When it comes to the relationship between people and environment, the logging of the forests was the most dramatic event in Minnesota.
It was timber, not farmland, that first attracted European settler-colonists to Minnesota. On early maps of the region, the little-known northlands were marked simply “Abundant Pine.” Having cut down forests from Maine to Wisconsin, lumber barons were eager for new sources of quality lumber that was light, strong, floated well, and was good for buildings and boats. The forests of Minnesota promised a bountiful supply of such timber, so the barons began to pressure Minnesota’s Native American people to sell their lands in order to access the forests.
As I stood upon the brow of Embarrass Hill...one of the grandest sights I ever looked upon was in view, a veritable ocean of pine. One could see for miles and miles in nearly every direction over the tops of the tall waving forests of virgin pine and a variety of other trees. I will never forget that sight or the impression it left upon my mind, as I stood there gazing upon this wonderful forest...inexhaustible, enough to last for ages as I thought at that time, yet within the course of a very few years not to exceed fifteen, this great forest was laid bare, leaving only a few scattering stands of pine in patches here and there.” — Richard Louis Griffin, reminiscing in 1930 about seeing northern Minnesota’s pine forests for the first time in the winter of 1890-91
The earliest logging in Minnesota took place alongside rivers, where there was both a lot of timber and a free-flowing means of transportation. Minnesota’s forests looked inexhaustible to early loggers; they could not imagine felling them all with the axe as virtually the only tool available. Eventually, two-man saws — faster and cheaper than axes — would become the tool of choice for lumberjacks.
Typically uneducated, low-skilled migrant workers, the lumberjacks undertook an enormous amount of labor, requiring a diet of around 5,000 calories per day. The camp cook and his three assistants, or cookees, were hard pressed to stay ahead of the lumberjacks' hearty appetites. Breakfast at an 80-man camp might call for 400 to 500 pancakes, and a day's baking might be 20 pies or 30 loaves of bread.
Meals were disciplined, no-nonsense affairs. Each man had an assigned seat, and conversation was limited to requests for bread, beans, or spuds. The men were in and out of the cook shack in 20 minutes, giving the kitchen staff time to clean up and begin the preparation of the next meal. The cook and cookees had bunks in the rear of the building so their early rising would not disturb the other men.
During the logging season, the lumberjacks made their home in a rustic bunkhouse that often housed more than 70 at a time. The men slept two to a bunk on prickly mattresses of hay. They sometimes lined their bunks with cedar boughs in an effort to ward off bedbugs and "greybacks," the bothersome body lice that followed the jacks from camp to camp.
Each night they hung pants, underwear, and socks overhead to dry. There was a single long bench in front of the bunks, called the Deacon seat; this was the center of the lumberjacks' social life, where they spent their evening playing cards, talking, and smoking.
The white pine boom
By 1849, the year Minnesota Territory was created, logging was in full swing, especially in the pine-rich lands along the St. Croix and Rum Rivers. Eventually, logging moved inland and temporary logging camps were erected each winter in a new location close to a fresh stand of pines.
The lumberjacks’ first task at a new site was to clear the area of trees to make room for the camp. They built their campsites very hastily, paying more attention to speed than detail; they often left the bark on the logs used for their own buildings. The workers would sometimes take materials, such as doors and sawn lumber, with them from camp to camp to help expedite the next build.
Logging was done in the winter, when dirt roads could be turned into ice roads in order to carry 20-ton sleighs to the river twice daily. The camps had two dozen horses that the lumberjacks harnessed to drag logs to landings and hoist them onto sleds. The horses hauled the sleds out of the woods, and the logs were dumped onto riverbanks to wait for spring. With the spring thaw, the lumberjacks drove the logs to sawmills.
The most economical way to move logs to the sawmills was to float them downriver in early spring, when the water levels were high from melting snow. The wanigan, a barge-like boat, was the headquarters for the drive, serving as a floating cook shack and bunkhouse for the river drivers. This methods of transport were prevalent up until the 1890s, when railroads began to penetrate far into the woods.
In the 1800s, wherever there was timber there was also sawmilling. Sawmills were built next to rivers, which were both the “highways” that floated timber from the woods, and also the main source of power to run the mills.
The first commercial sawmill in Minnesota opened in 1839 at Marine on St. Croix. Marine was quickly surpassed by Stillwater, which in turn was overtaken by Minneapolis and Winona.
Steam power was introduced into sawmilling in the 1870s, replacing the need for water power and allowing sawmills to move to other river towns.
By 1880, the growth of commercial railroads, steam engine improvements, and the invention of the band saw, led to larger sawmills and saw-milling towns in Brainerd, Little Falls, Crookston, Cloquet, Duluth, and International Falls.
By 1905, when lumber production reached an all-time high in Minnesota, lumberjacks were felling as much as 2 billion board-feet annually — enough to circle the earth with an inch-thick, 14-foot-wide boardwalk.
Harvesting dropped rapidly after 1905. By the 1920s, the prime pine stands were exhausted and there wasn’t enough lumber-quality timber in the woods to justify the expense of maintaining railroads. The large-scale sawmilling industry virtually vanished by 1929.
The end of the camps
Road building accelerated in the 1930s, spurred both by tourism and by the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Roads ended the camp system, allowing loggers to get into remote areas, haul their loads out on trucks, and still get home in time for supper.
At the same time, pine harvests grew smaller, the quality of Minnesota lumber was going down, and lumber prices were going up. National demand for wood remained high, and Minnesota lumbermen kept cutting. As supply dwindled, sawmills on the St. Croix closed and those at St. Anthony Falls were replaced by flour mills.
With the industry in decline, lumber companies looked to the Pacific Northwest and the South for timber. In 1929, the Rainy Lake Lumber Company in Virginia, Minnesota, closed its doors and signaled the end of pine logging in the state. Lumber companies that remained in Minnesota shifted production from saw logs to pulp, paper, matchsticks, and manufactured building materials. The last log drive in Minnesota occurred on the Little Fork River in 1937.
In the mid-1960s, machines like feller-bunchers, skidders, and crane loaders were put to work harvesting the new forests of young aspen, spruce, and birch. These machines are still widely used primarily for clear-cutting, which is preferred for some types of harvest.
By the 1990s, some new machines began to make their appearance in the Minnesota woods. “Cut-to-length” timber harvesters — already common in northern European countries, such as Finland — reduce the number of machines at logging sites and do less damage to the forest floor. With these types of harvesters, a logger sits in the harvester’s cab, operating a huge cutting head mounted at the end of a highly flexible crane arm. The operator selects and fells the tree, and then, in a matter of seconds, runs the tree through the harvesting head, delimbing it and cutting it into computer-specified lengths, or “bolts.” A companion machine known as a forwarder is used to pick up the bolts, load them into a rack, and haul them out of the woods.
Since cut-to-length systems process whole trees on site, there are always limbs and other unusable “slash” that serve as a mat on which the heavy equipment moves. This prevents the compacting of soil and reduces the risk of damaging the forest floor with deep ruts. Using these systems, timber stands can be thinned to increase light and air, and improve overall forest health.
The typical 21st-century logger lives in the area year-round with his or her family, and is either self-employed or works for a small, perhaps family-owned, logging outfit. Loggers today maneuver not just through forests but also through dense thickets of environmental guidelines. With one eye on timber trends from around the world, today’s logger is a highly trained and skilled worker who combines the talents of a business person, an ecologist, a land manager, and a tech-savvy machine operator.