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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Big Boss Man ?


Women were always a rare sight in logging camps, and women bosses were almost unheard of. "Old Mary Ann," long-remembered in northeastern Wisconsin, was the exception who proved the rule.

Mary Ann McVane came to Peshtigo from Maine before 1870 and, after operating a boarding house in the town, she joined her husband in the woods. Although he ostensibly ran the camp -- "for it would not be conducive to the morale of any crew of rough woodsmen to have a woman openly placed in charge" -- it was Mary Ann who actually gave the orders. Decades afterwards she was recalled for acts of compassion and charity, such has traveling to remote areas to heal sick lumberjacks and caring for several families for months, following the catastrophic Peshtigo Fire of October 1871.

She was recalled not only for her tenderness, however, but also for her toughness. "Mary Ann, despite her good qualities toward the meek and lowly, really had a nasty temper when aroused," wrote B.A. Claflin, "as well as an overabundance of muscle and a willingness and ability to use it when the occasion demanded action. Six feet in stature and weighing two hundred pounds, she was a fair match for the toughest lumberjack or river hog that ever crossed her. Courage? It was her second name."

A tough bully of a logger once decided to play a practical joke on Mary Ann by casting one of her chickens in and out of the river on a line, until it could take no more and died. "At this point Mary Ann appeared on the scene," Claflin wrote. "Enraged beyond control, she seized the offender, lifted him bodily from the ground, and walked with him into the river up to her armpits. Here she shoved the squirming lumberjack under the surface a dozen or more times until, gasping for breath and half drowned, he begged for mercy."

You can read more about her exploits, including breaking a log jam that defied all the men and curing a reluctant French-Canadian of the flu, at our collection of Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles. Many more stories about Wisconsin's logging industry are also online at Turning Points in Wisconsin History, as well as historic photographs. Probably the very best eyewitness account of a lumberjack's life is the autobiography of John Nelligan, just made available in the online edition of our Wisconsin Magazine of History.


:: Posted in Odd Lives on April 8, 2007

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