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The Cracker Barrel: The logging camp

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Craig Nagel, Columnist

In 1947, a Minnesotan named Walter O’Meara wrote a novel titled "The Trees Went Forth," in which he recreated, in fictional form, the experience he had as a young man working one winter in a logging camp.

In the introduction to a reprint of "The Trees," done in 1982 by Northpoint Co. of Grand Rapids, O’Meara explained that the camp boss was Ed “Pine City” Netser, one of the last great boss loggers in the Cloquet area: “With a crew of a hundred men, he built his camps, laid out his roads, cut over seven million feet of pine, landed it on Pequawan Lake, and drove it down the St. Louis River to the mills in Cloquet. And he did it in the classic ‘horse-logging’ style without an ounce of steam.”

The winter he worked for Netser, O’Meara was 19 years old.

“Even then,” he writes, “I suspected that I was witnessing the last chapter of a great and colorful American epoch. So I carefully observed everything about me, the camp layout and equipment, the crew and the kind of life they led, all the details of cutting, hauling, and landing timber. While the story told in 'The Trees Went Forth' is pure invention, and all the characters fictional, every detail of camp life and logging operations is, I believe, scrupulously correct.”

The winter of 1906-07, in which the story is set, proved to be bitterly cold and abnormally snowy - which made going to the outdoor privy a challenge.

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“You sat there with your trousers down, over an icy peeled spruce pole, in a temperature of 40 degrees below zero, and that was bad enough when your evacuatory processes were working smoothly and you did not have to remain out there until you were numbed with cold.

“But when you were not functioning very well, and you had to sit and shiver with every breath turning into a handful of crystals in the air, and a fair part of you naked and exposed to the paralyzing cold - then you sometimes wondered why you had chosen the life of a lumberjack.”

If the privy was too cold, the bunkhouse, by contrast, was snug and warm, built of Norway pine logs and chinked with mud and moss. But it did have a powerful odor.

“Perhaps because they got so much of it during the day, all lumberjacks mortally feared and hated fresh air, and bunkhouses were scientifically constructed to keep it in its proper place - outside. The only means of venting ours was a small skylight near each end of the roof. For the most part, the heat from the big barrel stove, stoked with four-foot birch logs and ordinarily fired to a dull red glow, remained inside.

“The result was appalling. It was an odor composed of many elements. The most powerful component was, perhaps, 80-odd pair of wet socks, hung on long poles to dry over the stove. But seldom-washed underwear and never-washed bodies contributed richly; so did old blankets that were never aired, hay that remained in the bunks all winter, tobacco juice in the floor boards, barn smells brought in by the teamsters, and the smoke of villainous tobacco. Finally, there was the noisome air itself, breathed and rebreathed by almost a hundred men.

“That is what our bunkhouse smelled of; but it is not how it smelled. Only experience itself could convey the effect of this commingling, this aging-together of odors. It was not amusing - it was staggering. And yet the crew, long inured, were quite unmindful of it all; but then they were also unmindful of the bedbugs and the lice.”

And so to sleep again, only to be awakened at 4:30 a.m. by the blowing of the “gabrel,” a slender tin horn five to eight feet long. On with the unwashed socks and thick wool pants, out to the privy, over to the cook shanty for breakfast, served promptly at 5.

And then out into the woods in the predawn dark, to begin another day of logging.

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THE TREES WENT FORTH by Walter O'Meara. Editorial use.

Related Topics: THE CRACKER BARREL
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