For more community-driven stories, visit our archive.

2012-09-07 / Range History


Timber Days (Part 1)

Breaking road at Alger Smith & Co. camp in Cook County, MN. Minnesota Historical Society photo. Breaking road at Alger Smith & Co. camp in Cook County, MN. Minnesota Historical Society photo. Dear Readers,

While researching the early logging days in Minnesota, I happened upon an historical jewel - an ethnographic biography of Paul Buffalo, an Ojibwa leader born in Minnesota on the fork of the Leech and Mississippi Rivers in 1900. Recorded, transcribed, and compiled by Professor Timothy Roufs of the University of Minnesota – Duluth, over a 12-year period, this 3,500-page narrative includes a chapter (Chapter 39) titled “Timber Days,” which I am excerpting here in a multi-part series. For those interested in reading the entire biography, it is published online at the UMD website.

Miigwech to Professor Roufs and Rick Smith of the UMD American Indian Learning Resource Center for permission to reprint these excerpts in Hometown Focus.

Jean Cole
HT F Editor

I have a lot of points to talk about, but lot of them are just sketches. A lot of them are about places that I was. Others are about things that talking to others reminds me about. When I talk to other old timers I know what they're talking about.en I begin to enjoy it, because I was through that life. I went through times like the timber days. I went through the timber days and the logging camps and all that stuff.That was good.

The White frontier came into our area as loggers.The White frontier came as loggers to log off our area.The logging camps were moving in about 1916, '07, '08. In the meantime, when I was at school, they came in full blast. And they came heavy in 1912, and after World War I.They were moving on Mud Lake, west of Mud Lake, on what we call now National Forestry land and on what we call tribal land of Leech Lake. It was our timber they were going after, but we got a certain percentage of that timber money.The Federal Government gave a percentage to the Indians. So we didn't mind.

In those days they had big logging camps that would hold about a hundredfifty men, a hundredfifty lumberjacks. Lumberjacks in Indian is giis-ka-aas-kway. "They're cutters," is giis-ka-aas-kway. giis-ka-aas-kway I-nI-nii, that's a "cutter, a man" -- a lumberjack. See? Lumbercamp in Ojibwa is gii-ska-aa-kwam, "cutting-timber, and that's a camp." Gii-skaaa kwan is a building where the cutters stay. "The camps of all the building" is, giis-kaaas kwan.That's camp.That means "they cut timber in there, there's nothing but timber work, and that's where they stay."e camps had big long bunk houses with double bunks made of lumber, and lumberjacks with whiskers - and tobacco juice running down their whiskers - worked the whole day. Early in the morning all the lumberjacks got an axe and went rushing off for timber.

When I was a little boy I was standing there watching them. I was wishing I was able, some day, to join them. Every time I'd take hold of some cant-hook, or learn how to spin a cant-hook and grab a log, I thought that was slick. How they would handle those tools!

These loggers weren't all Finlanders. There were French, and some of them were Norwegian.They were cutting Norway and white pine on the high land west of Mud Lake.Then came the Finlanders. Finlanders were pretty good at logging, especially with the cedar. Later on, there were Swedes mostly. Swedes came, about war time, about World War I. Swedes are good too.They're wonderful piece-cutters.

All nationalities can learn logging. As I say, anybody can make a practice of it, and can soon learn how to, if they're at all interested when they get in the woods. But the Finlanders have the right act with the timber.They like that.They like timber, really. Finlanders and Indians work together very well.They get along very good.They work together like a team of horses, and they look good in the woods.They have the act.

But I mean to say we were working on a big scale in those days.There were Finlanders and Indians, and Swedes and Norwegians, and a Frenchman here and there.ey were all good.They're steady.They're calm.

First of all they always look for safety in the woods.They look how to protect the labor man, how to manage for safety. You can get killed very easy in the woods, if you don't know the woods. And that's what Finlanders and Indians think about. All woodsmen think about that, I don't mean only certain nationalities - but the Finlanders are really good at it.

The frontier loggers were awful good to us, because some of them just came here to work and they didn't know where they were.The Finns came here to settle down. But many of the others just came here to work. Lots of them didn't know where they were - they were just shipped in here for a job.

On the frontier the Whites and Indians worked together. We got a job from the Whites in the logging camps. In the logging camps they hired Indians and Whites both. It didn't make any difference.There was no discrimination. No. All worked together. All worked happily. In the lumber camp you'd live right amongst them there, if you wanted to. When the Indians got a job, some of them camped with the Whites, and the Whites work with the Indians.They were your neighbor. Of course, we had a few drag-alongs that went in with the Whites, but, still, we overlooked that and the Whites thought the Indians were all right. And they get alongne in the logging camp.

And then when we went to work, when the Indians wanted to work somewhere, they got their job. And it didn't take too long to learn how to do the job. Andfinally the Indians became loggers themselves, by learning from the Whites and using their tools. We got along justfine, and we learned how to use tools, how tofile our tools, how to sharpen tools, from the White man that was well-equipped up here in the North.e Whites showed us how to use the tools. And that's the way we got along in this state of Minnesota.

When the lumberjacks came in, as soon as the loggers came in, they gave us lots to do. We had jobs after they came. When a bunch of us Indians would go look for a job somewhere, the loggers would say, "Sure, go to work."They put us all to work, and that's what we liked. We liked to be in a group, just like the Finns. When six and seven Indian boys were in a group, ah! - that work was playing! We'd think nothing of work when we were in a group.

"Well," the logger said, "as long as you do good work, and as long as you know the woods and work and learn how to work just the way I want you to, I'd have you work anytime." He like the Indian you know. "But the Indian won't stay sometime," he said. "They don't know the value of money and how to save it for the winter. As soon's they get money enough, they draw their money, and away they go.They'll be gone for a few days; then they come back."

I've talked to the loggers and they say that, but, ya, they couldn't turn the Indian down - because the White loggers like the Indians' work. I never was turned down. I think there's very few Indians that were turned down in a logging camp - in my days anyway. They always hired us. We enjoy that.ey fed good in the camps. We led a happy life.

We were willing to work. We made a play of it, and we were willing to do it right.That's what I've seen. I was in the bunch too. Ya, and that was a good day, those days.

And the Indians were happy when they got their money and went to town and bought what they needed for their folks, if they had a family.This was the great life of our days.

We felt that we didn't have to have an education to log with the tools in our hands in those early days, to chop with our strong muscles. Now, everything is in power. You have to know how to run, operate, the machinery. You have to have an education now to keep the machinery a-going. Because education is coming in the loggers now follow the easiest way of life, the press-the-button life. And I think it's much better, much easier, now.

Of course, in the old days, before machinery and power tools, it took a lot of energy to work in the woods. We'd wake up, work out in the woods ten hours a day, and come in. We didn't mind it. And we knew we accomplished a day's work. In a camp we'd play cards. And then in the spring came the log drives. We'd drive the timber down the rivers, down the streams, from lake to lake, and over the rapids.

They always used one another good at the camps. In the camps we were just like brothers, and it didn't make any difference what nationality came in the camp. Some of them stay as high as a month on one job. And when they hit a camp they liked, some of them stay all winter. Some stay as high as all the season, all winter. Then, when the spring break-up comes, some of them draw out their checks.

I was shifted around so much from camp to camp in my early days that I was becoming capable to get around amongst the Whites and also the Indians. I can talk English a little bit. I can talk a little Indian. And I know the history of the area. I remember when I was six or seven years old as I rode the canoe over the seas of the great lakes. I knew a lot of that stuff and sometimes went from one camp to another. I asked friends why they would jump from one camp to another. I never liked to do that, jump one camp from another, quit, and then go. But still, I would always be drawn into that camp jumping. Oh, we had a great life!

Lumberjacks years ago would come out of the camps just high strung to move the so-manythousand feet load of logs. Logs were piled high on the eight-foot bunks - cross-wood bunks - of the big heavy sleds.

They moved timber those days! What I'm talking about were loads! There were no truck loads, there were horse-drawed bunks - good twelve-foot bunks loaded as high as sixteen feet.

They used bunks in those olden logging days. I'm talking about logging days, not these second-crop brush loggers. I'm talking about timber, real timber, the timber they used to have to roll on the bunks and stack up without side stakes. That's another thing. They took those logs and built them up on those bunks like a wall, straight up in the air. They'd throw just those corner binds, corner binding chains, on the bottom log. They'd just put the corner binds on the bottom log, and then they'd fill up the bunk, building it to a peak as high as eight or twelve feet. It peaked about twelve feet high - sometimes sixteen feet.

Four-horse teams pulled the sleds, but it took six horses to start that load. Before they started, the teamsters always worried about coming out. They were worried about getting stuck coming out. The lumberjack's the same as a truck driver - he's afraid he's going to get stuck all the time.

Early in the morning, right after breakfast, the old teamste puts on his coat and gets his team out - a team of four horses - and hitches them to the sled. He'd stand there looking at the sled, and everybody's come out to see him start that load. If he's any good as a teamster he'd be a good truck driver at this time. They'd come out there, all looking at the load, a wonderful load, and they'd ask him, "Are you gonna get that down?"

Sitting there all night the runners of the bunk would freeze down. When all four runners were froze down, they had to be jarred with a heavy maul or post or something to get the load started. And in the morning they'd break them loose from the frost.

They build ice-rut roads those days. They brought a tank in and worked all night on icing the ruts. The teamster would be the first one breaking the frost with the sled.

He'd stand there . . . thinking. . .

"Well," he said, "I don't think I can move the load. You better get the leaders on there. Get the starters." They had to have a starter on that load, you know. But how the hell, ah, how the heck are you going to put a starter on the four horses?

Well, out came the buying boss with a heavy team of horses, and he just eases the extra team up to the load, hooks up to the pole of the four horses, and gives them a start.

Before the teamster starts he reaches in his pocket, with the men talking to him there, and he pulls out a package of Peerless. He takes about pred'near a quarter of a package to chew and shoves it back of his cheek, back of his teeth.

Then he puts that Peerless in his pocket and he reaches over to his other side and gets about a halfa pound of plug tobacco from his hip pocket. He takes out his jackknife, whittles that plug into chips, and he stuffs the chips into the other side of his jaw.


He looked like a gopher standing there talking!

Well, everybody would already think that he's taking quite a chew, but on the top of that he'd pull out that old birch-bark snuff box they used to have, he'd dig his two fingers and a thumb in there, and he'd take a big chew of that snuff and put it in the middle of his mouth between his teeth and lips. He was all tobacco in his mouth, but he'd keep on a-talking and you wouldn't think anything would bother him. That big of a chew was enough to knock anybody out! But it takes quite a lot of tobacco to steady the nerves of that teamster starting a load that big.

He'd pick up the line and he'd say, "Sam, Dick, Don." And the leader team, they obeyed. All the horses were trained, and they all got down to the collar and lifted the load just as pretty as they could, and the load was started. And when the load started the guy that was alongside the leaders would unhook the leaders and the four horses would continue that load on their journey.

Then the teamster would stand on the roller. Instead of riding the top of the logs he'd stand on the roller back of the horses, the roller of the pole which pulls the runner. It gets pretty cold there sometimes, so cold that the teamster would have to stomp his feet on the road to keep warm. He didn't dare to jump off, and he didn't dare to walk because at times it was going down grade and he had to pull the reigns for the leaders. Otherwise if the sled goes down the hill too fast, the leaders would get excited and probably have a crash in through the timber.

So that was the old history of what I've seen of lumberjacks in the old teamster days. I often wondered how they could stand that much tobacco in their mouth. He didn't chew the whole half-apound, but I figured all together it would make a half a pound, with juice and all. And when he spit, he'd hit a dime about eight feet from the road. Boy they were "sharp shooting" that tobacco juice.

Editor’s note: Paul Buffalo’s recounting of the Timber Days will continue next week…


Conceived & Compiled By Jean Cole

Return to top

Comment on this article

Hometown Videos

Special Sections

Click here for digital edition