Making Lumber And Men

March 6, 2009

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In the last half of the 19th century the Wisconsin economy was dominated by the lumber industry. At its peak in 1890, the cutting, transporting and milling of lumber generated ten times as much wealth as dairying. Had Wisconsin issued license plates for buggies in 1890, they would have proclaimed us America’s Lumberland.

Lumbering was Wisconsin’s first big business, the largest of the large caps, as the financial journalists say. It required vaults full of capital, a work force one-hundred-thousand strong, transcontinental marketing, transportation and financial networks, plus a steady stream of technological innovation.

It was also the machine that ate the North Woods. By 1897, after about fifty years of earnest effort, the lumber machine consumed an estimated 115 of a possible 130 billion board feet of pine in our state. Just pine. Hemlock for tanning, oak for railroad ties, hard maple for flooring, plus additional woods of other species cleared for agriculture or construction added tens of billions more.

On an average working day in the 1870s, the Knapp, Stout & Co.  sawmill on the Red Cedar River at Menomonie could roll out a pine plank one inch thick, twelve inches wide and fifty-seven miles long. In eight days, Knapp, Stout could cut enough one-by-twelves to lay a line of boards the entire length of the 418 highway miles from Kenosha to Superior.

The industry made lumber, but it also made men. In spring, the work shifted from the cutting of trees in the woods to the shipping of logs to mills by waterway or railroad. Many of the lumberjacks, also known as fellers because their job was to fell (i.e. fall) trees, followed the logs and spent the summer as mill hands.

Other fellers returned to the farms they had left the previous autumn. For a generation or two it was common for Wisconsin farm families to send teenaged sons to the woods for the winter. Instead of idling around the kitchen stove, those boys could be contributing cash to the family purse. As a result, many a young Karl, Stanislaus or Sven made the transition from boy to man in a lumber camp. It was part high school locker room minus the showers–and smelled like it; part college frat house, with ranks, rituals and razzing; and part military boot camp, where strength, endurance, teamwork and adherence to the rules as dictated by the bull of the woods foreman, were necessary for survival.

Gangly boyish bodies filled out under a regimen of strenuous physical labor fueled by a high-carb, high-fat diet. Bunkhouse philosophers, older hands who had made logging their life’s work, perched on the rightly-named liar’s bench nearest the stove and passed down the wooly tales of logging lore, the how-tos of woods work, and the traditional culture of Victorian masculinity. Mentors by default, they opened minds cocooned in rural isolation. Some of the wisdom shared was truly wise, much of it was bunkum, and a lot of it was the kind of guy talk not be shared with Mom or Sis, who had to stay at home.

Wisconsin made its passage into the industrial age by way of the logging camp, the place where many of its boys became men.


The Gift of Communities

March 6, 2009

I got to go to New Glarus last week. This may not sound like a big thing but I am a rural guy who does not get out much. I was asked to go to a community event with the thought that it might be replicated in my neck of the woods. Kind of like I was a UN observer, but on a smaller scale, of course.

New Glarus is a great community in Green County, and although it has all kinds of things to do and buy and eat, you will often get a single-word response when you ask people what they know about the Village: Swiss!

Very Swiss.

The event was an annual Gift of Community celebration, and it was superb. It reminded me of the power of appreciation – the kind of community-building that occurs when we take a little time to recognize the folks who make our places better places. All nominees for various awards were cited, and it struck me that, even though there were winners, there were no losers. It was fun. It made people feel good. It charged human batteries. I got a free dinner.

Interloper that I was, it took a while to get acquainted with folks at the table. I was made quite welcome, but there was one little worry in the back of my mind. A question I anticipated and feared. Our conversations grew warmer and more personal and then it happened– the dreaded query was unleashed: “So………are you Swiss?”

Not a head turned nor an eye glanced my way, but I felt every nearby ear sharpen in anticipation of my response. Mom had not prepared me for this kind of stress. Mustering what I could, in fear of instant alienation, I squeaked my response. “No, I’m German.” I felt myself turn pale.

But I lived. Actually, I continued to be warmly accepted, and the conversations got more cordial and went every which way. I met new friends, and even heard someone remark that a neighbor of theirs had met a German once, too. He wasn’t such a bad egg.

Rural communities can be a lot like urban neighborhoods. They have unique identities–art and culture unique to their people, to their location and their history. A community’s uniqueness is a welcome sign. Come be part of us for a while.

So thanks to the good people of New Glarus for the lesson learned. I, too, received the gift of community, and I was reminded how neat it is for us all when we take the time to shine the spotlight on the neighbors whose everyday contributions are the bricks that build big, figurative edifices of warmth and inclusiveness.

I hope my little community and arts organization can do something like this soon, too. How about yours?

Ricky Rolfsmeyer

Executive Director, Wisconsin Rural Partners

Hollandale WI (pop. 283)