- Historic Sites
An excerpt from a new bicentennial history of his native state
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
The same kind of overdressing is found in the traditional accounts of life in western cow towns, where cowboys apparently spent all of their waking hours drinking whiskey, playing faro, and shooting out the overhead lights; although the cowboy, obviously, spent most of his time on the ranch or on the range and came to town to tie one on only on rare occasions. The same thing was true of the logger. He came in for a spree once a year, and that was it. No matter how freely he squandered his pay it would last just so long, and then he was finished. About the time the loggers completed their annual orgy the rivermen came in, all loaded for bear, but they operated under the same restraints. This was a once-a-year bender, and the wild, shouting, fighting carnival of tradition burned itself out rather quickly. The Catacombs of Bay City, the Sawdust Flats of Muskegon, and the oddly named tangles of saloons and brothels of all the other lumber towns had to subsist most of the year on the trade of regular residents. The average lumber town, to be sure, was well able to support such establishments unaided, and most of them took an inverted pride in the reputation thus gained: this year Such-and-Such was the wickedest town in Michigan, three years later it was some other place, after that it was still another, and so on, but the point is that neither the logger nor the riverman really spent much of his time drinking and roistering about. Actually, after the first years of the lumber boom a great many of the loggers had farms in the cut-over lands, and when they got paid off they headed for home to put in a crop, spending perhaps one evening on the town first. Others took jobs’ in the sawmills, which operated all summer long. A few hung around the saloons and went on the bum until autumn opened new jobs in the woods, but they burned themselves out rapidly and were never characteristic of the great mass of the lumber country’s workers.
What was characteristic was that the were strong men who worked very hard with substantial skills in a calling that was always demanding and often most dangerous. They were ruthlessly exploited, from beginning to end. Pay was moderate, they had to shift for themselves more than half of each year-, and if a man was hurt—as a great many were—he had to look out for his own hospitalization. As the industry grew mature, hospitals in most of the bigger lumber centers organized a hospital insurance plan, by which the logger who bought a ticket could get up to a year’s hospitalization; but it was the logger who had to buy the ticket, and if he did not have one, and was sent to a hospital penniless after some accident, he wound up in the county poorhouse.
Isolated in the deep woods from November to April, the lumbermen had to provide their own amusement. Sunday was the day off, and a good part of the day was spent washing clothing and trying, usually in vain, to rid the bunks of bedbugs. Sunday evening was a time for entertainment; if there was a fiddler in camp he had to perform, anyone who knew a song had to sing it, and poetry was recited on a dealer’s-choice basis. One favorite ballad dealt with the fabulous Silver Jack Driscoll, famous as one of the toughest rough-and-tumble fighters in the woods; famous also as a man who got into so much trouble on his visits to town that he had spent several years in the state’s prison. According to this poem, Silver Jack took offense one day when one Bob, a camp-mate, lounging in the bunk shanty on a Sunday afternoon, announced that he was an atheist and declared the whole Bible story a myth, adding that there was no such place as Hell. Silver Jack challenged him for this, and the two had an epic fight, leading to a great climax:
After Bob had also confessed that there probably was a Hell, Silver Jack let him up. Someone brought out a bottle and the two gladiators had a drink, and it was agreed that the fight had been a great step forward toward righteousness:
One fireside game was a little more rugged. One lumberjack would bend over, the seat of his trousers drawn tight, a semicircle of his friends around him; one of them would give him a hearty spank in the proper place—a blow that would knock out an ox, as likely as not—and the victim would wheel around and point to the man he considered responsible. If he picked the right man, that one took his place for the next round; if he failed, he bent over again, took another, and again tried to identify the spanker. Somehow this game never quite caught on anywhere but in the lumberman’s shanty. It was known, logically, as hot-ass.