A Loggers Life in the Maine Woods
The sound of the spoon banging on the tin plate roused the men in the darkness of a cold Maine winter morning. Most of the men jumped out of the common bed they all shared. They also shared a common long blanket and the lice that were present in most logging camps. Everyone quickly dressed and prepared for another day in the woods to fulfill their quota of the timber that was in high demand in the lumber mills. Some men raced to the ice-cold outhouse; others sat at the long hand made table where they ate their meals. The menu was the same as everyday. Beans and pork, biscuits, and tea. They ate this meal three times a day. This camp was lucky. They had a good cook and he would sometimes serve them molasses cookies or cake. He even cooked some venison, partridge, or rabbit when someone was lucky enough to shoot something. This was part of the life of a logger in mid 1800s.
The camp had been built the year before and was the same as all wood camps. Camps were usually 15 to 20 feet long and 15 feet wide. The walls were made of logs that were notched so they would fit together. The log walls were chinked with moss to seal the cracks and keep out the cold. A floor was made of logs that had been roughly hewed flat to make walking easier. The roof was made of long and hand split pieces of cedar, spruce or pine. Sometimes they were covered with fir boughs to keep ice jams from forming and dripping inside. The winter snow made these structures quite cozy. One long bed was constructed down one wall and a long table with a bench seat was constructed along the opposite wall. A dingle was built on each end of the building. Dingles were attachments to main structure. One dingle was for the cook to store the winter's food supplies and another one to store the wood necessary to heat the camp. Animals had their own structure and these were called hovels. Food supplies usually consisted of molasses, flour, pork, and beans. Saleratus and cream of tarter were used in the biscuit and cake making process. Two large stoves situated on each end of the camp kept the camp warm. One stove was also used by the cook for his simple cooking needs. The stoves were a huge improvement over the open fires that were used in the older camps. At that time, a rough chimney went through the roof but the camp remained smoky most of the time as one can imagine. The cook and his cookees (assistants) had their own section at one end of the camp for sleeping and to perform their duties feeding the men. The beans were cooked in the ground outside and the cookees were responsible to keep that fire going. Most cooks demanded complete silence during meal times.
After their breakfast, the men trudged off to the work site in below zero weather arriving about sunup. Walking distance depended on the chance of wood the men were given. As time went on, the wood closest to the streams and camp was cut and the available wood was further into the woods, sometimes miles. A crew consisted of five or six men. There were two "choppers who faced each other and worked on cutting down the same tree. There was a "knotter" who limbed the trees as they were felled. There was a "swamper" who cut down the brush and cleared other obstacles so the crew could work easier. The "teamster" and "yard roller" brought the logs and trees to an area where they were piled to await spring. At the end of winter the logs were transported to the stream and then sent on their journey to the mills. All men helped with the log drive. The men worked until the cookee arrived with lunch. More beans, cold biscuits, and tea. A fire was built to warm up their food and tea. After lunch, work continued until it was time to return to camp. They would arrive back about dark which is four or five o’clock in the Maine winter. After another huge meal of beans, hot biscuits, and tea, the men would relax for a few hours playing cards, telling tales, knitting mittens and socks, or maybe smoking a pipe. Rough chairs were sometimes built at the end of the bunk for this purpose. Sometimes they were referred to as "deacon chairs". Bedtime came early so they would be ready for another day of cutting wood.
This schedule was followed everyday except Sunday. Sunday was a day to rest and to relax. The bed was covered with fresh fir boughs to help cushion their sleep and probably help ward off the smell. Some men knitted or went out hunting or trapping. Others collected spruce gum or carved items. Clothes had to be mended and boots had to be greased to remain waterproof. Life in the camps was pretty monotonous for the men who stayed there. Not all men could stand the life and left. Getting hurt in the woods could prove fatal because the man would have to be carted quite a distance to get medical help. There was an old saying in the woods. There were three work crews. "The ones working, the ones leaving, and the ones coming to take the place of those leaving".
Life changed and conditions got better over the years for the lumberjacks. Food continually improved and more variation was included in the menu. Horses replaced oxen and eventually skidders replaced horses. Chainsaws replaced axes and saws and eventually feller bunchers and "cut to length" processors replaced most of the chainsaw crews. Log drives became a thing of the past when trucks started to haul the timber to market. Now men get into heated and air conditioned machines. They listen to music and watch their GPS as they cut the wood. Darkness is not an obstacle due to the lights on these machines. Working hours have increased as a result of this innovation. The camps are changing and the old logging camps may be a thing of the past soon. A few camps still have cooks who prepare food and this food is very good and diversified. Many loggers live bachelor style and have to cook their own food. Today’s loggers are all carrying on the logging tradition in Maine and other states.
I miss the sound of crews working in the woods. When I was younger, you could step outside in the morning and hear the sound of skidders working somewhere out in the woods. The sound of a large Timber Jack or John Deere skidder carries a long ways in the quiet of an early morning. The camps where the skidder crews used to stay employed eight to twelve crews. One crew normally consisted of one skidder operator and one chopper or chainsaw operator. The skidder operator also carried a chainsaw and would help the chopper get the next twitch ready if necessary. This was hard and dangerous work. As we all learn in life, things change and we have to adapt to the new conditions and ways of doing things. I guess it is for the better. It is certainly safer.
Some of the information gained to write this article was inspired from the writings of David C. Smith (Life in the Woods) and Henry David Thoreau (The Maine Woods). I very seldom paraphrase the writings of authors. I read the information multiple times and then write articles in my own words and style. I give credit when and where credit is due.
Photos courtesy of US Forest Service.