“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.