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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Mother Impresses Tough Logger


For Mother's Day, here's a peculiar story about a humble woodchuck that won the heart of a rugged lumberjack named John Nelligan. Nelligan was a tough character who braved death many times, punched out more than his share of bullies and brawlers, and demanded unquestioning obedience from his crew. He once drove a bear from his camp by sneaking up behind it and kicking its behind. But apparently he also had a soft spot.

Mother Woodchuck's Dilemma

"On a spring drive once, on the Waupee River, a tributary of the Oconto River," he recalled, "we had a dam go out on us and were forced to rebuild it before we could continue our drive.

"As quickly as possible we got our timber work in place and began running the gravel to it in wheelbarrows, as rapidly as we could. We were taking the gravel from around a pine stump beneath which a mother woodchuck had her nest, occupied by a family of six. As the gravel under-pinnings were taken away, the stump tumbled down, exposing the woodchuck's nest and putting her family in imminent danger of death.

"Immediately the mother chuck raced over to where I was standing and threw herself at my feet, mutely but unmistakably imploring me to save her offspring from destruction.

Tough Guy's Soft Heart

"Superficially, it was a rather amazing thing, but to one with any knowledge of animals and their ways it was not a matter of great wonder. I was the foreman of the crew in charge of the operations, and I do not doubt but what the desperate mother chuck realized this in so far as its mental processes allowed. More than that, I was the largest man in the crew, standing six feet and three inches in my stockings and weighing two hundred and ten pounds. Quite possibly my unusual size appealed to the poor wood chuck so greatly in need of an able protector.

"Whatever her reason for appealing to me was, her plea was successful. I was touched by it and stopped all the work until we got her and her family in its nest moved to a new location which was both safe and comfortable. She made no effort to interfere, but dumbly followed me to the new house and seemed very grateful for my timely intervention.

"It was an unheard of thing for the harassed foreman of a river driving crew to do, but perhaps I was a bit flattered by the chuck depending on me and I don't think it lessened my standing among the men."

Learn more

John Nelligan's classic memoir of Wisconsin logging was published in the Wisconsin Magazine of History in 1929 (vol. 13, nos. 1-3). His life was examined by John Zimm in "'Nothing More Than a Tradition': John Nelligan in the Wisconsin Pinery." Wisconsin Magazine Of History. Volume: 94 /Issue: 2 (2010-2011). For more lumberjack memoirs, browse the sources on logging at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.


:: Posted in Animals on May 10, 2012
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