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Life in Old Wisconsin Lumber Camps

Life in Old Wisconsin Lumber Camps—from the Library of Congress: American Memories. A personal narrative by W. G. Leonard, Carlyle Hotel, Spokane, based on his experience and that of his father the late Frederick Charles Leonard (1853-1932) in the timber business. As told to Glenn H. Lathrop

Log Train

Log Train--Lee, Russell, 1903- photographer. Photgraph 1937

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326]

"Living and working conditions in the woods of Wisconsin steadily improved until by 1895, although hours remained long and top wages had only increased to $50.00 and $60.00 per month, housing and food were vastly better. Mr. Leonard said that the food supplies purchased were of the highest quality and in great variety. In fact it was common practice to order a full mixed carload of choice hindquarters of beef, pork loins, hens, pork sausage and bacon at one time.

The lumberjacks, themselves, for the most part, were either Americans who had followed the timber from Maine to Pennsylvania and thence to Michigan and Wisconsin, or German or Scandinavian immigrants. Mr. Leonard, personally, considered the Swedes hardier than the Norwegians, but they were all strong, rough and ready specimens of manhood. They loved their work and took pride in excelling at each task assigned them. They were intensely loyal to their employers and seldom quit a job before that job was completed. In fact, a man who made a practice of quitting was soon blacklisted by both the lumberjacks and the employers.

As an example of their daring and hardihood, on one occasion two men working on the drive for Mr. Leonard as the result of a wager between themselves rode logs over a 60 foot falls at what is now Cornell, Wisconsin, then Little Falls. One man was killed outright, but the other escaped with only a broken arm and bruises.

Strapping Stand for Horses

Stand for strapping in horses while being shod. Forest County lumber camp. Wisconsin.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326]

Most of the lumberjacks owned good "store-clothes" but, except on rare occasions, wore mackinaw pants, bright shirts, mackinaws and sashes. Wool socks were worn with rubbers in the woods. On the drive a special driving-shoe made by A. A. Cutter at Eau Claire, was most favored. Each spring, after a winter in the woods, about 5,000 of these men descended on Eau Claire for a riot of drinking, fighting, gambling and women. In the matter of only two or three days a winter's pay would be gone. From then until drive time the men would be "staked" by hotel and saloonkeepers' for rooms, drinks, meals and tobacco.

After the drive was completed - usually early summer - another celebration was in order. Many of the men would go to Minnesota and the Dakotas for the harvest after which it would be time for another celebration; thence to the woods for fall and winter logging, and the cycle would be completed.

Latch Door

Latch on the door of the mess hall in a lumber camp in Forest County, Wisconsin. This is a common type of construction in the cut-over regions, especially in lumber camps.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326]

The lumberjacks, for all their hardiness, were rarely able to keep up the old pace of work and dissipation past the age of 50. Mr. Leonard's theory is that working in water did as much damage to their health as dissipation. During the early spring drive while working in ice-cold water they seemed to experience few ill effects, seldom had a cold or sore feet. But, when the water became warm colds, stiffness, and sore feet developed.

Venereal diseases, in many cases, took their toll also. In Eau Claire, 80 cases of syphilis were traced back to one French Canadian lumberjack. Gonorrhea was very common. In fact many of the lumberjacks who would go South for the Louisiana hardwood logging in the winter held a belief that gonorrhea was a good vaccination against yellow and malaria fevers and would deliberately become infected before going South."

From a post in the WCWCW Guestbook

I have had the Good Fortune to be Born in the Gardner Dam Scout Camp on the Wolf River, where my DAD and MOM cooked for the Eagle Scouts for the summer of 1935. We moved to the Roddis logging Camp in the Blue Hills about two miles West of the Glendale Two room (1st through Eighth Grades) School, which I attended. My DAD was Known as "Big John " and he cooked for as many as 100 Lumberjacks, 3 meals a day 7 days a week 11 months per year from 1942 to 1950. I was known as "The Youngest "Jack". The Jacks were my Friends, Tutors,Mentors and Playmates. I ran my trap lines on week-ends and camped out Fri. and Sat. nights. During the summer I would ride the Chow wagon out to the Jacks(Lunch) and sometimes take over a skidding horse or team bringing the logs to a "landing" where they used an "A" Jammer and a team of horses to load the Trucks.

I have some wonderful experiences to share if anyone is interested. I also attended Bruce High School until I "Sprung my Back'" and ended up in Wisconsin General Hospital for a couple of weeks, missing the second, full semester of my Sophomore year. After taking two one week full pack wilderness treks thru the Blue hills, with my Best friend ,Tom Minot I joined the Marines at 17 yrs of age. I Served 7 yrs and then accepted a position as Quality Control Supervisor For Bill( William) Lear in Grand Rapids, MI Those were wonderful years.

Much has been focused upon the (Rowdy side of the Lumberjacks. However, I learned more about life and right and wrong, loyalty and other virtues from my DAD and the Jacks than I did from schools or the "Real World". Ahh, some of the adventures, tears and communes with nature, Wolves and Bears, Coyotes and especially the big Skidding teams,(20 teams with multiple and delightful personalities, the amusing introduction from the "Cross-cut and Swede Saws" to the first, very heavy "Mall Chain Saw ". Many stories to tell and so little time left. I am now 70 yrs old and proceeding to write a book about my great beginnings in the Camps and the wonderfull lessons learned from big John, Big Lawrence(the Barn Boss), Sky-Gazer, Radio Johnson, Pork Chop Charlie, Fig Newton, Bull Cook, Cooky,Cruiser, The clannish differences between the Fins and Swedes and on and on. A unique and wonderful adventure, regardless of -40 to - 52 below weather, sleeping with your clothes on covered with Horse blankets, hitting that cold floor in the morning when it was your turn to build up a fire in the converted 50 gallon drum stove, the run to the outhouse,brief stay and run back to the stove to thaw out, etc., etc, I hope to make one more visit to the Blue Hills, if circumstances allow.

I want to thank you all for your efforts to make the Blue Hills accessable to the adventure-some and preserving it and it's wonderful history. God Bless you and yours, Gary L. Mitchell 616-365-7692/ 3862 Mayfield N.E. Apt #1B Grand Rapids, MI 49525


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