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Recollections of a Long Life 1829 - 1915
Chapter VI


THE methods of lumber manufacturing in vogue at this time in the pine districts along Green Bay in Wisconsin and Michigan were crude compared to the elaborate system which has since been perfected. The mills, during the decade between 1840 and 1850, were small establishments operated by water power, making approximately one million feet of lumber a year. The type of saw known as the "mulay" had just come in and not a few of the mills were still equipped with the old-fashioned sash saws. The circular saw and the band saw, together with most of the mechanical apparatus now in use for handling logs, had not then been perfected.

In logging, driving and sawing the lumbermen of Maine and New Brunswick were the most expert of their time, and it was largely under their direction and through the introduction of the methods which prevailed along the St. John and Penobscot rivers that lumbering in Wisconsin and on the northern peninsula of Michigan, of the West generally, was brought to the point of its greatest development.

In this respect the firm of Sinclair and Wells enjoyed a decided advantage over their competitors. As I have said Mr. Sinclair was probably the greatest practical lumberman hi the country and had not only acquired a large experience but had directed operations of magnitude in Maine. In addition he had brought to Wisconsin men who were schooled in lumbering methods in the Pine Tree State. Among them were David Langley, who came west with us in 1845; Silas Howard, who went oil from Milwaukee to Flat Rock the same year, and others. For some time afterward his forces were constantly being recruited from Name. Some of the men I brought out with me when I returned from my trips to the East. When the forests in this territory were cut and opportunities for employment became restricted, thousands of the men who had grown up in them went still farther West to the Pacific coast where they are at work to-day. In this way has time enterprise of Maine exerted a marked influence upon the entire lumber industry of the United States.

It was not long before members of my own family, attracted by the prospects which I unfolded in my letters to them, decided to follow in my footsteps. Two of my brothers, Robert and Samuel, came to Escanaba from their home in Maine in 1849 but remained for only one winter. Perhaps they regarded my enthusiasm over the growing West as unfounded. In June, 1852, however, they made a second venture and this time remained permanently. Both of them took up logging by contract near Masonville, Michigan, and afterward occupied conspicuous places in the lumbering industry on Menominee River, whither I had preceded them, taking charge of and becoming the owners of some of the important mills on the river at that time.

About 1850 the moving stream from the eastern pineries to the West attained large proportions, the result, very largely, of a business depression which left many of the lumbermen in the older region without occupation. Many also were attracted to the newer field by Mr. Sinclair, and following their example still more responded to the growing demand for experienced men. There were no less than thirty of them one winter at Escanaba who had been camp "bosses" or logging contractors in Maine.

These men were very different from the workmen of the present day, a fact due to some extent, possibly, to the environment in which they lived. In the absence of a highly organized system of industrial interchange they were obliged to depend upon their own resources to supply their needs and their capacity for doing things was developed accordingly. They could erect camps, make axe handles and sleighs and many of them were blacksmiths, sawyers and carpenters capable of undertaking almost any variety of work. Two-thirds of the men in logging crews I have had could do these things and, in addition, were excellent boatmen. At present in a crew of fifty men there is rarely one man who can do any of them, even the "boss" himself. To supply the deficiency it is necessary to send blacksmith and a mechanic into the woods and the axe helves and other tools are made in factories and included in the list of supplies. It is said, in explanation, that it is cheaper to buy articles of this sort than to make them. But they cost us very little sacrifice of time as we did most of these tasks at night or on Sundays. The same rule of conduct applied to the women in the mill settlements who devoted their evenings and spare moments to knitting instead of occupying themselves with the diversions of the present day which were, as a matter of fact, unknown.

Similarly my practical education covered a wide range. I could build a bateau, make all of the tools used for river driving, ox yokes and sleighs, shoe oxen and horses and exercise generally the functions of a blacksmith, carpenter or millwright,—all of which stood me in very good stead.

While other mills along Green Bay were being operated to their full capacity to produce a million feet of lumber a year we were turning out from eight to ten millions besides laths, pickets, and other products. We were also the forerunners in this region in the manufacture of sawed shingles. At this time only shaved shingles were known in the West. About one-third of all the boats plying between the pineries of Wisconsin and Michigan and southern lake ports carried bolts, about four feet long, which were made into shingles by the old process of shaving in the yards at Chicago and Milwaukee, at each of which places probably one hundred men were employed in the work.

Not long after my arrival at Escanaba we added to our mill equipment two shingle machines obtained in Maine, each with a capacity of eight thousand in ten hours. The economy of this method of manufacture was obvious but in the beginning there was a prejudice against sawed shingles in the West and the demand was confined to people who had migrated from the New England States. After a time this was overcome, the older method was abandoned and other mills followed our example. With added improvements in the machines some of the mills produced later from forty to fifty thousand shingles a day.

Milwaukee and Chicago were the chief markets for the Green Bay region and the distributing points whence the lumber was shipped to points in the growing Middle West. In these cities practically all of the mills maintained their own yards, to which the lumber was shipped without drying as soon as made. Mr. Sinclair and his partner, Daniel Wells, owned at this time an interest in the firm of N. Ludington and Company, which maintained yards at both places, and a few years later the Ludingtons, Harrison and Nelson, purchased an interest in and subsequently control of the property at Flat Rock. With the building of railroads and the reduction of freight rates most of the lumber producers abandoned the practice of maintaining their own yards and piled and dried the lumber at the mills shipping it to all points by rail as well as by boat.

For a year or two after the extension of the railroads through the Green Bay region, freight rates were so exorbitant, twelve cents per hundredweight, that there was little change in the methods of transporting of lumber. The railroad officials were brought to the realization of the short-sightedness of their policy by the establishment of a car ferry which ran between Chicago and Peslitigo, connecting at the latter place with a short railroad line, the Wisconsin and Michigan, which rail for some distance up the Menominee River. The loaded cars were transferred to the ferry at Peshtigo and taken thence to Chicago. We were so successful in this method of transportation that the Northwestern and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroads reduced the freight rate from twelve to six and one-half or seven cents. When this was done the Chicago and Milwaukee lumber yards were abandoned and shipments were made direct from the mills.

In 1846, when I first went into the woods at Escanaba, I was able to apply to good purpose the training I had acquired as a boy in the logging camps "down East." The firm of Sinclair and Wells began at that time the production of masts in which trade they had practically a monopoly on the upper lakes. Other lumbermen had the same opportunity but were not skilled in the driving of oxen except in single teams and, consequently, could not haul out of the forest logs of the size and length required for masts and spars. To do this the six-ox team was necessary. The masts were transported in the rough to Chicago and Milwaukee, lashed to the sides of the ships, being too long to be taken aboard, and were finished at the ship yards.

This was the first branch of lumbering I took up in the West. During the winter of 1846 I drove a six-ox team at Escanaba and hauled out of the woods one hundred and fifty masts. It was not such a far cry, after all, from masting on the Great Lakes to the pre-revolutionary period when the English government reserved to itself for the royal navy and marked with broad arrows the tall pines in the forests skirting the St. John River.

Trees of this kind along the lakes are no more. They vanished when the forests were stripped of the white pine, and their lesser brethren, the Norway pine and hardwoods, are following fast after them. In 1846 I hauled from the forest a white pine twelve inches thick at the butt, six inches at the top and one hundred and seven feet long. It was shipped to the yard at Milwaukee where it was made into a "liberty pole" or flagstaff and presented to Rock County. Because of its great length it could not be hauled intact over the crooked roads and had to be sawed in two and spliced. It was erected in the court house yard at Janesville and stood there for many years until it rotted down.

During the winters of 1846, 1847, and 1848 most of my time was devoted to the driving of oxen with a goad stick, after the Yankee fashion, jogging along the Escanaba River. This branch of the industry I have always considered the most important. In sawing, which is entirely a matter of mechanical equipment and arrangement, conditions are everywhere equal and no mill enjoys an advantage over competing mills, but in logging there is a wider field for the expenditure of individual effort and the exercise of skill and it is in this that the profits are made or losses of operation sustained. The difference between success and failure oftentimes depends upon the ingenuity displayed in the harvesting of the timber, so to speak, and bringing it to the mills.

Logging conditions were similar to those which prevailed in Aroostook County and in New Brunswick. At the camps, then about twenty-five miles up the Escanaba, we were up for breakfast at five o'clock and off to work before daylight and did not return until dark. By comparison with the supply lists of the logging camps of the present the rations upon which we thrived were, to say the least, meager, and there was not enough variety to tempt even a normal appetite. As there were no farms in the vicinity to rely upon, the supply of vegetables was small. We were rarely able to obtain any at all. For five and one-half months during one winter we did not see a vegetable and were given fresh meat only once. Camp fare consisted of the inevitable pork and beans, bread, and tea which we sweetened with Porto Rico molasses in lieu of sugar. Occasionally we had a little butter and dried apples but so infrequently that they seemed a luxury beyond the conception of even the lumbermen of the present day who have varied camp supply lists to draw upon for subsistence.

For breakfast and supper the beverage was tea, for dinner, only water. Sometimes when I was detained, arriving late at the mess table, I found the water which had been poured into my tin cup frozen and had to break the ice to drink. Tea seemed so much of a luxury that I promised myself that, if I ever had a home of my own and was able to afford myself that enjoyment, I would have tea three times a day. For almost seventy years I have adhered to that resolution. It happened afterwards that Potter Palmer, of Chicago, and I became very good friends and, whether by reason of his earlier experiences or not, he seemed to regard tea-drinking in much the same light as myself. For a number of years he obtained his supply from Sir Thomas Lipton, whom I had met with him in Chicago, and he shared it with me.

Sunday, as in the East also, was a day of rest, the kind of rest that takes the form of a change of occupation. The men in charge of the camps made axe handles, filed saws and ground axes. Despite all these apparent hardships, the long hours, the hazardous nature of the work, and the lack of luxuries we did well enough. Our work was such that we needed no special stimulus to whet our appetites. We made the most of our unvarying fare and ate with a zest that comes only of long days of work in the open, the keen, crisp air of the winter and the tang of the pine forests.

In late years the methods of logging have been entirely modified. More men are employed to do the same amount of work and the cost has become proportionately greater. As the forests along the streams were cleared and the hard wood, which cannot be floated, came into demand, the tree trunks were cut into short lengths in the forest, hauled to the railroad on sleighs drawn in some cases by steam tractors and transported to the mills overland. In this way the dangers of log driving have been obviated and time economized to a moderate degree, but the much-heralded progress in the promotion of efficiency of labor has not, so far as I can see, wrought any improvement upon the logging methods we followed sixty-five years ago. Then the foremen worked as leaders rather than directors. In the woods and working rollways or jams they took the initiative and set the example for the men, the only effective way, to my mind, to handle them under such conditions. Nowadays the system used on the railroads is followed,—the foreman looks on and gives orders. If his attention is diverted the men work indifferently or not at all until they are again under observation.

Many of those who worked in the lumber camps and at the mills in Wisconsin and Michigan were Germans who made their way westward in great numbers. They were not very efficient as water men or for log driving, but steadier than the laborers of any other nationality. Whether or not the watchful eye of the "boss" was on them they kept to their tasks with unflagging energy. I found generally that the men needed no close supervision. At Marinette, when I first took charge of the mill of the N. Ludington Company, as part owner and manager, they made it a point to cut more lumber, if possible, when I was away in attendance upon the meeting of the county board or elsewhere, than when I was present.

During the spring of 1847 I went on drive down the Escanaba River. This work, done by the men who had been engaged in cutting timber during the winter, was more or less dangerous. The stream was shallow and swift of current and its course lies through a country underlaid with a ledge of flat rock. To avoid having the logs swept away by the ice freshets, which sometimes came down with great force, it was necessary for us to pile them on on the banks whence they were turned into the water when the danger had passed. Following the custom that had prevailed in Maine the logs were barked when hauled from the forest, and when the rollways were broken out they rushed with dangerous momentum down the banks into the river.

Because of the flat shores it was necessary for us oftentimes to work waist deep in the icy water to keep the stream of logs moving. In April, 1848, when the winter was scarcely over and the weather still cold, we met with these conditions and I suggested to two of my men,— William Phelps, who came from New York, and an Irishman named Barney Gurtie,— that we go into the water. Gurtie, who was somewhat older than Phelps and myself, remained for two hours, at the end of which time the ice was forming on our handspikes and clothing. Phelps and I kept at the task for four hours although our flesh was blue and our teeth chattering as if we had the ague. From such exposure we suffered no ill whatever.

Although the conditions we encountered in driving and sacking logs were uncomfortable my crews lost less time than in the camps in winter. Sometimes the men injured their feet in log jams but otherwise they were in better physical condition; and subjecting them to hardships which, from the latter day point of view, might have been considered inhumane, seemed to do them more good than harm. They worked cheerfully, at least, on wages of from twelve to fifteen dollars a month and seemed to accomplish more than men who are now paid two dollars and a half a day.

One of the most important aspects of the lumbering industry during the period from 1845 to 1860 was "exploring" or ''cruising," the location of timber in the little known stretch of forest. In the forties the government was making a survey of the lands in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The work was originally undertaken by Dr. Houghton, who lost his life in the wilderness, and William Burt and was being continued by the sons of the latter. "Judge" Burt was the inventor of the solar compass, which obviated the difficulties that had been encountered with the magnetic compass by reason of the deflection due to the presence of magnetic iron ore in the region. He received a premium for it from the government and several efforts were made to induce Congress to pass a bill paying him further compensation for the use of the instrument.

To the study of surveying, as it was adapted to the needs of the lumberman, I gave much attention and acquired some proficiency in tracing and locating timber, exploring the forest for advantageously situated pine, and outlining it on the maps so that it could be entered for purchase. The first of the land north of the Straits of Mackinac was offered for public sale by the government in July, 1848. To take early advantage of the opportunity Mr. Sinclair and I left Milwaukee, where I was at the time, during July, for Sault Sainte Marie where the land office had been established in one of the old Fort Brady buildings.

We went on the steamer "Nile,"— one of the vessels of the line owned by Mr. Newberry, of Detroit, which ran between Chicago and Buffalo,—as far US Mackinac, and there boarded a smaller steamer, the "Ben Franklin," commanded by a Captain Jones. We arrived at our destination about a week before the beginning of the sale. Three days later we were joined by Mr. Sinclair's partner, Daniel Wells, who had done some government surveying in Florida in 1832 and was skilled in this sort of work.

Such latter day conveniences as mapping paper, blotting paper, mucilage and envelopes were not obtainable, but with the materials at hand Mr. Wells made several tracings from the government maps inserting free handed the rivers, swamps, and lakes. For $1.25 an acre, the minimum price for public lands, we bid in at the mouths of the Escanaba River, Ford River, and Sturgeon River, now Nahina, eland also an island oil the chemical works and furnaces at Gladstone, Michigan, now stand.

For five or six years after this opening sale I went to the "Soo" three or four times a year to enter lands for the Sinclair and Wells Company and, in with my forest explorations, acquired a very thorough knowledge of lands in the northern peninsula. Later my activities took me southward along the Green Bay and in August and September, 1853, I took a crew of men, among them two of my brothers and William Holmes, now of Menominee, Michigan, to the land office at Manasha, Wisconsin, to make the first entry of pine land on the Menominee River. On some of this I am cutting timber even at the present day, the last remnant of the pine forests remaining on the river which only thirty years ago was the greatest timber producing region in America. Some of it, also, after more than a half century, stripped of timber, is selling as farming land for many times the original price paid for it and the green fields are gradually obliterating the blackened stumps, all that are left of the great forests that stretched may oil sides when I first set foot in them.

In retrospect much has been written of the great wealth these vanished forests have yielded, highly colored narratives of the beginning, growth and decay of the lumbering industry from the point of view of those who have seen little more than the results and nothing at all of the processes. In reckoning the billions of feet that have been cut, the vanishing of the wilderness and the magical appearance of the fertile farms, many historians overlook the hardships that were encountered, the difficulties with which the path of progress was strewn. Nor is sufficient consideration given the good that was achieved,— the upbuilding of the great prairie states into which the flood of immigration poured.

Daniel Wells
Daniel Wells

In the days when I began my career on the Escanaba River, lumber was sold for six and eight dollars a thousand feet. The same grade of lumber in the present market would be worth from twenty-five to thirty dollars. The meager returns were scarcely worth the struggle of blazing a way into the forest and risking the dangers that confronted the pioneer. Where some succeeded many failed, and if the opportunities of the time were contemplated face to face and not through the perspective of more than a half century I doubt very much whether many of the present generation could have been induced to take their chances confronted by such disconcerting odds.


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