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These boots were made for logging

Caulked boots like these were worn by “River Rats” for their traction while climbing on floating logs during log drives. This pair is now part of a permanent display on logging at the Becker County History Museum 1 / 4
Marie Johnson / Tribune2 / 4
The floating kitchen, or “Wannagan” that’s on permanent exhibit at the Becker County Museum is a reproduction of the front portion of one that was used by the Nichols-Chisholm Company of Frazee. The kitchen was equipped with an enormous wood burning range and large work table, and all the food was made from scratch. Kettles used were large enough to boil six large hams at once. The cook had two helpers, called “cookies,” who waited tables and washed dishes. Marie Johnson / Tribune3 / 4
Two-man saws like these were commonly used by lumberjacks to down trees. Logging was big business in Becker County's early days. Pine stands in and around just a small part of what is now Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge contained an estimated 502 million board feet of lumber, equaling 1.5 million trees. Many early settlers worked on lumber camps over the winter. Marie Johnson / Tribune4 / 4

This is the fourth in an occasional series of stories for our monthly History page. Called "A Closer Look," the series will spotlight some of the unique and interesting exhibits on permanent display at the Becker County Museum.

Back before Becker County was Becker County, the land was so densely packed with trees that pioneers wanting to move here couldn't clear roads, much less space for homes and farms.

Luckily for those early settlers, the loggers weren't far behind.

Loggers were among the earliest pioneers of Becker County, as much out of necessity as out of the timber companies' desire to capitalize on the area's abundant lumber supply.

But even for the loggers, clearing trees was a challenge.

"Since there were no roads yet, the only way for early loggers to get the logs out of the Becker County woods was to get them into the nearest river and float them to the nearest lumber mill," explained Emily Buermann, Becker County Museum's program director.

The Otter Tail River was the river most often used to transport timber, with most of Becker County's logs ending up in Frazee, which had the area's first and biggest lumber mill. There was also a mill in Detroit Lakes, which often received lumber from west of the Otter Tail River. This mill was located where Central Market is today. It burned down in 1914.

Ferrying logs down the river was no easy feat. Men called "River Rats" had the almost impossible job of keeping the logs in line and in motion, which required them to travel down the river right alongside the timber—or rather, on top of it.

Wearing special boots with sharp grippers on their soles, and using pike poles to poke at the logs to keep them straight, the River Rats would ride the logs like surfboards. Giant, rotating surfboards. The water was often icy cold, and men who fell in could be killed—especially if they fell between two logs. It was a dangerous balancing act that took grace and guts.

A pair of these River Rat boots, called caulked boots, are now on display at the Becker County Museum as a part of the museum's permanent logging exhibit. Also displayed are dozens of old logging tools as well as a reproduction of a floating kitchen, or "wannagan," that was used by the Nichols-Chisholm Company of Frazee. The floating kitchen "was like the world's tiniest riverboat," Buermann said. The loggers would eat all their meals there while the timber was in transit.

At other times, the lumberjacks ate and slept at lumber camps. They were exclusively men and were usually either settlers in the area who worked at the camps seasonally, or lived migratory lives.

It was rough-and-tumble work, but Becker County has lumberjacks to thank for pretty much all of the economic success that has occurred since those early days. It was the lumberjacks who cleared roads through the area's vast woodlands, and it was those roads that cleared the way for more settlers, businesses and, eventually, the railroad to come through.

"It's on permanent display because it's such a huge part of Becker County's history," Buermann said of the logging exhibit.


Talk like a lumberjack

Big sticks = the woods

Stem = leg

Ground hog = the man who sends logs up to the sleigh

Giver her snoose = hurry up

Pike = supply road

Sawyer = lumberjack who saws down trees and cuts them into logs

Gazebo = woodworker

Send out the tote road = get fired from a job

Road monkey = the man in charge of keeping up the logging roads

SIDEBAR 2 (use with the pic linked last or don't use at all):

If this tree could talk

Its many rings tell its long tale: It was here in 1832 when Henry Schoolcraft discovered the source of the Mississippi River in Lake Itasca. It was here when Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839. It was here in 1868, when the first group of Indians arrived at White Earth, and in 1871 when the village of Detroit was founded. It lived through several wars, the invention of the light bulb, the California gold rush, and the introduction of the railroad. The tree—Becker County's last known Virgin White Pine—lived for well over 150 years before being cut down from its post at Eagle View Township, near Tulaby Lake in Becker County. A preserved slice of the tree is on permanent display at the Becker County Museum as part of the logging exhibit.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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