This was a student publication created in 2001 by Sarah White for the American Studies MA program at UVA.
THE LUMBERJACKS GO SISSY
Stewart H. Holbrook
WHEN My father's father ran a logging camp in northern New England sixty years ago, it was commonly said of loggers that they slept in trees and would eat baled hay if you sprinkled whisky on it. Up in Maine, New Hampshire, and Quebec, I knew fellows who put on red woolen drawers and doublebreasted undershirts in September, then they hit for the camps, and never took them off until the snow melted in May and it was time to go down-river on the drive. These same lads slept sixteen to the bunk, one hundred to the room. Ordinarily they didn't shave all winter long, although the camp dandies might on a dull Sunday run a whetstone over a single-bitted ax, slap some yellow soap into their whiskers, and there and then shave in the manner of the great Paul Bunyan himself. But such effeminate doings were regarded with suspicion by most of the jacks. Black Bill Fuller, an eminent camp foreman of First Connecticut Lake, held shaving in the winter to be pretty nigh as debilitating as the carrying of a handkerchief.
All tobacco in camp, both smoking and chewing, came in one-pound plugs; and if you weren't man enough to pack sixteen ounces around with you, you took your ax and whacked off a hunk large enough to last until evening. They were mighty chewers of plug, those old shantyboys, and no punk considered himself a man until he could spit fifteen feet into a head-wind and hit a sapling fair in the crotch. The smoking tobacco, when inhaled, commonly came out the ears. Work was done in snow to the arm pits. Noon lunch was eaten in the woods, and consisted of frozen biscuits, beans, and a lye mixture that went by the name of tea. A moderately good axman could fell a spruce so as to drive a stake into the ground; and a chip from his scarf flew out with enough force to fell a yearling bull in his tracks.
But it was when the winter's work was over and the jacks headed for town that the outside world learned of the prodigious lustiness and all-round he-ness of the loggers. It made no difference whether they were Bangor Tigers from Maine or Saginaw Cats from Michigan. Such a-whoring and a-drinking and a-fighting hadn't been seen by man since the days of the Crusades. They startled the pious folk of Bangor as they pounded on pine bars and shouted for stronger liquor. They swore they'd leave no virgin along the Kennebec. And on at least one memorable occasion, a jack jumped, calked boots and all, through the only plate-glass store window in Woodsville, New Hampshire, wherein stood the waxen figure of a woman displaying a pink nightgown of crepe de Chine.
But soon the New England spruce began to peter out; so the loggers packed their tattered turkeys and swept on through New York and Pennsylvania like forest fire. Next they paused awhile in Michigan and Wisconsin, where the tall white pine fell like wheat before their onslaught; and they turned Saginaw, Bay City, and Chippewa Falls into howling bedlams that were to keep the pulp writers in copy for years to come. The fights grew gaudier and bloodier. It was the classic era of eye-gouging, of getting an opponent down and tramping on his face with calked shoes. Once having the boots put to him, a man was marked for life with "Loggers' Smallpox". Makers of glass eyes did a rushing business in the Lake States of the 'Eighties and 'Nineties, for no fight was worthy the name unless mayhem was committed. More than one doctor owed his livelihood to worthies such as Bulldog Fournier, who claimed - and no oldtimer doubted it - to have chewed off the ears of twenty-two Michigan lads who thought they were able men.
Whorehouses grew to monstrous size. They were known as stockades, and many of them harbored a hundred shortskirted gals. These women were often called Battleaxes,for a reason clear enough if you recall the advertising slogan of that noble brand of chewing tobacco. In brief, it was a great and hell-roaring era. But one melancholy morning the loggers, peering out from behind a million stumps, saw that Michigan and Wisconsin timber was getting thin. They sighted smokestacks just over the hump. Their ancient enemy, Civilization, was creeping in. And so they packed their turkeys again and went on to Minnesota.
At about this stage, they were joined by hordes of Swedes and Norwegians, able drinkers all, and whoremasters and fighters to a man. The squareheads introduced a new and pleasant vice, the chewing of snuff. Not sniffing - but chewing. Heretofore, you could trace the receding timberline from Maine to Michigan by the discarded tobacco tags that came on Spearhead and Climax; but from Cloquet and Duluth to the West Coast the loggers' wake was to be strewn with the round tin covers of Copenhagen snuff, commonly known as Scandinavian Dynamite. The boys cut the Minnesota timber on this ration and cut it in a hurry. Then they moved on.
There were no stops in North Dakota, nor was there much halting in Montana or Idaho. With a rattling of peaveys the hordes of sharp-shod men swept on down the Columbia and into Western Oregon and Washington. Here, although they didn't suspect it, they were in their last stronghold, their backs to the sea, and Civilization, with its host of farmers and traders and city slickers, creeping steadily upon them. They couldn't go on, over the hump, for there wasn't any hump. And so the saga of the lumberjacks from this point onward is a sadder story, even, than the extinction of the American buffalo.
First thing to happen was the beefing of the big, bellowing oxen who yanked gargantuan butts over skid-roads that smoked from friction: the oxen were made into hamburger when some genius discovered that logs could be yarded with cable and a donkey engine. Thus disappeared the colorful bulls, and with them went the buckaroo or bullwhacker, their master, the god-damnedest curser that ever raised voice against Deity and the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Soon, too, logging railroads began pushing back into the timber, and the driving of rivers was forgotten. No longer was a lad proud to be known as a cat on the logs, hurling them this way and that with his sharp calks; few of today's loggers could stand upright on a rolling hemlock in the quiet of a sawmill pond. Then came the Wobblies, as Big Bill Haywood's benevolent order of the Industrial Workers of the World called themselves. The Webs had to have a Cause at all times, and right then it happened to be "No Bindle-Stiffs. Burn the Blankets", and "Be a Man. Don't Carry a Balloon."
What these stirring slogans meant was that the loggers should give up their ancient practice of carrying their own blankets (bindle, balloon) from camp to camp. "We want white sheets furnished by the Boss!" howled the Wobs from five hundred soapboxes. They pulled strike after strike, with the bindle as their objective; and presently they got their white sheets and pillows. The sad part of it was that they not only got sheets and pillows, but every week the Boss presented them with a rental and laundry charge.
Next, and worst of all, came the married man. Since the time Paul Bunyan's father started the first logging camp, back in the days when loggers had tails and slept hanging from limbs, there had seldom been a woman in the logging woods. Not even a bad woman. True, the enterprising madams of bumboats plying the coastal waters of British Columbia and Puget Sound had often called near a camp to display their wares, but of women, either good or bad, actually living in camp, there was almost none. Who it was, I have no idea, but not so many years ago some canny timber baron figured that it might be possible to hire loggers who would stay married for more than one night at a time. It was tried and it worked beautifully. With his ball-and-chain attached to him, the logger had no need to visit the fleshpots of the towns and cities. Labor turnover was reduced, production speeded up.
Added to these things was the happy fact that God made the wives of many loggers most fruitful. They have multiplied to such good effect that for the past twenty years or so there has been a good supply of prime young loggers born, so to speak, right on the plantation. I can think of no really large camp in either Oregon or Washington that does not have a camp school and schoolmarm.
While all this was going on, the Better Roads movement penetrated the back country, and loggers took to buying cars. You'll find a garage now in most any camp, large or small. Unmarried loggers, who in older and more moral days never saw a gaslight between October and May, took to running to town on Saturday night and sleeping it off in camp on Sunday afternoon. From this point onward, it is easy to trace the disappearance of the old-time lumberjack.
Loggers began subscribing to daily papers and the concomitant correspondence courses in everything from be-a-detective to saxophone playing. One of them got drunk on a Saturday night and brought the first radio into camp, where it still bleats nightly, to the disgust of old Nestors who had rather stove-log about the time Jigger Jones loaded too high with the crosshaul and came a-fluking down Dead Diamond Hill with no sand on the road and the snub rope broken. Aye, those were the days . . . .
Meanwhile, the camp buildings went the way of the ox-teams and five-cent whisky. The newer camps are barracklike structures, made of boards, with windows in them, and shingled roofs, layouts scarcely distinguishable from wartime cantonments. Once started on the white sheets, the operators went hog-wild with "improvements". Lamps and lanterns gave way to portable electric light machines. Many of the companies even threw out the old privies, some of them truly monumental jobs, and installed toilets.
Most indicative of all, perhaps, has been the change in the tobacco habits of loggers. This is important. When I was a youth, thirty years ago, a man who came into camp smoking a cigarette was eyed coldly, allowed to eat his supper, and then sent packing down the trail. "A man who will suck on a cig'ret," Jigger Jones once told me soberly, "won't stop at nothin'." Jigger, as well as most loggers of the time, considered a cigarette-user to be a degenerate, as well as worthless as a logger. Today the lumberjack smokes as many cigarettes as a debutante.
Years ago the operators threw away the tin plates and iron forks, and now white crockery appears on the table. And with such fancy doings has come the girl flunkey, or waitress. Most of the Western camps now have young girls slinging the hash and rolling out a string of flats (i.e., hot cakes), and most of them marry loggers. They settle down in camp to raise more loggers. Plenty of camp stores stock diapers these days; and rouge, lipstick, hairnets, and two-way- stretch girdles are sold openly. The rustle of a magazine is more likely to be McCall's than the National Police Gazette.
The old lumberjack is a very lonely fellow, these days, almost the last of his race. Nearly all of Paul Bunyan's Boys - now streamlined and each wrapped in cellophane - have gone over the hump.