“At the height of the lumbering era, 40,000 lumberjacks are cutting timber in the north woods. Minneapolis is the sawmill capital of the world, cutting enough lumber to fill 65,000 freight cars. But Minnesota is running out of pine; within twenty years the lumber industry will be dead in Minneapolis.” *
This interesting oral history by Jim and Bernard Pearson describes the day-to-day lives of the men logging in Northern Minnesota during this era.
“The Pearsons showed their audience old tools of the logging camps. There was the pickaroon the camp blacksmith made from a worn-out ax which was used to pull logs by hand. There was also a grub hoe for removing brush by hand, a broad as to square up logs for building log structures, a cant hook for turning logs, and a come-a-long for lifting logs by hand.
The cutting of the logs was done in the winter when sleds could be used to pull the logs from the woods to a river to float them downstream to a sawmill in the spring when the water ran fast.
Loggers didn’t rely just on the frozen ground to sled out the logs, according to the Pearsons, but constructed troughs of ice for the runners. The troughs were made by hooking a plow to the side of a sled to make troughs in the snow in which water was poured to form ice. These troughs had to be continuously built up throughout the winter, the Pearsons said.
The Pearsons also talked about the care of horses, which were vital to the logging. Jim told how some of the loggers would carry a ballpeen hammer to tap snow out of horseshoes.
“My uncle especially loved animals, and his horses were very big,” Jim recalled. “If any teamster (driver) mistreated his horses, they went down the road (were fired) so fast they didn’t now what happened.”
(Jim) described the lumberjacks as hard working and very honest individuals, who had always given their best. But Bernard, during the interview last week, also portrayed some of the lumberjacks and logging camp operators as not so honest.
Bernard said, for example, that in the worst camps, the operator would hire someone to gather up workers for the winter season that included dropping a knock-out pill into a man’s drink in a saloon. “The next thing the man would know he was in a logging camp way up north,” said Bernard. “There were rascals on both sides.” “ **
Father, a lot of time and thought has gone into recording the history of the wealthy and powerful “lumber barons”, but it seems not much is known about the men who actually did the work. Will You guide the author into the stream of Your thoughts on the subject? Will You give us a new frame of reference for these Minnesota loggers, and the effect of this massive harvest of trees?
As for the workers, the physicality of their respective jobs inspires awe: cutting huge trees down by saw or axe, squaring logs by hand, loading them on sleds, and moving them to the river. Once at the river, prepped logs were managed on their journey south by the “river pigs”. These were crews of men men who were responsible to float the logs to their proper destination at a plethora of sawmills.
As with many things, logging seems simple in principle, but requires incredible endurance, skill, and risk in practice. Eternal Father, will You honor those who poured their soul into this labor? Will You remember their broken blisters, and aching backs? Will You remember those who took joy in working outside, all day, in the numbing cold?
Will You bless them and their inheritance from this era, to the present, and on to the future?
Another thought, men often feel validated in their masculinity by performing an epic task together. They sail into the unknown, each man privately harboring reservations, but going beyond those self-imposed limitations by the strength that comes when men are part of a team. Lord, thank You for past loggers’ example of this teamwork. Will You strengthen the bonds of men, and forgive us for emasculating our brothers?
In the present, we may sit in judgement of these people for their contribution to exhausting magnificent forests through clear-cutting. “What were they thinking? Didn’t they know they were acting like shock troops executing millions of innocents? Why would you kill mother earth over a job?” However, we have the historical vantage point of witnessing that natural resources can be used up, and that human interaction with the environment may yield unseen and unintended consequences.
As a witness to such present attitudes, the author wishes to address with You our use of the term “exploitation” as it applies to past Minnesota logging. Will You forgive us the casual use of this label? Will You forgive us if we unfairly apply present environmental and economic standards on our forbearers? Will You forgive our common humanity in Minnesota of viewing Your forests, that You graciously allow us rights of temporary stewardship, as “our forests” or “our property”? We do not often think of property rights as a continuum of which we are a temporary subset.
Truly, we all are parties in “exploiting” Your forests! We breathe air daily! We live in houses of wood. We write with pencils of wood on paper of cellulose. We use toilet paper, and simultaneously write graffiti on the walls criticizing the “exploiters” of the environment! We apply standards to others that we do not apply to ourselves! We fail to see the log in our own eye, and browbeat others about the speck of sawdust in theirs!
Furthermore, contemporary history does not often enter the mindset of these predecessors. Perhaps in their age, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people exercised a different logic than ours. They had a much stronger sense of agriculture than those who buy 2×4’s at the lumberyard, or food from a grocery store. If they wanted food, they had to plant it, tend it, and harvest it.
When their corn reached fruition, they harvested it, and took everything. When they saw forests full of mature trees, they brought in the harvest. Is it possible that they trusted that such a generous yield would surely supply their generation?
In the life experience of most of these workmen, most commodities gathered locally were used locally. Is it possible that such workmen did not conceive of the national or international cravings for the White Pine of Minnesota? Were the men working in these logging camps aware that they tree they just felled was to become a floor joist in an English factory? If they were aware, did that make their labor’s reclassify from “sustainable” to “exploitive”? Hear my questions, Lord, and forgive us all our attempted harvests without Sabbaths of Your forests!
** Stottrup, Joel. “Logging White Pine.” Princeton Union-Eagle, May 1993. Web. 20 June 2013. http://www.baldwintownship.govoffice.com/index.asp?