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Old New England Logging Camps

My father-in-law oft told me tales
__Recalling logging camp—
Tough men who cut gigantic trees
__In winters cold and damp.
Nearly all were bonded Frenchmen,
__Who hailed from old Quebec.
And pledged that when the winter passed
__Back homeward they would trek.

Formal schooling mostly lacking,
__Yet most could sign their name.
Others made their mark on paper,
__‘Twas legal all the same.
The few belongings brought with them
__Could fit within a sack—
Ax, a knife, and sharpening stone,
__Not all that much to pack;

A needle, thread; rendered bear grease
__To smear on leather boots;
Two pair of heavy woolen pants,
__(They had no use for suits);
Plentiful long wool underwear;
__A couple shirts and braces;
Four pair, at least, hand knit wool socks;
__Old cloths to wash their faces.

The camp itself was one long room,
__A stove was at one end.
Long table by long benches flanked
__To feed two dozen men,
And just a double holed outhouse,
__But the woods were very large;
You did not ever dally when
__Cold weather was in charge.

The cook would always feed them well,
__As much as they could eat,
Although when seated at the table
__No words they were to speak.
“Cookie” reigned o’er the dining room,
__His rules men did not shun;
The time shared for conversation
__Was after the meal was done.

Crude bunks of wood nailed to each wall,
__A wood stove in the center.
The older men claimed warmer beds;
__No sight of a dissenter.
Both lice and fleas went uncontrolled
__As some men joked “our pets,”
They always seemed to be around
__In weather dry or wet.

A pail of water by the door
__To wash your hands and face,
But sometimes frozen by the morning—
__No liquid to embrace.
No need to punch a time card in;
__Men worked from dawn till dark.
The weather often bitter cold,
__Their day was not a lark.

In spring there was a bath and shave
__Somewhere with heated water.
Then travel home to see the wife,
__Your parents, son, or daughter;
Plant summer crops, raise animals;
__No days there were to loll;
For they’d return to logging camp
__When snow began to fall.

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Poet’s Note: Braces is a term for what Americans today call suspenders. Bonded Frenchmen was a colloquialism common in the Northern New England states of  Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont which border the French speaking Province of Quebec. After the time of the old New England logging camps, the widespread use of the chain saw during the 1940s did away with the old two-man cross cut and buck saws, and saw the end of what was called the old growth forests which had been logged since colonial days.  By the 1950s the logging camps were mostly gone as was the need for large numbers of men.  The big paper companies bought up thousands of acres of cut over land and still own much of it today.

.

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Phil S. Rogers is a sixth generation Vermonter, age 72, now retired, and living in Texas. He served in the United States Air Force and had a career in real estate and banking.  He previously published Everlasting Glory, a historical work that tells the story of each of the men from Vermont that was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Civil War.


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10 Responses

  1. Margaret Coats

    Phil, what a splendid picture of vanished Americana! Perhaps I should specify North Americana, to include the bonded Quebecois from Canada. With your numerous details, you picture a way of life with its own working standards. No labor regulations, but practical customs dependent on weather and daylight, and common courtesies such as allowing greater comfort to older loggers. I recognize the supremacy of cooks in the mess hall from my own military service long ago. You show what hard work logging was for men who were in fact hired help for the season, needing to return to labor on their own farms as their regular occupation. I suggest just one word added to improve the rhythm in “The time they shared for conversation.” As you note, paper companies and other big concerns control use of the woods today. Private landowners rarely hire men to thin their trees in a healthy way, but must sell rights to clear cut land for a few days, and leave it to grow back for many years. Thanks for your labor of love passing on this story of tough men in tough times.

    Reply
  2. Phil S. Rogers

    Margaret; Thank you for your comments, you understand the ‘vanished America’ I am trying to show. I started working on a series of poems after talking with my son and daughter, now in their 40s, who had almost no idea of how people lived before WWII. This is not something found in schools today, or if it is, it has a political message attached. I was lucky to have known many older people when I was young, and loved to listen to their stories.

    Reply
  3. Paul A. Freeman

    Excellent, Phil. You’ve left me with an enduring picture and feel for these men and this long ago era. What a harsh existence it must have been.

    This had me chuckling:
    ‘…the woods were very large;
    You did not ever dally when
    Cold weather was in charge’.

    Thanks for the read.

    Reply
    • Phil S. Rogers

      Thank you Paul; It was a harsh existence, apparently there were few men over the age of 40-45 except for the cook and his assistant. I am glad you enjoyed it.

      Reply
  4. Rohini

    A wonderful detailed account indeed. I look forward to your completed work. It will give us all a better and, as noted above, non-political insight into those times.
    It’s so important to chronicle these.

    Reply
    • Phil S. Rogers

      So glad you enjoyed the poem. Completed work, At my age? I am past my expiration date already. Hopefully there will be more in the future. To be honest, it feels good to get away from the politics, and think about the things that used to be, even if they were kind of tough.

      Reply
  5. Cheryl Corey

    Your poem effectively showcases the primitive work conditions of that industry and toughness of those men. Nice rhymes of “Quebec” and “trek”; “fall” and “loll”. Various ethnic groups were often noted for their work in certain occupations. I recall reading that American Indians excelled in their balance working on high-rise steel, for example.

    Reply
  6. Roy Eugene Peterson

    I commend you along with the others for bringing to life a forgotten era of American history. Your elaboration of the details of how things were in a logging camp are stimulating, fascinating, and educational. Your selection of rhyming words was auspicious and enhanced the story.

    Reply
  7. Michael Vanyukov

    This is painted so warmly, free people in the land of freedom. Put this artistic way, life like that almost sounds attractive, hard as it was. It’s heartening that they were fed well. My previous association with logging was exclusively of Stalin’s logging labor camps where most of people would not survive long.

    Reply
  8. C.B. Anderson

    I can see it, Phil! You put me there, and in the course of my life I have put myself there. Americana is always a good read, especially for those who themselves have lived a bit of it. Thanks for the panoramic glimpse.

    Reply

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