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Life in a Lumber Camp

A version of this lesson plan was developed by the Office of School Services as part of the Wisconsin Stories online activity guide for the secondary-level classroom. Please
adapt it to fit your students' needs.

Background Information

This section of the website contains two primary source documents related to the lumber era in Wisconsin: a humorous letter written by an unknown youth, originally printed in The Chippewa Herald; and a popular folk song, "The Shantyman's Life." Both documents offer a varied assortment of "lumberjack lingo," the vernacular terminology that loggers seemed to specialize in inventing.

We know very little about the author of "He Didn't Like It," which appeared in the Chippewa Herald in April 1882. The newspaper editor's introduction says that the letter was written by a young man whose father was a minister in Madison--perhaps helping to explain author's distaste for the less-than-genteel lifestyle in the camps. The author had apparently spent one season in "the pinery." We can also infer that he was working in the watershed of the Chippewa River, a region with the richest stands of white pine in North America.

"The Shantyman's Life" is an example of a widely popular early-American song that was revised in Wisconsin's lumber camps. Occupational songs such as this one chronicled both mundane and extraordinary aspects of life in a lumber camp. These were not rhythmic work songs but were sung around lumber camps for entertainment in the evening and on weekends. There were many variations in this song's lyrics. Emery De Noyer, a resident of Rhineland, contributed this version to the Wisconsin Folk Music Recording Project in 1941. Disabled as a child, De Noyer joined a logging operation in northern Wisconsin at age twelve, working as a camp entertainer. De Noyer's sound recording is part of the Wisconsin Folk Music Recording Project, sponsored in the early 1940s by the University of Wisconsin and the Library of Congress. The complete set of these important recordings is preserved at the Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Documents

"He Didn't Like It." Chippewa Herald, April 1882.

DeNoyer, Emery. "The Shantyman's Life." Wisconsin Folk Music Recording Project. Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The Chippewa Herald, 1882 

He Didn't Like It. -A son of a Madison clergyman concluded that he had stayed around home enough, and went to one of the logging camps up river. His experience there will make the old woods' veterans "smile out loud." 

Here is the letter he wrote home to his brother: 

I have just written to pa, and will try and write you a short letter, although I am about half asleep, I was glad to get your letter, and glad to hear that you are doing so well. All I can say is stick to it. I have had one of the hardest jobs in the woods so far, but think I will change off to-morrow and go at something else. I have been working on the landing. We have to get up at about 2:30, get breakfast at three, and then walk four miles to work and take a cold dinner with us, and get back to the shanty all the way from seven to nine o'clock. So you see we have pretty long days in the woods. Two suppers in one night; that is more than you can get in a civilized community. And then after supper we roll into our soft, downy couch of lousy blankets, and lay and listen to the mocking bird, with music by the entire band, and snoring in seven different languages, mostly imported--professional snorers from Germany and Norway, warranted never to miss a note, and to keep in any climate, and while the beautiful odor of wet socks and foot rags is heard in the near distance, and finally fall sleep to slow music, only to be awakened in a few minutes by the melodious voice of the cook, singing, "roll out your dead bodies, daylight in the swamp," etc. Then we get up and go to our beautiful and sumptuous repast of fricasseed pork and beans on the half shell, with a basin of reduced ice water, flavored with copperas, and called, by the low and uneducated, "tea." Such is life in the woods, but as for me, give me six months, twice a year for two years, in Waupun, or some other place of enjoyment. Well, Ralph, I hope you will learn some useful trade or usefulness, that will keep you from ever having to go to the woods. If I get out this time I will stay out, and don't forget to recollect to remember it.

The Shantyman's Life

All you jolly fellows, come listen to my song; 
It's all about the pinery boys and how they got along.
They're the jolliest lot of fellows, so merrily and fine,
They will spend the pleasant winter months in cutting down the pine.

Some would leave their friends and homes, and others they love dear,
And into the lonesome pine woods their pathway they do steer. 
Into the lonesome pine woods all winter to remain, 
A'waiting for the springtime to return again. 

Springtime comes, oh, glad will be its day! 
Some return to home and friends, while others go astray. 
The sawyers and the choppers, they lay their timber low.
The swampers and the teamsters they haul it to and fro.

Next comes the loaders before the break of day. 
Load up your sleighs, five thousand feet to the river, haste away. 
Noon time rolls around, our foremen loudly screams, 
"Lay down your tools, me boys, and we'll haste to pork and beans." 
We arrive at the shanty, the splashing then begins, 
The banging of the water pails, the rattling of the tins.
In the middle of the splashing, our cook for dinner does cry. 
We all arise and go, for we hate to lose our pie.

Dinner being over, we into our shanty go. 
We all fill up our pipes and smoke 'til everything looks blue.
"It's time for the wood, me boys," our foreman he does say.
We all gather up our hats and caps, to the woods we haste away.

We all go with a welcome heart and a well contented mind
For the winter winds blow cold among the waving pines.
The ringing of saws and axes until the sun goes down.
"Lay down your tools, me boys, for the shanties we are bound."

We arrive at the shanties with cold and wet feet,
Take off our overboots and packs, the supper we must eat.
Supper being ready, we all arise and go
For it ain't the style of lumberjack to lose his hash, you know.
At three o'clock in the morning, our bold cook loudly shouts,
"Roll out, roll out, you teamsters, it time that you are out."
The teamsters they get up in a fright and manful wail: 
"Where is my boots? Oh, where's my pack? My rubbers have gone astray.
"They other men they then get up, their packs they cannot find 
And they lay it to the teamsters, and they curse them 'til they're blind.

Springtime comes, Oh, glad will be the day!
Lay down your tools, me boys, and we'll haste to break away.
The floating ice is over, and business now destroyed.
And all the able-bodied men are wanted on the Pelican drive.

With jam-pikes and peaveys those able men do go
Up all those wild and dreary streams to risk their lives you know.
On cold and frosty mornings they shiver with the cold,
So much ice upon their jam-pikes, they scarcely them can hold.

Now whenever you hear those verses, believe them to be true.
For if you doubt one word of them, just ask Bob Munson's crew.
It was in Bob Munson's shanties where they were sung with glee
And the ending of my song is signed with C, D, F, and G.

Glossary

choppers: lumberjacks in charge of cutting down trees. "daylight in the swamp": a cook's call to breakfast. Lumberjacks often referred to logging as "letting daylight in the swamp." jam-pike: a heavy pike with an eight-foot wooden handle and an eight inch spike at the front end, used by lumberjacks to move logs on a river. It was eventually replaced by the peavey. loaders: workers responsible for loading logs on sleighs or freight cars. peavey: a tool for rolling and handling logs floating in water. pinery: the region of northern Wisconsin and Michigan known for its heavy growth of white pine. sawyers: high-level employees who controlled the carriage and other machinery used to saw the logs into lumber. The quality and quantity of the lumber depended on their judgment. shanty: sleeping quarters, bunkhouse. shantyman: original name for a lumberjack. swampers: lumberjacks responsible for removing the limbs from fallen trees. also called gutter men or trimmers. teamsters: workers responsible for driving teams of horses.

Vocabulary

  • choppers 
  • "daylight in the swamp"
  • jam-pike
  • loaders
  • peavey
  • pinery
  • sawyers
  • shanty
  • shantyman
  • swampers
  • teamsters

Discussion Questions 

  1. Compare and contrast the account published in the Chippewa Herald with the lyrics for "The Shantyman's Life."
    1. Consider the authors' sentiments about life in a lumber camp.
    2. Does one document contain any substantive information about life in the lumber camps that supports the other? Explain.
    3. What topics do both documents discuss? 
    4. Evaluate both documents as historical sources. What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  2. How do the lyrics from "The Shantyman's Life" explain the process of harvesting logs in the pinery?
  3. Do you need more information to use these documents productively? If so, where might you find it?

Suggested Activities

  1. Have some of your students learn the music and have them perform The Shantyman's Life for your class.
  2. Several museums and historic houses feature exhibits about lumbering in northern Wisconsin. If you live in the northern half of the state, you're probably a short bus trip from one of the following museums:

Cook-Rutledge Mansion
505 W. Grand Avenue
Chippewa Falls
(715) 723-7181

Empire in Pine Lumber Museum
First Street
Downsville
(715) 664-8452

Holt Balcolm Logging Camp
County F
Lakewood
(715) 276-7623

Iron County Historical Museum
303 Iron Street
Hurley
(715) 561-2244

Lumberjack Special and Camp Five
Highway 8
Laona
(800) 774-3414

Marathon County Historical Society
403 McIndoe Street
Wausau
(715) 848-6143

Marinette County Logging Museum
Highway 41
Marinette
(715) 732-0831

Menominee Logging Camp Museum
County VV
Keshena
(715) 799-3757

Northern Great Lakes Center
Rt. 3, Box 418
Ashland, WI 54806
(715) 685-2643

Oshkosh Public Museum
1331 Algoma Boulevard
Oshkosh
(920) 424-4730

Paul Bunyan Logging Camp--Chippewa Valley Museum
Carson Park
Eau Claire
(715) 835-6200

Peshtigo Fire Museum
400 Oconto Avenue
Peshtigo
(920) 582-3244

Rhinelander Logging Museum
Oneida Avenue
Rhinelander
(715) 369-5004

St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Visitor Center
Massachusetts and Hamilton Streets
St. Croix Falls
(715) 483-3284

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