Life in Zorra
Chapter XI. Logging
Bees and Dancing Sprees
"If you want knowledge,
you must toil for it; if food, you must toil for it; and if pleasure,
you must toil for it. Toil is the law. Pleasure comes through toil, and
not by self-indulgence and indolence. When one gets to love work, his
life is a happy one."—RUSKIN.
THERE may be no logical
connection between logging bees and dancing sprees, but they were intimately
associated in the experience of the Highland pioneers of Zorra. And their
union illustrates the truth of Ruskin's statement, that "toil is a condition
of enjoyment." It also shows that the pioneers were not a set of dullards,
whose life consisted only in a weary round of hard, irksome duties. They
were a hardy people, full of energy and vivacity. If they endured much, they
There were three ways by
which the first settlers cleared the land. The first was called "slashing."
The farmer slashed the trees down in winnows, and let them thus lie on the
ground for three or four yeal's. Then in dry weather he would set fire to
the winnows, and soon the whole slashing of ten or twelve acres would be a
great mass of smoke and flame. The brush and smaller timber would be burnt
up; but the great logs, the beeches, elms, oaks, and maples, would still
remain. It was necessary, therefore, to cut them up, so that they could be
piled into heaps to be burnt. This was done not altogether with the axe, but
largely by means of what were called "niggers," which consisted of fire
placed on top of the logs at intervals of twenty or thirty feet, and by
means of small dry timber laid across, kept burning until the big log was
burnt through, and thus divided into several short sections, such as the
oxen could haul.
It was a Zorra man who wrote
a letter to his friends in Sutherlandshire, Scotland, declaring that he had
a hundred "niggers" working for him. He mentioned that there were very dark
people in America called "niggers." He then went on to give a minute
description of his farm—so many acres cleared, such good crops from year to
year, and how well off he was now, compared with what he was in Scotland.
"Even to-day," said he, "I have no less than one hundred niggers working for
me to clear my farm." Of course, he meant the fire used on the tree for
cutting it instead of the axe; but he kept the explanation to himself. It is
said the whole parish in Scotland was agog with excitement over the Zorra
man's wonderful wealth in controlling the services of no less than one
In the same spirit another
pioneer informed his friends in Scotland that in Zorra men received five
shillings ($1.25) for rocking a cradle. The "cradle" meant was that used in
the harvest field, though a different one was suggested to the man in
Another way to clear the bush
was by "girdling." This consisted in hacking the tree all around, so that in
the course of six or seven years it would decay and fall. This method of
clearing was, however, found very dangerous for the cattle, and whenever the
wind would blow limbs would be falling, and many a farmer had his ox or cow
killed. It was wonderful, however, the instinct of danger which the animals
acquired, so that as soon as they perceived the wind rising, they would rush
terrified from the girdling. Another objection to this method of clearing
was that, while the big trees were decaying, the underbrush would grow up to
be small trees difficult to destroy. A man could girdle two acres a day.
The third way was the most
laborious, but considered by far the quickest and best. It was to cut down
the trees and make them into logs from fourteen to eighteen feet long, then
pile the brush, and cut the underbrush. A good chopper would thus cut down
an acre in about seven days.
When these people came to
Zorra they knew nothing about chopping, most of them having never seen a
chopping-axe, or its handle; everything had to be learned, All the more
credit to them for their brave and successful fight with the forest.
These pioneers carried their
religion into all the affairs of life. I have heard one of them state that
before tackling a giant of the forest, he invariably knelt down and prayed
for strength and protection. He evidently feared only the large trees, and
was willing to take chances on the small ones, though, as a matter of fact,
the small ones were the most dangerous. Notwithstanding all precautions,
however, many a broken leg, cut foot, and crushed arm testified to the
dangers incurred by our uninitiated forefathers in hewing out for themselves
homes in the forest.
The first thing done on
coming to the township was to choose a spot for a house. The spot selected
was usually the highest hill or elevation that could be found on the farm.
The next thing was to cut down all the trees that in falling might reach the
building. Some instances, however, occurred in which through miscalculation,
some tall tree was left, which in a storm fell upon the shanty, seldom,
however, doing more damage than frightening the inmates, for the big logs of
the shanty were strong enough to hold up the heaviest weight.
The immigrants usually
arrived in August, and, having built the shanty, the next few weeks were
given to underbrushing. Then all winter the forest resounded with the
woodman's axe. In early spring there was the sugar-making. Not infrequently
would the sugar-makers remain in the woods most of the night boiling down
It is related of a pioneer
that one night he continued boiling down till two o'clock in the morning. He
then started for home; but, leaving the bright blaze of the fire, and
entering the dark woods, he got bewildered and lost his way. He travelled
about for an hour, and then made up his mind that he had better remain where
he was until daylight. With the first streak of dawn he descried in the
distance a small shanty. He hastened towards it, and knocked loudly at the
door. A small boy, deshabille, opened. Mr. W. inquired if anyone here knew
where Mr. W.'s house was, The little fellow quickly ran back to another
room, excitedly crying, "Mither, mither, faither has come hame, but he has
gone daft." In his bewildered state Mr. W. failed to recognize his own
house, or his boy.
The time for logging has
come, and there is to be a great "bee" on the farm. Farmer Murray has six
acres to log of heavy timber, and he will need six yoke of oxen and thirty
men. So he goes round the district and invites all to his "bee." Those who
have oxen are to bring them. Their wives and daughters are also invited to
come and help prepare the dinner and supper, and also to make a quilt. Young
farmer A. is told to bring along his bagpipes, and B. is to bring his
fiddle. C. is to come to make handspikes, and D. is appointed butler.
In many cases, however, the
handspikes were prepared previously to the day of the "bee." They were made
mostly of ironwood, and were the shape of the well-known iron crowbar of
to-day. Many kept them from year to year, until they got smooth from
constant use, and light by seasoning.
Well, the day for the "bee"
has come, and a beautiful, sunshiny day it is. By six o'clock in the morning
the men and oxen are ready for work. The first thing done is to divide the
field to be logged into strips of equal width, and running from one end to
the other. Then a yoke of oxen, attended by five men, is put in charge of
each strip. After each man has taken his "horn," or glass of whiskey, the
work of the day begins in real earnest.
I was at that "bee," a very
young boy, but the scene is vividly before me just now. Each driver has a
long blue beech switch, specially prepared by twisting one end until it was
quite limber, which he flourishes around the heads of the oxen. The men wear
moleskin pants, and a belt around the waist. The shirt sleeves are rolled
all the way up. The butler, or boss of the work, gives all necessary
directions. The strength of the oxen is astonishing, and so is their
instinct for the work. The stumps are so thick that it is hard to get room
to build a heap. The chain is attached with a roll, so that the log, when
moved, will turn partly over. This prevents the snags, which, of course,
have not been cut away from the under part of the log, catching the ground
and increasing the resistance. Then the log is pulled among the stumps to
where the heap is to be built, and after the first log or two is placed, the
oxen seem to know instinctively just where to go each time.
Here is a big oak tree, three
feet through, and fifty-six feet long, hard to burn, stumps thick all around
it. Farmer George is foreman for this gang. He has worked in France at a
sawmill, and knows, or is supposed to know, how to handle logs. He claims
also to be able to speak French, and he is not slow in parading his
knowledge among the Zorra men. On he goes to build this heap. He says:
"We'll give that cherry log a roll, swing her around beside this oak, and
we'll draw them basswood and maple ones and put them in the bottom, and
we'll put that rock-elm fellow on top."
Here are some of the cries
constantly heard that day, as the log-heaps were being built: "Hip!" "Roll
up!" "Up she goes!" "Skade!" "Hold that catch now!" "Now boys, push!" "Can
you hold on?" "I'll try. No, I can't!" "Come here, driver, quick!" Driver
runs, and, putting his breast against the log, pushes with all his might.
"Yes, we can hold it." "You catch under !" "Now, get ready! He-ho-he!" The
strength of five stalwart Highlanders is tested. Up goes the log, but the
men are out of breath. Each removes the old straw hat from his head, and the
red handkerchief is taken out to wipe the great beads of perspiration from
The heap is completed.
Foreman George puts in his French : "Bien! eh, bien, messieurs! That heap of
logs would be worth thirty pounds in France." The butler now goes his round
with the black bottle and glass. Thus the work goes on, until the call to
dinner is heard. There are no horns to blow in these days, the distance from
the house not being sufficient to make them necessary.
"We boys" were set to watch
the oxen while feeding on the edge of the woods with the yoke on. There was
no hay, but that did not matter much; the tall, rich grass afforded ample
pasturage. I cannot report fidelity to duty on this occasion. We spent a
considerable part of the dinner hour in trying to get the oxen to fight; but
hard-working oxen, like hardworking men, are not disposed to fight, and no
serious results followed.
After dinner, the work went
on as before. There was whiskey galore, and as evening approached the butler
was in greater demand, and the evil effects of the black bottle were
becoming more manifest. The race was keen as to who should first reach the
end of their strip.
Thus was Zorra cleared of its
forests. Sometimes, with a blazing sun in the heavens, and log-heaps burning
on every side, the heat was simply terrible and the smoke suffocating. What
with the smoke-drawn tears running down the cheeks in streams, and the dust
and ashes adhering, the men were scarcely recognizable.
The story is told of an
Irishman who came to Zorra at this time. Shortly after arriving he one day
lost himself in the woods. Hearing the shouting and noise of men who were
logging, he turned his footsteps in that direction. The day was very hot,
and the men very black. The Irishman soon found himself in the midst of a
scene such as he had never before witnessed.
"Well, Pat, do you know where
"Faith!" was the reply, "joodging
from the hate of the climate, and the coolur of the people, it must be
As I write the story of the
difficulties encountered and overcome by these brave toilers of the forest,
my heart thrills with admiration. How hard they wrought! How patiently they
endured! How cheerfully they persevered! It matters little to me how humble
their work was, the spirit in which they did it is everything. Their
invincible courage, industry, determination, should put strength into the
hearts of their descendants, if ever in the discharge of duty we feel
disposed to yield to difficulties. Many men owe the grandeur of their lives
to their tremendous difficulties.
It is now 7 o'clock p.m. The
oxen are sent home, the workmen make good use of homemade soap and water,
supplied them in a great oaken tub; soon hands and faces are washed, and the
men are as clean and spruce as if they had never been near a log heap.
The young women of the
neighborhood are gathered in or around the house, some quilting, and others
attending to the cooking and serving necessary at a large gathering. Of
course the tables were usually spread outside the house, and under the shade
of a spreading beech or maple.
Farmer Murray had a big log
house, with two windows in front, one in the back, and one in the end, and
one in the top gable. After supper everything is prepared for the dance. All
unnecessary furniture is put aside, boards with props underneath are put
round the walls for seats, and the floor is cleared. A chair is put on top
of a chest for the piper and fiddler, who are alternately to supply the
The piper takes the chair
first, not however, till after he receives inspiration from the black
bottle. And now for the dance. B. takes C.'s wife, and C. takes B.'s wife as
partners in the first round. Afterthis the floor was free to all. There were
no round dances in those days.
"But hornpipes, jigs,
strathspeys and reels
Put life and mettle in their heels."
As the evening wears on the
dancing becomes more lively. The butler becomes more liberal with his
bottle. The piper becomes more enthusiastic.
"He screwed his pipes, and
gart them skirl
Till roof and rafters a' did dirl."
At intervals songs are sung
and stories told. Farmer Ross sits beside the ladder, telling a crowd of
eagerly listening young people how William Wallace slaughtered the
Englishmen, and of all Wallace's brave deeds for Scotland. Another tells of
Samuel Macdonald, the Highland giant, who took hold of the hind axle-tree of
the mail coach and held back four horses; how he raised a sixty-gallon
barrel of whiskey between the palms of his hands, and took a drink out of
the hung-hole. Another relates the adventures of a Highlandman in running
away with the laird's daughter. He tells an admiring circle of young men and
maidens how the pursued lover fled with his bride:-
"He set her on a coal-black
Himsel' lap on behind her,
And he's awa' to the Hieland hills,
Where her frien's they canna find her."
Farmers M. and G. sat on the
crockery side of the chimney, trying who could repeat and sing the most
songs out of Robert Brown's song book, with a laughing, applauding crowd
around them. M. beat G. at repeating the most, but G. was voted the best
Every now and again the
butler came round and treated.
The fiddler's turn came next
to supply the music, and after a deep potation, he mounted the elevated
chair. The butler calls for a Highland fling. D. takes M.'s wife, and M.
takes D.'s wife for partners. All take their places and the music begins.
The dancers hop and reel round, toes up and heels down, and turn to the
right and left on one foot, and clap their hands, and snap their fingers,
and whoop, with ever-increasing heartiness. The fiddler gets inspired, plays
faster and faster, his foot keeping time on the big chest, making a loud
hollow sound. The boys get around him, and every time he rises from the
chair they move it a little nearer the edge of the chest. At last the
excitement is at its height; up goes a whoop, and down comes the chair,
fiddler and all, landing on Farmer M.'s head, and the heads of two or three
others, bringing them to the floor in a heap. Soon order is restored, the
fiddle starts again, and the fun grows fast and furious.
By-and-bye the grey streaks
are seen in the east, the blue bonnet reel is danced, deoch-an-dorrus is
taken, and all start for home. Some of those present had two, three, or even
four miles to go, mostly through unbroken woods. There were of course no
buggies or bicycles, but that did not in the least detract from the pleasure
of the occasion. Every laddie took his lassie, and conveyed her safely to
her home. On these journeys often were the tender words of love spoken, and
vows of constancy given. Sometimes, too, one of the young people "had a crow
to pick" with the other for devoting too much attention to some one else
during the evening. But the spirit of manly chivalry actuated the great
majority of the young men of the early days, while honest womanhood was the
character of the women.
Occasionally, however, two
jealous rivals would proceed to fisticuffs, while even among the women there
were not wanting instances of something else than sisterly love.
The story is told of a belle
of those days, commonly known as "the flower of the forest," being detained
from a dance through the trick of a jealous rival. The beautiful maiden was
suffering from a slight cold. Her rival called on her the day before that on
which the dance was to take place, and, feigning much sympathy with her,
assured her that a sure and speedy cure for a cold was too keep the feet for
a couple of hours in a foot bath of hot water and mustard. The unsuspecting
beauty at once complied. Result, blistered feet, no dance, and alienation of
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