- Historic Sites
An excerpt from a new bicentennial history of his native state
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
In the early days most lumber camps were small and most operators were working on a shoestring basis. Right to the end the little fellow held a place in the industry, but the whole setup was obviously made for the man with ample credit and plenty of capital, and more and more the industry was dominated by substantial capitalists. It was strictly a cyclical operation, with money going out every month of the year and coming in just once, and there were many unpredictable things that could cause loss. From September to November the operator had his gang laying out a tote road—a rough trail leading from town to camp, so that supplies could be brought in—and building the camp itself. Late in November he brought his gang to the camp, and from then until spring took the ice and snow off the land, everybody was at work making logs out of trees. The spring months were spent getting the logs to the mills, and it was at this time that the operator got paid. In the summer months he was likely to be cutting marsh hay and recruiting his teams for the coming year’s work.
Opportunities for going bankrupt were numerous. A mild winter was the worst thing that could happen; without snow and ice the skid road from cutting ground to banking ground simply could not be used, and the camp could not do much; the men might indeed cut down trees and turn them into logs, but logs that had to lie in the woods all spring and summer and fall brought in no money and could easily deteriorate. A dry spring, or a spring following a winter that was cold enough but had little snow, might mean that the river did not have enough water to float the logs away properly. Thus in 1864 only 71 per cent of the logs cut during the winter reached the market; conversely, after the fine winter of 1879, when there was plenty of snow and ice for the lumber-camp crews and plenty of run-off water in the streams, the receipt of logs at the mills rose sharply—on the Menominee by more than 12 per cent, on the Muskegon by 26 per cent.
All of this favored the big operator and handicapped the little one. The big one could usually command enough capital to carry him through a bad year; he would not enjoy life, but at least he would survive. The little man was likely to go entirely out of business. Lumber prices had a way of fluctuating sharply from year to year, and here again the man working on a shoestring was apt to find himself in trouble.
And yet, with all of these ways of stacking the cards in favor of the wealthy, this business did offer an opportunity to the man who was eternally industrious, canny, and now and then a bit lucky. Typically, there is the case of a ?5o-pound immigrant from Luxembourg, Bill Bonifas, who got to the Escanaba area in the early days and hired out doing piecework for a contractor who was cutting cedar ties for a railroad. Bonifas cut and carried out the six-foot cedar logs for starvation pay, but he cut and carried two logs to the other men’s one and at last he saved enough money to buy a cheap horse to haul the stuff down to the dock. (When the horse proved a weakling, Bonifas got into the harness with him and helped him pull.) He saved more money, brought his brothers and sisters over from the old country, and at last set up a camp of his own, with his sisters doing the cooking. In the best Horatio Alger fashion, it all worked out; from cutting cedar ties he branched out into big timber, bought pinelands, sent logs to the mills—and, not to labor the point unduly, became exceedingly wealthy and died a Grade-A lumber baron. It could be done … once in a while.
For with all of the handicaps the lumber industry in Michigan was basically an industry that grew great in a time when it could hardly do anything else. The great years of this industry, roughly from the early i84o’s to about 1910, were years of rising immigration from Europe, and they also were years when the great rich territory from the Alleghenies to the Missouri River was filling up with towns and farms. These people needed houses, barns, town dwellings, stores, warehouses, sheds, and fences, and to build them they had to have immense quantities of cheap lumber. The weight of their demand was shown in one simple fact: the great wholesale center for finished lumber, which had been Albany for generations, was Chicago after 1856. The Saginaw River, facing to the east, was developed at amazing speed, but so was the Lake Michigan trade, which faced west and south, and the Muskegon became the country’s great lumber river. Muskegon and Manistee, Menominee and Escanaba and Manistique, and a vast number of smaller places in between and beyond these, became indescribably busy with a great fleet of schooners carrying boards, laths, shingles, and beams down to the Chicago docks and yards. While all of this was going on the Middle Western railroads were expanding rapidly, needing timber for bridges and trestles and loading docks, sheathing for stations and cars, and incredible numbers of ties. An individual operator could of course fail if his luck ran badly, but the industry as a whole simply could not lose.