Lake Country Lore: Logging in Cold Minnesota Winters
WRITTEN BY TENLEE LUND
THE “BOOM YEAR” FOR LOGGING IN MINNESOTA WAS 1900, WHEN SOME 2.3 BILLION BOARD FEET WERE HARVESTED.
Logging a century ago was done during the winter, and it was hard work. The weather was cold, the hours were long, the labor was physically demanding, and there was only one focus — cutting as much timber as possible every day. The lumber company had a contract to meet and that was the sole reason for the camp’s existence.
Why log during the winter? As Jeff Johns, site manager of the Forest History Center in Grand Rapids, explains, “We have a lot of boggy, soft ground here during much of the year. When you’re operating with horses that have to skid trees on the ground, soft ground becomes a nightmare. The trees mire up in the mud.”
So they logged during the winter, even though temperatures in northern Minnesota drop well below zero. Cold as it was, these frigid conditions provided many benefits to the logging operation. For one, the frozen ground made it easier for horses to drag logs out of the woods.
Winter temperatures also allowed the creation of ice roads, making it relatively easy to move the logs from where they were cut to where they were decked for the spring thaw. An ice road could be easily built and would melt away in the spring. Using a special water sleigh, layers of ice were built up more than a foot thick. Then grooves were carved in the ice with a rut cutter. Those grooves perfectly fit the runners on a huge bobsled.
As Johns says, “This would provide an upside-down railroad track for the sled and enabled a team of two horses to pull a bobsled with some fifty thousand pounds of logs on it as though it were effortless. It was really quite ingenious.”
By 1900 logging camps were efficient operations. Men had been logging giant white pines, starting on the northeastern seaboard, since the 1650s. Lumbermen, known as “Maineites,” followed the pines west. It took them almost two hundred years to get to the Great Lakes region. By then they had perfected the processes required to harvest logs and get them to sawmills.
The “cut,” or the area to be harvested, depended on the lumber company’s contract. A crew would define the cut after determining how many board feet could be harvested from a given acreage. Then, in the fall, a building crew would go out to construct the camp. In late November men started working on the ice roads and soon after the sawyers arrived.
“By the end of December you would be cutting in earnest for the contract,” Johns says. “Usually winter would last three to four months. A medium-sized camp could have five- to six-million board feet to cut before spring. They would deck it out near some waterway to move it down to the mill. At the end of that they were done.”
Although some of the men were full-time lumbermen, most of them came to the north woods for winter work, then went back home. Many were farmers from southern Minnesota who, instead of spending the winter waiting for spring, headed north to work in the lumber camps. If they brought their draft horses along, they could earn extra money.
Since the men didn’t get paid until the contract was fulfilled in the spring, life in camp was cashless. The company clerk kept a record of what each man bought from the camp store — clothing, tobacco, liniment — and it was deducted from his total pay at the end of the season.
Supplies arrived every couple of weeks, along with any mail. Camps were generally less than thirty miles from a town, so they would send a tote sleigh to bring back whatever they needed — food for the men, hay and feed for the horses, metal parts — sometimes twenty thousand pounds at a trip. It was vitally important that the camp be well supplied.