Looking Back at Winter Logging

Dec 26, 2018

With winter officially beginning last Friday, Gary Entz tells us about winter logging this week as part of our continued series A Northwoods Moment in History.

During the timber industry’s heyday of the nineteenth century, logging was a seasonal activity.  Loggers would migrate to the Northwoods in the fall, cut timber through the winter months, and during the spring thaw use the flooding rivers to float the logs to market.  A smaller crew would remain to work through the summer, but many loggers migrated out to the Great Plains to work as agricultural laborers during the logging camps’ off season.

Winter was the logging season, and for good reason.  The ground was too soft to transport heavy logs overland during the warmer months.  Cold temperatures and deep snow is what enabled loggers to reach lower ground.   It also made it possible to use teams of oxen to pull sledges and sleighs of cut timber over the frozen terrain.  In the earliest years of logging in the Northwoods, a deep snow that could be packed down hard to make an ice road was necessary in order to transport timber.  However in some years, like the winter of 1896-1897, the snowfall was unusually light.  There was not enough snow cover to make for good sleighing, and this was a problem that required a solution.  The solution was to deploy gangs of workmen known as “swampers.”  Swampers would cut a sleigh road with axes and grub hoes.  Once the night temperatures dipped low enough, water would be sprayed over the road to freeze it into a solid road of ice.  Once turned to ice, teams of oxen or horses could easily pull a heavy sleigh-load of timber overland.  This solution led the “Chippewa Herald-Telegram” to boast in 1897 that “snow is not the essential that it used to be” for the loggers.

A well-run logging camp was a highly professional operation that in many ways anticipated the assembly-line concept of twentieth century factories.  Sawyers felled the timber and cut the trees into logs.  Swampers cleared the skidding trails for the teams that transported the logs to the decking crew.  The decking crew piled the logs parallel to a trail so the loading crew could then load them on to sleighs for transport down an ice road.  Teamsters drove the oxen.  The road usually ended at another decking area, where the logs would be stacked next to a frozen lake or river to await the spring thaw.  It took precise choreography to make the whole operation work because if one crew fell behind then everyone fell behind, and no crew boss wanted that.

It was a vastly different way of life from that of the highly-mechanized logging operations of today.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio and the web by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.