- Historic Sites
An excerpt from a new bicentennial history of his native state
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Finally, the band saw came into use—a thin band of flexible steel, notched with teeth along the edge, drawn down from one wheel by the revolution of a lower wheel, kept taut by still other wheels, slicing the pine logs up at a speed beyond even that of the circular saws. The band saw had the added advantage of being thinner than the buzz saw; it cut with a smaller kejf, as men said, which meant that much less of the log was wasted in the form of sawdust. It could square up a really big log the way a buzz saw could hardly do, and it won a place in the battery of every well-equipped mill.
The sawmill, of course, was the end of the line. The operation began in the deep woods, and originally it was gang labor pure and simple. Also, it began as a very smallscale affair. One of the first camps to cut pines on the Cass River had a gang consisting of fifteen men; they built one log shanty where everybody ate and slept, and a little room was walled off at one end for the boss man’s wife, who came along to cook for the crowd. In the early days lumber camps averaged just about that size, and it was not uncommon for a man to recruit a logging crew and take the men to the woods before he had even lined up a stand of timber to cut. Sometimes, venturing into regions where there was nothing resembling a road by which supplies could be hauled into camp, the logger simply loaded men and their food and equipment on a scow and poled the thing up the river.
Early lumber camps were primitive, not to say repellent. One log shanty housed everybody except the oxen, which had a shanty-stable of their own. The men’s shanty had no floor but packed earth, and it had no windows. There was no stove; just an open hearth of stones in the middle of the room, with a hole in the roof above to carry off the smoke. The fire that burned on this hearth cooked what the men ate and provided warmth (and a choking haze of woodsmoke) for the occupants. Bunks were platforms made of poles, with pine boughs, or sometimes hay, for mattress. Food consisted mostly of salt beef, salt pork, beans, bread, and tea, and the one certainty was that the tea was going to be strong; one old-timer remarked that it was powerful enough to raise a blister on a boot. (A very old gag: lumbercamp tea was tested by dropping an axe head into it. If the axe head sank, the tea was no good; if it floated, the tea was acceptable—and if it actually dissolved, the tea was super!) The men used to remark that the oxen were housed better than they were, and this probably was true; at least the oxen had plenty of clean straw to sleep on.
This state of things did not last long. Business expanded rapidly and the operators had to compete for men, and to get them they had to provide better food and housing. Before long a camp had one building for a bunkhouse and another for cooking and eating quarters, with a stable for the animals, a blacksmith shack, and a separate building for supplies. The buildings had proper floors, and stoves with chimneys replaced the old open fireplaces; there still was next to nothing in the way of ventilation in the bunkhouse, although sometimes a barrel open at both ends was let into the roof. Since the men spent more than half of each twenty-four hours in the open, it was felt that they did not really need fresh air at night. The most notable improvement was in the food. Pork and beans hung on, but there were many supplements: pancakes with molasses, big platters of fried or boiled potatoes, beef stew of great staying power, canned tomatoes, pies and doughnuts and cookies without end, fresh bread, and, if not actual butter, at least plenty of margarine, which the loggers unemotionally referred to as axle grease. There was always fried salt pork on the table, and slabs of corned beef, and the cook usually brewed a pork gravy that many of the men used on pancakes in place of molasses. All in all, the diet was robust and ample, and a man could do a day’s work on it.
That was as well, because a day’s work was certainly required of him. Six days a week, all winter and into the spring, the logger went out to work before daylight and stayed out until dark. He was aroused in the morning by the reverberating cry “Daylight in the swamp!” This meant that he must be up, cutting down trees so that daylight could be admitted to the swamp; contradictorily, it also meant that there was already daylight in the swamp and that therefore it was high time to be up and doing. Either way, the logger got up, pulled on his boots and mackinaw, washed his face in a tin basin, ate as much breakfast as he could hold, and headed for the tall timber. There his job was simple, but tough.
The routine was obvious: cut the tree down, remove its useless top and branches, cut the tree into logs—sixteen feet was taken as the proper length, but there was no hardand-fast rule—and get the logs stacked up on the bank of some river down which, come spring, they could be floated to the sawmill. In the early days a tree-length log, anywhere from seventy-five to a hundred feet long once the top had been taken off, would be dragged to the banking ground and cut into logs there. Hauling it there was slow work. Three or four yoke of oxen could pull almost anything, but they did not move fast, and it took a long time to get one end of this king-sized log off the ground on to a sleigh or a wishbone-shaped tree crotch known as the go-devil. Before many years this system was largely abandoned, and the tree was cut into logs where it fell.