Odd Wisconsin Archive
He's A Lumberjack
And He's OK
After a long weekend up north recently, we hunted down some memoirs by Wisconsin loggers. Everyone knows the stereotype -- flannel shirt, heavy boots, cheap tobacco, hearty appetite, maybe a blue ox -- but what was the reality? Among the best recollections was one by James Holden, who started his career in the Chippewa Valley in the winter of 1862. His description brought to mind the famous Monty Python lumberjack song.*
Walked 40 Miles on Ice
"I hired out to Blain on Friday," Holden recalled in 1916, "and Saturday morning at five o'clock started alone for camp, which was located on the west bank of the Chippewa, half way between Brunet Falls and Little Falls... The river was frozen when I went up, and most of the way I walked on the ice. I had my worldly goods strapped to my back and wore a pair of number eight cowhide boots on my feet. After walking forty miles, without a bite to eat, I reached the camp about eight o'clock in the evening.
"Saturday night was when the boys in camp went in for a good time. A stag dance was in progress and from the noise they made I thought H[ell] had broken loose. When I stepped in they were dancing a quadrille. A man whom I afterward learned to be a Mr. Binder was playing the fiddle and a man by the name of Colegrove was calling off and was general master of ceremonies. Each 'lady' had a hankerchief tied to his arm to distinguish her from a mere man." At the next break in the music, the cook took Holden aside and served him some very welcome pork, beans, biscuits, and tea.
Here's a picture of a lumberjack fiddler and dancer from William Bartlett's History, Tradition and Adventure in the Chippewa Valley. (Eau Claire, Wis.: The author, 1929). Bartlett gives his own account of a stag dance (as well as the famous hodag hoax) here. The rest of Holden's memoir is equally interesting.
More on logging camp recreations can be found in the remarkable memoirs of timber cruiser John Nelligan in the online Wisconsin Magazine of History (Volume 13, number 2, December 1929). And of course lumberjack culture is discussed at length in the Society Press book, Out of the Northwoods.
Finally, you can see historic pictures of loggers and logging camps at Wisconsin Historical Images.
* If somehow you've never seen Monty Python's lumberjack song, the whole six-minute sketch is on YouTube, here.
:: Posted in Curiosities on August 1, 2013