The Life of a Timberbeast

by Anne LaBastille | History

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. Anne LaBastille, who died in 2011, is best remembered as the author of Woodswoman and other memoirs of her life in the Adirondacks, a prominent ecologist, environmental advocate and occasional political lightning rod. She was also one of Adirondack Life’s longtime contributors; between 1972 and 1994, she wrote dozens of articles about nature and history, including this 1985 piece about lumberjacks.

Do you think times are tough today
in the Adirondacks? Do you fret over getting a new stove or a TV-dish? Do you complain about your old hot water heater and bedroom set? Well, perhaps you should reconsider. Compared to the life lumber­jacks led 75 to 100 years ago, most of us here enjoy “luxury living.”

The “timberbeasts” of the past usually lived in tents or log bunk houses—as many as 75 men to a logging camp. They had practically no privacy. A bunk house was fitted out with dozens of three-tier bunks, a huge stove, one long sink with several wash basins, and a grindstone. The men slept either in “muzzleloaders” or in “broad­siders.” The former meant they crawled into bed headfirst; the latter, sideways. Two men normally slept in one bunk, along with the bedbugs and lice. Mattresses and pillows were unheard of. Hay served for one, a tolled-up oat sack or mackinaw for the other. Each lumberjack was allotted three wool blankets. Most slumbered with their clothes on, except for their “wheels” (boots).

Four A.M. was rising time. Even the la­ziest of loggers was jolted awake by the shock of icy mountain water on his face and a quick turn at the grindstone to hone his axe. Then the men clumped from the bunk house, down the “dingle” (a long breezeway), to the cook house. They break­fasted at a trestle table, twenty or thirty people to a side. Hearty food—salt pork, stewed prunes, fried potatoes, and dough­nuts—was served in heavy crockery dishes. Since coffee was unavailable in those days, tea was poured in stout mugs.

No talking was permitted at the table other than requests for food, and bad man­ners were never tolerated. If a man grabbed too far or too often for vittles, he was told, “You’ll get a broken arm next time you do that!”

A lumber camp cook was boss of the kitchen and dining room and mediator of men’s tongues and bellies. It was he who strictly enforced the “No Talking” rule. Otherwise, imagine the bedlam which might have begun if fifty burly timberbeasts of five or six different nationalities hit on a touchy topic.

I recall the story told to me by an old-­time woods cook about a logger who refused to stop yakking. The first day the cook warned him about the rule. The second day the logger was still babbling. So the cook picked up a huge meat cleaver, stepped up behind the man, and grabbed his hair. With his other hand, he pulled the chatterbox back across his knee and laid the cleaver against his throat. From then on, silence reigned.

After eating, each lumberjack brought his “rig and tools” to the sink where a chore boy washed them. This youngster was called the “pearl diver” because of the long hours he spent with his arms plunged in water.

In those days, of course, there was no electricity. A camp kitchen had no mixers, no slicers, no G.E. ranges, no freezers. Flour was toted in by team in 200-pound barrels, sugar in 300-pounders, and lard in 400-pound kegs. The cook and his flunky wres­tled them off the wagons and into the dingle where they joined stacks of canned goods and firewood. Every scrap of meat, bit of vegetable, mashed potatoes, and so on was prepared by hand.

If a woods cook fed the loggers well and was amiable, he had a happy crew and few problems. But if he was stingy and ill-tem­pered, trouble flared. Eventually, some of the crew would show up in the cook’s room armed with double-bitted axes. The cook was told to “hit the road,” and that was that.

Some cooks were as fond of horses as their men. One cook used to make ginger cookies as big as dinner plates. There was a certain horse which couldn’t trot by the cook house without begging for a cookie or two. Another man used to give chewing tobacco to the teams. He would hold out a plug and say, “Now, Spike, don’t take my hand, just the t’baccky.” The horse would ruffle up his lip, chew a bit, and look around for the nearest spittoon.

Loggers worked in the woods from dawn to dark, burning up 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day. Their bodies were lean and muscled from sawing and felling trees, clearing tote roads, handling teams, cutting and stacking firewood, and loading wagons. They broke only for a cold lunch. That night, however, they would feast on three kinds of meat, beans and maple syrup, potatoes, pies, and ginger cookies.

If the men had any energy left after sup­per, they might sit and chew tobacco and gossip in the dingle. Radios, TVs, tape decks, and stereos were unheard of. A log­ger might softly play his harmonica or scratch a tune on an old fiddle. Most lum­berjacks were illiterate, so reading was rare. Besides, camp lights went off at nine P.M.

Sunday was resting-up day. Time for shaving, delousing, and laundry. Much de­pended on the cook. If he was ornery or lazy, there would be no hot water simmer­ing in kettles on the wood stove. Then the loggers would have to strip a week’s stubble from their chins and wash heavy wool long­-johns and flannel shirts in cold water with brown soap.

The men’s outer clothing was seldom, if ever, washed at camp. Those stout pants and jackets got so stiff with pine pitch and dirt that they stood up alone. Nevertheless, when a lumberjack went to town, he usually managed to look quite fetching, or at least neat.

Sickness seldom struck loggers, save for an occasional cold or flu during damp, chilly weather. Accidents were more numerous. There were axe cuts, horse kicks, bashed heads, and broken limbs to contend with. The cook and foreman acted as temporary doctors, liberally applying horse linament or balsam of myrrh. Serious cases were taken by team to the nearest town and physician.

“Rum sickness” was the most common ailment. Every few months, loggers earned a vacation, and some of the single men went to town for “an Adirondack haircut” (a long drinking spree). If a man returned to camp still boozy, he was given a couple of days to sober up while the cook supplied canned tomatoes and sympathy.

There’s an old saying that “you can feed hay to a logger’ if you sprinkle it with whis­key.” However, this is not entirely true. Sensible timberbeasts spent vacations with their families, savoring the delights of civ­ilization, not boozing. After a short respite from the rigors of logging, they would head back to camp and a new job.

So, next time you miss your dose of “Dal­las” on TV, or desiccate your dinner in the microwave, or spill hot coffee on the new ruffled bedspread, think of the timberbeasts of bygone years—and rejoice!

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