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What is a Lumberjack: The History of the Lumberjack

Posted by Lumberjack Soap Company on Apr 4th 2021

What is a Lumberjack: The History of the Lumberjack

Lumberjacks are mostly North American workers in the logging industry who perform the initial harvesting and transport of trees for ultimate processing into forest products. The term usually refers to loggers in the era (before 1945 in the United States) when trees were felled using hand tools and dragged by oxen to rivers.

The work was difficult, dangerous, intermittent, low-paying, and involved living in primitive conditions. However, the men built a traditional culture that celebrated strength, masculinity, confrontation with danger, and resistance to modernization.

Culture

In a period of industrial development and modernization in urban areas, logging remained a traditional business in which the workers exhibited pride in their craft, their physical strength, and masculinity, and guarded their individualism.

Their camps were a bastion of the traditional workplace as they defied modern rationalized management, and built a culture around masculinity.

At the peak in 1906, there were 500,000 lumberjacks, who took special pride in their work. Logging camps were located in isolated areas that provided room and board as well as a workplace.

With few females present other than the wives of cooks and foremen, lumberjacks lived an independent lifestyle that emphasized manly virtues in doing dangerous tasks.

Men earned praise for their skills in doing their work, for being competitive, and for being aggressive.

When not at work, they played rough games, told tall tales, and won reputations for consuming large amounts of food.

By 1940, the business was undergoing major changes, as access roads and automobiles ended residential logging camps, chain saws replaced crosscut saws, and managers installed modern industrial methods.

Pop Culture

In popular culture, the stereotypical lumberjack is a strong, burly, usually bearded man who lives to brave the natural environment.

He is depicted wearing suspenders, a long-sleeved plaid flannel shirt, and heavy caulk boots.

Often characterized as having a voracious appetite, especially for flapjacks.

He works by cutting down trees with either an ax or with the help of another lumberjack and a crosscut saw, as opposed to the modern chainsaw.

Known for their many exploits, many real-life loggers have become renowned for their extraordinary strength, intuition, and knowledge of the woods.

Folklore

Known for their many exploits, many real-life loggers have become renowned for their extraordinary strength, intuition, and knowledge of the woods.

The most famous depiction of a lumberjack in folklore is Paul Bunyan. Several towns claim to have been Paul Bunyan's home and have constructed statues of Bunyan and his blue ox "Babe".

"Nätti-Jussi" ("Pretty-John") was a legendary Finnish forest laborer and lumberjack. The stories told by Nätti made him a very famous figure, particularly in Lapland.

Men such as Jigger Johnson, the Maine woodsman who supposedly kicked knots off frozen logs barefooted.

Joseph Montferrand, better known as Big Joe Mufferaw, the French-Canadian is known for his physical prowess and desire to protect the French-speaking logger. 

These are just a few example of lumberjacks that have been celebrated as folk heroes throughout North America, and have contributed to the myths of the Lumberjack.

Lifestyle

Lumberjacks worked in lumber camps and often lived a migratory life, following timber harvesting jobs as they opened. Being a lumberjack was seasonal work. Lumberjacks were exclusively men. They usually lived in bunkhouses or tents. Common equipment included the ax and cross-cut saw.

Lumberjacks could be found wherever there were vast forests to be harvested and a demand for wood, most likely in Scandinavia, Canada, and parts of the United States.

In the U.S., many lumberjacks were of Scandinavian ancestry, continuing the family tradition. American lumberjacks were first centered in north-eastern states such as Maine.

They then followed the general westward migration on the continent to the Upper Midwest, and finally the Pacific Northwest.

Stewart Holbrook documented the emergence and westward migration of the classic American lumberjack in his first book, Holy Old Mackinaw: A Natural History of the American Lumberjack. He often wrote colorfully about lumberjacks in his subsequent books, romanticizing them as hard-drinking, hard-working men.

Logging camps were slowly phased out between World War II and the early 1960s as crews could by then be transported to remote logging sites in motor vehicles.

Terminology

The term lumberjack is primarily historical; logger is using the term lumberjack as of Canadian derivation. The first attested use of the word comes from an 1831 letter to the Cobourg Star and General Advertiser in the following passage:

"my misfortunes have been brought upon me chiefly by an incorrigible, though perhaps useful, a race of mortals called lumberjacks, whom, however, I would name the Cossack's of Upper Canada, who, having been reared among the oaks and pines of the wild forest, have never been subjected to the salutary restraint of laws."

The term lumberjack is primarily historical; logger is used by workers in the 21st century. When lumberjack is used, it usually refers to a logger from an earlier time before the advent of chainsaws, feller-bunchers, and other modern logging equipment.

Other terms for the occupation include woodcutter, shanty boy, and the colloquial term woodhick (Pennsylvania, US).

A logger employed in driving logs down a river was known locally in northern North America as a river pig, catty-man, river hog, or river rat. The term lumberjill has been known for a woman who does this work; for example, in Britain during World War II. In Australia, the occupation is referred to as timber cutter or cool cutters.

Division of Labor

The division of labor in lumber camps led to several specialized jobs on logging crews, such as whistle punk, chaser, and high climber. The whistle punk's job was to sound a whistle (usually at the Steam donkey) as a signal to the yarder operator controlling the movement of logs. He also had to act as a safety lookout.

A good whistle punk had to be alert and think fast as others' safety depended on him. The high climber (also known as a tree topper) used iron climbing hooks and rope to ascend a tall tree in the landing area of the logging site, where he would chop off limbs as he climbed, chop off the top of the tree, and finally attach pulleys and rigging to the tree. After that, it could be used as a spar so logs could be skidded into the landing.

High climbers and whistle punks were both phased out in the 1960s to early 1970s when portable steel towers replaced spar trees and radio equipment replaced steam whistles for communication.

The choker setters attached steel cables (or chokers) to downed logs so they could be dragged into the landing by the yarder. The chasers removed the chokers once the logs were at the landing.

Choker setters and chasers were often entry-level positions on logging crews, with more experienced loggers seeking to move up to more skill-intensive positions such as yarder operator and high climber or supervisory positions such as hook tender.

Despite the common perception that all loggers cut trees, the actual felling, and bucking of trees were also specialized job positions done by fallers and buckers.

Faller and bucker were once two separate job titles, but they are now combined.

Machinery

Before the era of modern diesel or gasoline-powered equipment, the existing machinery was steam-powered. Animal or steam-powered skidders could be used to haul harvested logs to nearby railroads for shipment to sawmills. Horse-driven logging wheels were a means used for moving logs out of the woods.

Another way for transporting logs to sawmills was to float them down a body of water or a specially-constructed log flume.

Logrolling, the art of staying on top of a floating log while "rolling" the log by walking, was another skill much in demand among lumberjacks. Spiked boots known as "caulks" or "corks" were used for log rolling and often worn by lumberjacks as their regular footwear.

The term "skid row", which today means a poor city neighborhood frequented by homeless people, originated in a way in which harvested logs were once transported. Logs could be "skidded" down hills or along a corduroy road.

One such street in Seattle was named Skid Road. This street later became frequented by people down on their luck, and both the name and its meaning morphed into the modern term.

Among the living history museums that preserve and interpret the forest industry are:

  • BC Forest Discovery Centre, Duncan
  • Camp Five Museum, Laona, Wisconsin
    • The Lumberjack Steam Train, a passenger excursion train, operates as part of the museum.
  • Central New Brunswick Woodsmen's Museum, Boiestown, New Brunswick
  • Coos County Logging Museum, Myrtle Point, Oregon
  • Cradle of Forestry in America historic site, near Asheville, North Carolina
  • Forest History Center, Grand Rapids, Minnesota
  • Hartwick Pines Logging Museum, near Grayling, Michigan
  • Lumberman's Monument, near Oscoda, Michigan
  • Maine Forest & Logging Museum, Bradley, Maine
  • Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, near Galeton, Pennsylvania
  • Algonquin Logging Museum in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Logger Sports

The sport of Logger sports grew out of competitions in lumber camps aimed at determining the best woodcutters. Today, these competitions are used to acknowledge the rich history of forestry and logging and to keep traditions alive.

  • STIHL Timber sports Series - Worldwide
  • The STIHL Timber sports Series was founded in 1985 and brings competitors from across the world to compete in six woodsman or wood chopping competitions. The events are broadcast worldwide on a variety of networks, including ESPN, ABC, and Eurosport.
  • Squamish Days Loggers Sports - Canada
  • In Canada, Squamish Days Loggers Sports in Squamish, British Columbia, attracts the finest competitors to its weekend festival in August each year. The event has entertainers such as Johnny Cash, who, in 1991, performed at the 5,000-seat Loggers Sports grounds during his Roadshow tour.
  • The Woodsmen's Days - New York, United States
  • The Woodsmen's Days events at Tupper Lake, New York commemorate the lumberjack with logging competitions and demonstrations during mid-July. Many colleges have woodsmen teams or forestry clubs that compete regionally, nationally, and internationally. The Association of Southern Forestry Clubs, for example, sponsors an annual Forestry Conclave with 250 contestants and a variety of events.
  • Lumberjack Tours - United States

There are also lumberjack shows which tour the United States, demonstrating traditional logging practices to the general public.

The annual Lumberjack World Championships have been held in Hayward, Wisconsin since 1960.

Over 12,000 visitors come to the event each year in late July to watch men and women compete in 21 different events, including log rolling, chopping, timed hot (power) and bucksaw cutting, and tree climbing.