Old-time logging at Itasca: Pioneer Farmers group shows what real hard work was all about
The good old days were a lot of work.
On Saturday, visitors at Itasca State Park got a look at how timber was harvested the old-fashioned way — with teams of horses pulling logs into position, men with saws and axes trimming the trunks, and others with peaveys and cant hooks moving logs close enough for horses to pull them onto heavy transport sleds.
Stacked high with logs, those sleds in the old days were used to "skid" the logs to the local sawmill, pulled down iced-over roads by horses wearing spiked shoes.
The red pine logs used in Saturday's demonstration came from trees that blew down in a major windstorm in July of 2016, which felled hundreds of beautiful old-growth pine trees in Itasca. The park is clearing out a number of the downed trees to lower the risk of wildfire, said Itasca's naturalist, Connie Cox.
The manpower for the old-time logging demonstration came from members of the Lake Itasca Region Pioneer Farmers, and from the Roy Hemmerich clan, which has deep roots with logging and sawmills in the area. The logging demonstration was something of a family reunion for the extended Hemmerich family, which came from near and far to participate.
"My uncle Roy had a sawmill nearby," said Les Hemmerich, who lives in northwestern Indiana. "My dad, Bill, was a park ranger (at Itasca) and they would work together to keep the park safe. They'd move the logs out of the woods to the sawmill."
Earl Hemmerich, who worked extensively in the family logging business with his father, Roy, was in charge of the demonstration.
Using saws and axes, the downed tree was cut into segments and stripped of its branches. The logs, weighing as much as 1,264 pounds each, were dragged into position by a pair of Percheron-Morgan cross horses named Paula and Patti, driven by Bill Isaacson of Park Rapids.
In the old days, Isaacson said, horses wouldn't work if it was colder than 10 below zero, but the men did.
"Those were the good old days — 52 below was the coldest we worked," said Keith Butler, who lives about a mile from Itasca State Park and spent two winters in 1953 to 1955 as a lumberjack working for Ray Hemmerich.
"I used to drive the horses, they were great horses, they knew what to do," Butler added. "I used to ride the log as we skidded it. You'd get tired out there by the end of the day."
After Paula and Patti brought the logs into position, another pair of horses, Terminator and Skeet, driven by Dick Schauer of Park Rapids, helped load them onto the heavy wooden sled. But first, Scott Hemmerich of Park Rapids and Bryan Mesich of Fosston used hooked tools called peaveys to roll the logs up close to the sled.
Schauer and his horses then had the heavy, yet delicate task of pulling the log, attached to chains, to the top of the pile of logs on the sled, without pulling so hard it toppled over on the other side. It called for a lot of communication and cooperation among the men with the peaveys, the driver and the horses, but they all made it work as they loaded 10 logs.
In the old days, Roy Hemmerich had such experienced horses that he could load a sled by himself, using voice commands to get the horses to pull the logs up onto the sled, and, just as important, to stop pulling at the right time, said Earl, who did his share of single-handed loading too.
Tools of the old-time logging trade were also on display Saturday at Itasca, including an 80-pound two-man chainsaw that cost $595 new in 1946, a display of saws and axes, and chains, hooks, peaveys and other tools.
In the old days, the choice of saw, and how it was sharpened, depended on the "species of wood to be cut, whether it was frozen or not, whether it was green, seasoned, dry," said Les Hemmerich.
Blacksmiths were important in the old logging camps, said Cox. Metal tools saw heavy use from sunup to sundown, and constantly had to be fixed and re-made, and all the horses needed shoes.
There was a pecking order in the pay and prestige of logging jobs, she added. Surprisingly, one of the best paid, most important jobs was camp cook. Lumberjacks, working hard in the cold all day, ate about five pounds of food a day.
"There might be 100 or 200 men at a camp, and if they weren't happy with the food, they would leave and go to another camp," Cox said. A good, popular cook had his own followers that would switch camps when he did.
Foremen and teamsters were near the top of the pay scale, and cutters and haulers were in the middle, she added.
"Road monkeys" were on the bottom of the totem pole when it came to pay and prestige, Cox said. "They would go out early, before sunrise, to clear logging roads and ice them down. They wanted that road to freeze up," so the sleds piled high with logs would skid easily to the sawmill. Their job continued after sunset, when they had to clear the logging roads of horse droppings that would melt the ice and leave holes in the road.
The Lake Itasca Region Pioneer Farmers does a winter demonstration every year, rotating between old-time logging and ice harvesting on Lake Itasca.
The group holds an annual three-day reunion and show the third three-day weekend in August on its 25-acre showgrounds, located adjacent to the north side of Itasca State Park on Highway 200.