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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Christmas in a Logging Camp

During the 1880s Otis Terpening was a brawling lumberjack in the Wisconsin northwoods. He logged from the St. Croix River across Douglas County into Michigan's Upper Peninsula, wintering in the forest and riding logs downriver to mill in the spring. Forty years later Charles Brown was collecting lumberjack folklore and asked for his recollections. This unleashed a deluge of densely typed, semi-literate letters, including this one about how lumberjacks celebrated Christmas. Despite his ignorance of spelling and grammar, or maybe because of it, Terpening created a remarkable prose style that is intensely vivid and evocative:

"Well, Charlie, to night the world seems to hang heavy and dreary on my soul. Just been living over the days of old, And got to thinking about you. Over their in the State I love and where I spent the hapiest three years of my life. Not one care on my mind. Just a good happy Lumberjack. How I would like to live it over... You ask me about Cristmast in camp. Will try and tell it as near as I can how we spent the day.

"Cristmast in Camp.

"For two weeks befor the great day things took on a brighter hue, At least they seemed to. The lads where better natured than usual, And why shouldent they be, Some had left their famlies and kiddies early in the fall, With the understanding that at Cristmast they would all be united again, While others thought of the sweetheart back in the settlement. Then we had a kind with us that I just cant discribe in this up to date language. But we Jacks called them lushers, A class that was shuned by the better class of Lumberjacks, For the only thing they [ever] thought of getting out of life was a big drunk and a feed of ham and eggs, As their was no drinking alowed in camp it was real hard on them, And they seemd to hail Cristmast as a time of getting out of their bondage, As the day drew near the real Cristmast Spirit seemed to pervail, And in the snatches of song that we would hear in the woodland during the day their was a real ring of joy in them, And in the voice of the Jacks on Cristmast morning as they wished one another Mearry Cristmast, And to hear one Jack say, thanks Pal, I hope you live forever and I live to see you die. We seldom ever worked on Cristmast, But the day was spent in visiting, darning our socks and mittins, While some spent their time in playing cards, And listing for the cheerie sound of the dinner horn, Saying come and eat, eat, The cook would always have something extry, and plenty of it."

For more lumberjack memoirs, see the lumbering section of Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

[Source: Otis Terpening to Charles Brown, Oct. 23, 1931, in the Papers of Charles E. Brown, Wis Mss HB, box 5.]
:: Posted in Curiosities on December 24, 2007

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