A 20th Century Lumber Camp; Delta County, Michigan
Did you ever wonder about life in an old-time lumber camp? The image above provides a peak into that venue. Handwriting on the photo’s reverse side identifies the location as “Delta County, Upper Peninsula.” No date is provided. Note, however, that the men have a phonograph for playing vinyl records. This suggests an early twentieth century time frame.
Michigan’s Lumber Boom
In the 1840s, Eastern states were beginning to exhaust their timber resources, and information about Michigan pine began to spread. Lumbermen began flocking to the Great Lakes State. According to George S. May’s revised edition of Willis Dunbar’s Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State, Michigan’s lumber boom peaked around 1880. Dunbar and May also note that lower peninsula forests were “virtually all cutover” by 1900 and that Upper Peninsula lumber production began to decline a few years after that. Conservation techniques and selective cutting increased productivity later in the twentieth century. By then, however, the “hey day” of the lumber industry was unquestionably over.
The Nature of a Logging Camp
For much of its history, logging was a winter activity. In winter, logs could be easily transported to river banks via bob sleds (or, in later years, by railroad.). In spring, when the ice melted, logs were floated down the river to saw mills. Log marks (the logging equivalent of “cattle brands”) determined ownership. Due to the seasonal nature of the business, logging camps tended to be temporary (Note that the men in the photo above are wearing winter clothing.).
In “Michigan’s White Pine Era, 1840-1900” (Michigan History vol. 43, December 1959), Rolland H. Maybee describes a typical Michigan lumber camp, circa 1875-1900. Many camps of this era accommodated sixty to one hundred men. Typically, there would be five or six main buildings, all made of logs. A bunkhouse, a cookshanty, a barn, a blacksmith shop, and a camp office and store would be among the buildings. The camp office and store typically included living quarters for the foreman and log scaler.
A Man Sounding the Dinner Bell at the L.B. Curtis Lumber Camp; Midland County, Michigan (Photo not dated)
The Lumberjack’s Life
William and Edith Overlease interviewed Michigan lumberjack Ralph Hooker a few months before his death in 1965. Hooker was seventy-nine years old at the time. An excerpt of the interview appears in the May/June 1994 issue of Michigan History magazine. Hooker recalled working sixty hours each week, with Sunday being the sole day of rest. From Monday through Saturday, he noted, the men were awoken at 5:00 a.m. and went to bed at 9:00 every night. Hooker mentioned large breakfasts, consisting of buckwheat pancakes, fresh meat, fresh meat grease, sauces, cookies and hash. “Hash was legal tender in them days,” he said, adding that, “After the second helping of hash, I could cut logs ‘till noon.” Hooker described long days of hard work, and evenings filled with storytelling and card games. “I stayed out of poker games,” he said, “But I’d swap lies with any of them.” On the work as the whole, he said, “I worked like the dickens, but I didn’t think anything of it.”
The video above depicts activities at a 1950s lumber camp. The original movie – filmed by the Michigan Department of Conservation – is stored within the Archives of Michigan collections. For more Archives of Michigan videos, visit the Seeking Michigan Vimeo site.