Timber in Forest

Lumbering in the Chippewa Valley

Wisconsin's White Pines

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In 1631, only 11 years after the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, American had its first commercial sawmill in South Berwick, Maine. For the next 200 years, Maine was the center of American lumbering, supplying building materials to the other colonies and Europe and providing timbers and masts for the British, and later American, navy. America was young and growing and moving west, and soon even the great Maine forests could not keep pace with the demand. Lumbermen took their saws west to New York and Pennsylvania, and eventually to the Great Lakes pineries of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. 

When lumberman talked of timber, they meant white pine timber: strong and easy to work, but light enough to bob like a cork down the river, the white pine has long been considered the best, all-purpose, building material. The white pine of the Chippewa Valley was commonly more than 100 feet tall and over 200 years old, and they grew so thick that it was said a squirrel could travel across the valley without ever touching the ground. 

Two men posing with a tree they are halfway through cutting down

Wisconsin contained about 1.30 billion board feet of pine timber. Lumbermen were particularly interested in the Chippewa Valley because of the valuable white pine that was said to grow more densely there than in any other party of the United States. It was also chosen because of the many rivers that fed into the Chippewa, which in turn fed into the Mississippi, provided highways for transporting logs to the mills and lumber to the expanding markets down the river. 

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Life as a Lumberjack

Establishing a camp took much preparation. The land had to be purchased or timber rights had to be acquired. The cruiser would check out the forest to see if the property was worth the money. He looked for the best locations for camps, skid roads and determined how close the rivers and railroads were. The property could often be bought from the government for $1.25 an acre. The timber cruiser surveyed the land with a compass, measured the trees with a Biltmore stick, and then made a map to plan the logging operation. At that point, a workforce was hired, dams for the river log drives were constructed, bunkhouses, cook shanties, and other buildings were erected, and supplies, sleds, tools, and food were purchased and hauled into the camp. 

A logging crew assembled outside a cabin in a logging camo

While Saturday nights were devoted to entertainment, Sundays were dedicated to chores and visitors. There was a lot of activity in the camp on Sundays--families could come to visit, lumber company officials came to oversee the work, itinerant preachers traveled throughout the camps to give sermons, insurance agents came to sell hospitalization tickets, reporters came to write stories, and photographers came to capture like in the camps on film. Sundays were also the only day loggers could bathe or wash their clothes. They accomplished these tasks about every three weeks. Washing clothes took a lot of free time because water had to be hauled and boiled, clothes scrubbed, and bedding refilled to kill lice and fleas. Many people felt bathing too often in the winter led to pneumonia. Sundays were also the one day loggers could get in an extra nap, do some reading, and catch up on mending clothing.

How To Darn A Sock: Tie a small knot at the end of the thread--double the thread to fill the hole faster. Start beyond the hole in the unfrayed fabric, stitching in parallel rows, weaving in and out of the existing fabric proceeding in rows across the hole. Do not pull the thread too taut and use the darning egg to shape the stitches. When finished, change direction going across the stitches you just made, weaving in and out alternately. “A stitch in time saves nine,” by Ben Franklin reminds us that a small hole takes much less time to repair than a large one. 

A darning sock kit with two socks and buttons
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Often the men amused themselves by assembling huge loads of logs that were never meant to be hauled to the river. Called “Sunday Loads,” because the men put them together on their day off, these mammoth piles were mostly a boastful stunt, a way of saying that their camp cut the biggest logs and had the strongest men. 

Keeping the Camp Fed 

A well-fed logging crew was a happy, hard-working crew, and every logging boss knew it was unwise to stint on groceries. The jacks did not demand fancy food, but they did insist that it be plentiful and tasty. The cook was either the most popular man or the most criticized man in the camp. A cook without talent for camp cuisine soon found himself walking back out of the woods without a job. 

A menu listing enough food for a 100 lumberjack camp

“In the old logging camp shanty there were some rules that everybody lived by, even if they had never been passed by state legislature or even by the lumberjacks themselves. When you was eating, no talking was allowed, except to say ‘Pass the meat’ or ‘Shoot the beans’ when them things didn’t come around fast enough. I guess the rule was to keep the food moving fast enough so everybody got all he could eat without yelling for it. No one left the table until everybody was done eating. The men would just sit there and pick their teeth and grunt while the slow eater or the last bottomless pit filled up. If we’d ever had any stylish visitors, they would have thought a logging crew was the most polite people who ever broke bread together. Seeing all the politeness, they might have thought it was the Last Supper.”

-Louie Blanchard (The Lumberjack Frontier.)

A typical food menu for a logging camp day

The Dangers of Logging

Lumberjacks were a healthy lot for the most part----many said that they owed their good health to not taking unnecessary baths. But occasionally they did get sick. There were outbreaks of smallpox before vaccination for that disease became common in the 1880s, and ague or malaria was also common. Far more dangerous than sickness was the danger of the work itself. Men fell under loads of logs, were crushed by widowmakers---dead trees or limbers that came crashing down when another tree was felled---or drowned in the icy rivers during the spring log drives.

Logging companies did not offer medical insurance. If a man was injured on the job, the company might pay for his initial treatment, but extended care was the man’s responsibility. By the late 1800s, many men purchased hospital tickets that entitled them to treatment at the nearest hospital. Disability insurance did not exist for loggers. Agents from insurance companies or hospitals traveled to logging camps, selling tickets that entitled owners to hospitalization but no other benefits. The only problem was that the nearest hospital might be half a day or more away.

The logging camps were dangerous places to live and work. Apart from injuries in the woods, frostbite was an on-going concern. Many loggers suffered the effects of the cold for the rest of their lives. Cuts and other minor wounds were often doctored with balsam pitch or a pinch of chewed tobacco. Cooks did all they could to prevent epidemics such as smallpox or typhoid by maintaining high standards of cleanliness. Men treated themselves with Winslow’s medicines when they had headaches or stomach aches. Although not common, there were reports of wolves attacking lone loggers in the woods. On the river, a man could easily be killed if he fell beneath a pile of logs and could not get free. 

Sawdust City

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“Sawdust City,” was the name that Eau Claire went by in the 1880s when it was said to have more sawmills than any other town in the world. The life of the town revolved around the scream of saws and the hiss of the steam engines that powered them. In the early days, before dams were constructed to maintain a steady flow of water and logs, low water on the Chippewa could have disastrous consequences for the Eau Claire families who depended on work at the mills for their livelihood. Yet when the pine ran out and the mills shut down for good around 1900, Eau Claire found new ways to prosper.  

Before the logs were put in the river to be driven to the mills, each was stamped with the symbol of the company that owned it. When the logs reached the boom where they were sorted, the crew there relied on the marks to direct the logs to the appropriate mill. A log without a stamp was called a “prize” 

Riding the logs downstream in the spring was a dangerous job in the Chippewa Valley. The Chippewa river fell about 900 feet in 267 miles which made the spring drives even more dangerous. The Wisconsin River was the most difficult river to drive--it was crooked with numerous rapids. 

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Examples of logging stamps
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 A board foot is not a wooden shoe but a way that lumbermen use to measure timber. A board foot is a square of wood that is 12 inches long and 12 inches wide and one inch thick. When we say that Wisconsin contained 130 billion board feet of timber, what does that really mean? It means that Wisconsin pine could build 13 million small houses or make a one-foot path that would circle the Earth a thousand times. 

Lumber Barons

Eau Claire grew up around the Sawmills that earned it the title "Sawdust City." The sawmills were often holdings of larger companies that were run by businessmen called Lumber Barons. These men controlled large portions of the lumber industry, from cutting camps to the mills. 

Delos Moon Sr. began working in the lumber industry in 1861, and partnered with Gilbert E. Porter in 1867. By 1873, Porter & Moon merged with the S.T. McKnight & Co. company out of Missouri and becoming the Northwestern Lumber Company. At its peak, the company employed 700 men and output 60 million feet of lumber. The Northwestern Lumber Company operated mills in Porterville and Stanley, Wisconsin. He was succeeded by his children, Sumner G. Moon, Delos Jr. Moon and Chester Moon. 

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The Valley Lumber Company was prominent in Eau Claire during the peak of the lumber industry. One of it’s presidents, however, is much more memorable. William Carson, the namesake of Carson Park, arrived in Eau Claire in 1874. Along with the Valley Lumber Company, Carson had holdings in lumber companies in Iowa. When he died, his children purchased the land where Carson Park is now from the Daniel Shaw Lumber Company and donated it to the city with the intention of it becoming a park. Carson Park is one of the top recreational sites in Eau Claire today.

The Shaw family was one of the best examples of a traditional Lumber Baron family. Founded in 1858 as the Daniel Shaw and Company, the Daniel Shaw Lumber Company was family owned and operated, producing high volumes of lumber from Eau Claire. The Shaw family helped to fund Eau Claire businesses, civic organizations, utility operations and transportation systems, leaving a lasting legacy in the Chippewa Valley. 

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How Mrs. O'Leary's Cow Made Wisconsin Lumber Barons Wealthy--The Great Chicago Fire burned from Sunday, October 8th until Tuesday, October 10th, 1871. Three hundred people died and almost 3.3 square miles of Chicago’s business district was burned. It was one of the worst disasters of the 19th century. The same night, an even deadlier fire annihilated Peshtigo, Wisconsin, north of Green Bay where 1200-2500 people were killed and 1.5 million acres destroyed. There were just two of five major fires that burned on October 8th around the Great Lakes.  Much of the lumber that rebuilt Chicago came from the Wisconsin and Michigan Logging Camps. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was later exonerated when a reporter admitted he blamed the cow without actual evidence.