Here’s a tale of the Northwoods for you. Then, be sure to watch the short vintage film clip of “topping pines” at the bottom of the post. It will make you appreciate your job.
So Oscar and Boudreaux are out working in the timber. Boudreaux is up a tall white pine with his sharp axe hacking off branches that might catch and prevent the tree from falling cleanly to the forest floor. Looking up, Oscar hollers at Boudreaux, “Hey dere, didn’t you hear the bell? It’s dinner time and I’m so hungry I could eat one, no, two of those horses back at the camp.” Boudreaux is about to holler back when he loses his grip on the axe. It falls straight at Oscar and, by golly, cleanly slices off his head which tumbles into a nearby snow bank. Boudreaux hustles down the tree, finds the head, and puts it back on Oscar’s neck packing snow all around the cut to hold it on tight. He asks Oscar how he’s feeling. Not bad, replies Oscar, if I can get yousta seeing where I’ve been instead of where I’m going. Boudreaux adjusts Oscar’s head then the two make their way back to camp taking their usual seats in the hot cook house. Twenty hungry men are seated at the table, the kitchen at one end and the blazing wood stove at the other. It’s got to be 90 degrees in there. Dinner’s late and Oscar can’t stand the delay any longer. Hollering for his food he jumps up from the bench. His swearing stops in mid-stream. The men all turn wondering what stopped Oscar’s tirade. The melting snow around Oscar’s wound causes his neck and his head to part ways. When he leaps off the bench his head flies the length of that hall, crashes into the great cast iron stove, and kills him dead. Nineteen men saw it happen that day and will swear it’s the truth.
In the 1850s a new lumber mill was built in Marine on the St. Croix. By 1855, with the latest machinery and technical improvements, the mill was rafting 2,000,000 board feet timber down the river (Dunn, pg. 73, The St. Croix, Midwest Border River).
That’s one year and one mill. Imagine what was happening throughout the rest of the Northern forests. Amazingly, the race to get to this timber was a relatively short one. It began a little less than 20 years earlier with the 1838 treaty opening up Chippewa lands for settlement. By the early 1900s it was pretty much done. The U.S government changed the course set by the French and the English who, for over 200 years, exploited the fur trade but little else. Occupation was the new creed. It was driven by desire to capitalize on other natural resources that required more feet on the ground and an infrastructure to make it possible. Along with the timber industry came farmers who settled and cleared land for planting and in doing so, both changed the landscape of the St. Croix Valley.
Traders’ cabins rotted along the banks and the Native Peoples became more of a nuisance than a valued trading partner, their subsistence lifestyle an impediment to expanding farms and communities. Dunn’s book is an excellent source for anyone interested understanding more about the swift change from wilderness to western civilization. It’s an heroic tale for the Euro-Americans that populated Minnesota and Wisconsin at this time. All suffered the difficulties and challenges of this newly opened country. Many failed in the process. Those who prospered laid the foundation for just about everything and everyone we see on the landscape today – including me tip-tapping at this keyboard in St. Paul. Descendants of those same pioneers, among them far-seeing conservationists, absolutely benefited from hard-fought Euro-American expansion. Many long-time St. Croix Valley residents, products of the lumbering/farming past have fought hard to slow the disruption/destruction of natural resources and protect what “wild” remained – often inspired by and allied with the region’s Native Peoples. I met some them at a luncheon in the late 1980s/early 90s at the Christian Brothers’ Dunrovin Retreat, south of Marine on the St. Croix. They were celebrating an anniversary of the inclusion of the St. Croix in the 1968, Wild and Scenic legislation. l was surrounded by folks, then in their 70s and 80s, who had dedicated themselves relentlessly to that task back in the 1960s. There were lots of stories and fond reminiscing but also regrets for conservation battles lost (one being the effort to halt construction of the King power plant north of Bayport, MN). I hope that succeeding generations who visit this lovely country get to hear their stories as well as those of the lumberjacks and the little houses on the prairie.
If you think you have done some tough jobs in your life, watch this. I think the guy at the bottom of the tree had the boom box.