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2012-09-14 / Range History

CHAPTER 39: Timber Days (Part 11)

Jean Cole
HT F Editor

Dear Readers,

This week we bring you Part 2 of Peter Buffalo’s Chapter 39: Timber Days. It is excerpted from the ethnographic biography of Peter Buffalo, compiled by Professor Timothy Roufs of the University of Minnesota – Duluth. Peter Buffalo (1900-1977) was an Ojibwe leader from the Leech Lake area of Minnesota, attended boarding school in Tower, MN, and spent several seasons working in various logging camps and lumber mills in northern Minnesota in the early 1900s. Next week will bring Part 3 and the conclusion of Timber Days.


The most fun was going on the spring drives.The cold winter appeared and dissolved, and then the logging drives came in the spring and summer.That helped. In the winter - if they weren’t hauling logs on bunks orflatcars - lumberjacks would land their timber right on the ice. When the ice went away all they had to do was take the logs in to what mill they wanted to take them.

Northern Minnesota lumberjack log rolling in 1905. Minnesota Historical Society photo. Northern Minnesota lumberjack log rolling in 1905. Minnesota Historical Society photo. If they operated on a big scale, with so many thousand feet, so many million feet, these logs were stamped with initials. All the logs were carved. There was a man at the landing with a hatchet just carving .That’s how all of them put stamps on their logs, and you wouldn’t touch a log that had an initial on it. Each company put their own initial on logs by cutting them in with a chisel or hatchet. Those logs were cut by the company that owned the logs, and the company hired a man to carve little initials into each one. All the man had to do was to carve initials on the side of the log to show that it belonged to that company.

In the spring there came a drive, a breakup. In the spring, when the ice was breaking up, we all got ready for a drive.The children, the mother and children, stayed home and took care of the place while the men-folks went on the drives. Some lumberjacks, of course, stayed in camp all winter. As soon as the stream opened up, the logs would be ready to move, and the lumberjacks were all ready to move the logs down the stream. A lot of Indians and White people liked to drive logs.

An alligator boat used by Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Co. in the early 1920s during a spring drive. Minnesota Historical Society photo. An alligator boat used by Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Co. in the early 1920s during a spring drive. Minnesota Historical Society photo. We had big drives in through the rivers. We had drives along the current of the river.e drives were log drives along the rivers.There was timber booming those days.They’d boom the logs across the Winnibigosh with a boat, then they’d bring them into the river, the Mississippi.These logs would jam up there because they’d put a boom downstream until they got all the logs on the tailend ready to move. When they were ready, they opened the boom and moved on down the river.

As the boomflowed down the river, the logs would float down, and the lumberjacks kept the logs a-going.The lumberjacks would walk the river banks and push these logs out. Down the river they’d go.They went along all day long like that. Ya, they’d do that all day long.

When I came home from Tower school my folks were gardening on Leech and Mississippi Forks. When we were gardening in the spring we’d see the logs a-going down the river.en big log drives would come by. In spring the big drives would come through here, past my house. Sometimes the river was jammed up clear down to the forks. You couldn’t get through with a boat, hardly.They’d block it up, oh, for miles.There’d befive-, six-mile jams.The river would plug up there. After it plugged up with logs, you’d see the drivers coming through to move them on.

One thing of pollution in those days was the thousands and thousands of logs that went down the river. On a hot day the pitch would come out of them.The pitch would drip down in the water, ya. The shoreline was polluted with pitch. It was not too heavy to notice, to bother you, but it was heavy enough to pollute the shoreline.There’s turpentine in the pine you know. And that’s where we began to see the crop getting shorter.

These logs, I remember, went to Deer Lake.They would put another boom across the main channel and shoot them into Deer Lake.ere was a big sawmill at Deer River and that’s where they’d tear them up. I remember when right down to the point was nothing but pine sawdust.That was at Deer River Landing.

As I heard, some of them logs went clean through to Grand Rapids. And maybe even further on down the line.Quite a ways down there were different lumber companies buying. But geez, there were a lot of logs went through there.

As they drove the logs down the river along the Mississippi a lot of lumberjacks, a lot of timbermen, would walk on the bank of the river.There was a regular trail along the bank of the river.They all had pike poles which they used to shove the logs away from the shore. And they had a campfloating down the river.This camp was built in a great-big flat-bottom boat they called wah-ni-gan.

Wah-ni-gan, or ah-quah-ni-gan, that’s camp “shelter,” a “shedding from the water.” QIs-Kah- Oh-ga-mIg that’s “camp home,” too - like a logging camp.They always had wah-ni-gans, or cook-rafts, on the drives as they were pushing the timber to the mills.The wah-ni-gan was ahead in the drive. They had a cook in there and each lumberjack had a sleeping place in the camp.They had two cooks in there at times. And they had men cooks in the camps too. You had this sleeping place in the camp, in the wah-ni-gan, and you had plenty to eat at that time: bacon and eggs, baked beans - anything that lumberjacks should eat.


In the old days, the lumberjacks didn’t care for the money the way they do now, because the living was right there before them from natural foods and game. I’ve seen them cut timber, and you couldn’t walk over the timber they laid on the ground. And it was all trimmed up and all ready to go.They kept one or two skidders a-going all the time. But even then, mostly - even with all of that timber a’flying - they really made ‘er by hunting, raising a couple cows and chickens, and growing their potatoes and garden patches. Especially the Finns.

But, on the other side of it, even in the old-time timber days, some Indians could pick up a few dollars here and there by working special deals. Ol’ Charlie Michaud was good on that. Besides what he’d get rolling logs in community celebrations, Ol’ Charlie made a good dollar here and there working his boat and motor.

Log jams were always a problem in them log-driving days. One time they hired Charlie Michaud to clear a log jam up by John S. Smith’s place. Charlie worked in the logging camps when he was about fourteen,fifteen, somewhere along in there. He was very active. He’s about the same age as I am, but older, maybe a little older, than me - I know, he’s three or four years older than me. He has more experience than I have, and knows how to do things. Charlie married my half-sister. Her name was Rose Nason, and they were both the same age -- pred’near. He had a nice woman, a beautiful lady, but she passed away. She was a nice lady.

‘Course I only heard about Charlie Michaud and the log jam by John S. Smith’s. I didn’t watch it. Charlie told me about that later on. But I know the logan where he cleared the logs. My grandfather lived up there. I used to trap a lot, and I went to that logan. I saw the old loganfilled up with logs - cedar, and rafts, and peeled stuff. I thought, “Jesus, how they gonna get those logs out?”

There was an outlet to the logan.The outlet was about, oh, say, six feet wide - where it shoulda been about fourteen to sixteen feet wide.The heavy snow and the ice break-up and the spring streams pushed the water down with lots of dirt.The dirt was caving in from the side of the river and the quick-sand hadfilled up the outlet of this logan.

Well, the big log buyer went up there and saw this. He had orders on the posts and cedar.This was a cedar drive, and he had orders to send out. He had money, lots of money, tied up on this timber, and he didn’t know how to get these logs out. He had hired quite a few around there to help him before. Quite a few would tow logs with their launches. Some of ‘em looked at this logan, but they didn’t free the logs.They didn’t know how. It was too much of a job to dig that outlet open.

He was pretty sharp, this Michaud. He’s still living. He was very smart around the rivers and on a drive.That’s all he did was tow.The 4th of July was coming - it was late in the spring. Usually the drive was done by the 4th.

This buyer said to Charlie, “I got a bunch of timber up the river. I tried to get this guy to get it out with his launch, but he wouldn’t take the contract. I offered him good money.”

“Well,” Charlie said, “what’ll you offer?”

“So much. So much. Could you help with that Charlie?”

“Ah, that’s nothing,” he said, “that could be simple.”

Charlie had a good boat with a single-cylinder Redwing motor.The boat was about 20 -22 feet long. It was wide though. It had lots of power. It was a pretty good size boat. It was a launch, a towing boat.

“So,” Charlie said, “I’ll take the job. I’ll get the timber down. When do you want it?”

“As soon as possible.”

That’s about a 12-, 14-mile drive - a 12-, 14-mile drive, anyhow.

“I’ll go and get that timber out for you.”

“Charlie, how are you going to get that out?”

“I’ll get it out.”

He never told anybody how he was going to do it. He went by himself up there. Gas was cheap those days.They let him have four orve cans of gas. He took it along, and he took his tent up.

When he got up to the job, he knew what he was doing. From the main stream he just turned the boat around to the outlet and anchored the boat. After he had a lunch, he says, after he had a lunch, he started the boat and just kept that motor on idle. The propeller began digging into the quick-sand, sending the loose water and sand through the blockage. It wasn’t hurting the motor because it was idling.

It was stirring up that quick-sand.The current of the propeller had stirred up that sand and that sand was going to the main stream and opening up a channel.

After awhile it was wide enough to bring his launch through the outlet. He got through on one side and he said, “I could run it forward.”Then he’d go back and forth through the channel. As soon as he got to the deep water on the other side, he’d turn around and come forward again.Then he’d come forward and anchor it backwards again.

He turned the motor around and started to dig the channel wider. He sat there and rolled a cigarette once in a while. After awhile the motor and the propeller of the launch had done the work. He opened the channel up wide enough for a raft to go through.Those rafts must have been about, oh, say, about twelve feet wide. He opened the outlet twelve, fourteen feet, and he dug it deep enough.

The water started rushing from back of the rock, under the rafts. Water started going in and coming back through the opening to the mainstream. So Charlie got busy. “Well, I think this is deep enough for thefirst rafts to go through. I’ll just hook on to them.”

He turned his boat around, backed his boat up to the raft, and hooked the rope onto the rafts he wanted to tow. He hooked his rope up and cut off three or four rafts from the bunch. See, they line up the rafts and tie them together. He cut off three rafts.

“If I get these rafts through this,” he said, “then I’ll drag the rest. I’ll force them with the launch tow. By moving the water, some more of this dirt that’s standing up will go.”

He had a powerful launch. He skidded them out. Thefirst raft went through with all of those polelength logs.Thefirst raft went through and started to hit the main current.That main current of the stream gave him more power with his launch, and the second raft came out of there like nothing. And there was nothing to the third one. By doing that he opened up the stream and all that water rushed in.The water leveled off in that backstream, in that back-shot to the mainstream.e water level was there, so he hooked on to more ras -ve or six more.

He let thefirst three rafts go down the stream by themselves - which was easily done as they go by the current. He kept working on these others. He got some more out and sent them off down the river, down the stream. After he left the rafts out of the lagoon there, they had about twelve or fourteen miles to go, and he didn’t worry about them until he caught up with them. He turned them loose and caught up with them later on.ey followed like a cross-chain on a sled - they followed the “rut.”

But he got so many out he thought some of these rafts might plug up down the stream or get hung up. But they didn’t, they followed the mainstream all the way.

It was getting late so he went downstream and anchored a few.Then he re-lined them again. He took, oh, say, six, seven, eight, and chained them together.That is, he wired them together, so that they were behind one another. He wired them as a cross chain, with what they called that “booming wire.” If you cross chain it, the rafts will beflexible to make the bend. You just have to be sure that you don’t tie them too short.

After he got all the rafts into the river, he had to come into the Ball Club River off of the mainstream of the Mississippi and Leech Rivers.

“How you gonna do that? How are you gonna swing in on the Y?”

Again he shortened the rafts up to six - up to the river width.

He drove a big anchor post in the meadow bottom. OK. He drove that anchor post in on the bank of the river. And there he wrapped the bailing-wire around that. He took therst raft and tied it to that post.Thefirst raft had to meet that “Y” on the upstream again, where it was coming into the Ball Club River, off the main river.

He anchored thefirst one.The second one followed and at that time he jumped on the ras. And as fast as they came he just drove the pike pole in them and hooked them together.They all followed in line, and they were out of the way for the other boats.


It took a long time for his boat to pull the first raft in, and all the while the second one was pushing. All of those rafts formed a line down the stream, and he was pulling them up the stream to get into Ball Club River.That’s where he was taking them to. And he took them into Ball Club Lake, and right there in the yard he pulled them out and loaded them - years ago.They had a mill there at Ball Club Lake and after he got them to the mill they pulled them up on the booms.

It took two or three weeks for Charlie to get those down there, but by the 4th of July he was done. He was a smart boy. Oh! He was a very smart Indian, Ol’ Charlie. He was a river man. He got that timber down. He got his money too. Boy, that was a smart guy, eh?

Ol’ Charlie!

He’d tell that story and then he’d laugh about it. He’d say, “That was nathing.That was easy money. It’s just what you know that counts.That’s what you get paid for - for what you know. I tried it and I think it worked pretty good. I wasfiguring that the water would help me.The current of the water has done a lot of pushing for me. With me towing and the current pressure on these hanging back, I made it. When I started to move them, they all moved.”

Boy, he’s interesting!

He had the best suit after he got paid oft. When he got paid off he had the best suit, the best clothes. He always dresses good anyhow.

Conceived & Compiled By Jean Cole

Next week: Part 3 and the conclusion of Timber
Days by Paul Buffalo.

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