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Every Wednesday at 6:45 a.m., 8:45 a.m., and 5:45 p.m., we turn back the clock on WXPR with local historian Gary Entz to find out what life in the Northwoods used to be like. This is part of a new initiative by WXPR to tell the history and culture of northern Wisconsin.You can keep track of A Northwoods Moment in History and all of WXPR's local features on the WXPR Local Features podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

Baths For Lumberjacks

Wisconsin Historical Society

The ability to go on strike for better working conditions is a valuable tool, especially for industry workers in nineteenth century America. The question is, what is or isn’t worth going on strike for. Gary Entz tells the story of workers in a logging camp resisting new technologies.

The ability to go on strike for better working conditions was something that workers in industry throughout nineteenth century America demanded as a fundamental right. Simultaneous to the rise of organized labor was the rapid advancement in technology. New technologies led to new advances in industry, making it more efficient and less labor-intensive, and sometimes even threatening to take away the very jobs that workers were organizing to protect. Once in a while, however, these two movements intersected in ways that turned out to be more humorous than dramatic.

Today we hardly give a second thought to electricity surging through our homes, or the central heating that keeps us warm in the winter, except when it comes time to pay the bills. However, in the late nineteenth century the ability to light a home with electricity or to have centralized steam heating was a marvel of modern technology. During the first decades of the twentieth century, these technologies made their way out to the logging camps, and this is where they intersected with organized labor.

In the winter of 1915-1916, the Park Falls Lumber Company modernized its facilities. The company built a steam plant and piped hot steam into the buildings for heat. The old pot-bellied wood stove was gone, and lumberjacks who liked to gather around the stove in the evening grumbled as their old congregating spot was no more. The company also strung electrical wires to provide light, and this struck some old-timers as wrong since they could no longer light their pipes to the flame as they could with the old oil lamps.

The steam heat and electricity were bad enough for the rough loggers, but the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back came when the company built a steam room for the workers. Today a relaxing sauna bath is an indulgence that many people seek out and enjoy, but in January 1916 Northwoods lumberjacks were highly suspicious of it. Even worse, the company ordered all camp hands to pay the steam room a visit at least once per week. The idea of a once-per-week bath was just too much. The workers protested vigorously and threatened to go out on strike if the company insisted on carrying out this order.

The workers filed a formal complaint with the Industrial Commission of Wisconsin and asked the agency to arbitrate the dispute before it became a full-blown strike. There are many things worth going out on strike for, some of which include better wages, better food, safer working conditions, shorter hours, and so on. One thing not worth going out on strike for is bad hygiene. One can only imagine what the response of the labor lawyers in Madison was to this particular complaint. The commissioners urged the lumbermen not to go on strike and advised that they buck up and give the steam room a try for a while.

The lumberjacks reluctantly complied, and labor strife in the Northwoods was averted.

In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.