristic one as far as my experience is concerned, and it is this vision which remains with me most vividly -- a fragmentary vignette of the great white woods, pure and unsullied beyond expression.

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Part 1 - Boarding house on the way to the Logging Camp.



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If you arrived here stuck in someone else's frames...use this link to break free!
E-Mail: edsanders@edsanders.com
Copyright 1999 by Ed Sanders.