The Press Newspaper
You see a lot of sweet corn between here and Hayward Wisconsin where they hold the Lumberjack World Championships. You can also gain a new appreciation for the loggers who cleared the land for that corn and our homes.
At one time, virtually all of Northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota—94 percent by one estimate—was covered by forests. In just one part of Northern Wisconsin, 30 billion feet of logs were floated down the Black, Chippewa and St. Croix rivers from 1853 to 1897, according to a 1906 article in the LaCrosse Chronicle. This was big business. The estimated worth of those logs--$300 million at that time.
During the same time period, Michigan lumberjacks logged some 160 billion board feet of saw timber, according to the Michigan State University Extension. Stack this wood four feet high and eight feet wide and it would stretch to the moon and back five times. MSU estimated the value of the harvested wood was greater than all the gold mined during the California gold rush.
All these trees were harvested by hand. These lumberjacks were not your Ax Men or American Loggers on reality television. They didn’t have helicopters, chainsaws, power winches or mechanized monster log loaders and processors.
These were real men. They used two-man cross-cut buck saws, hand-forged axes, wooden mauls, steel wedges, pike poles, dog hooks and springboards.
The work was dangerous, the injury and death rate high. Consider two jobs. Tree toppers used iron climbing hooks and ropes to scale 100-foot trees and clear branches with an ax. They would also notch the tree, insert a springboard, stand out on the end of it, and top the tree.
River pigs would ride the logs downstream hopping from one to another. They would maintain their balance using spiked boots while wielding pike poles to guide the moving mass downstream. Slip and fall under the pile and you could easily drown.
While techniques have changed, logging is still one of America’s most dangerous jobs. In 2010, 59 loggers lost their lives, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
My wife’s family is from the Rice Lake area, about 25 miles south of Hayward. We recently spent a week in Northwest Wisconsin at a fishing resort on Chetac Lake.
Hayward’s population is 2,129, however, it is surrounded by lakes and during the summer the population swells to more than 25,000. Some 10,000 to 12,000 spectators turn out for the lumberjack championships and it has been covered by ESPN and the BBC. Two of my wife’s ancestors were in the logging and lumber industry. And, her grandfather and his brother erected their own saw mill in the 1920s and built the homes, barns and outbuildings on two farms from trees they harvested, ripped and planed, so we had an interest in logging.
This year, more than 100 competitors came from as far as away as Australia, New Zealand, The Czech Republic and the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia. Men and women competed in 21 events including log rolling, springboard chop, 90-foot speed climb and double-buck cross-cut sawing. They competed for $50,000 in prize money.
These athletes display considerable strength, skill and agility in honoring the lumberjacks of the 19th century. For example, in the underhand block chop, competitors stand atop an aspen log 12 inches in diameter and 28 inches long. They swing a five-pound ax between their legs cleaving the log inches away from their feet. The world record is 15.94 seconds.
In the double buck sawing event, two-man teams compete to see who can completely cut through a 20-inch pine log. The world record is 4.77 seconds. The Jack & Jill (a male and female) team world record is 6 seconds.
The most exciting event was the 90-foot pole climb. Stirling Hart from British Columbia broke his own world record with an up and down time of 19.24 seconds, 41/100 of a second better than his old mark. The last 60 feet was a free fall onto the mat below.
On our way back home we passed miles and miles of corn fields. Soon, that corn will be on my dinner plate, and a good portion of it will be shipped overseas. My thoughts will then turn to the men who cleared the land that allowed The Midwest to become “the breadbasket of the world.”