I am in the midst of something once again that has piqued my curiosity about the then and now. If you’re a regular reader of this column, by now you know I like to tie these little history lessons into some personal experience of mine.
So I’ll start with a funny and possibly self-deprecating story about myself:
A few decades ago I took a friend of mine to Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park in Maine -- I know, I know, it’s not Becker County. Just hang on.
My buddy wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail from top to bottom. On drop-off, I stayed the night camping with him, and the next morning I sent him down the trail with a rigged up cellphone that ran on AA batteries (for emergencies), bags of trail mix and a lofty plan. I drove home through the beautiful countryside. Stay with me.
From the Bowling Green, Ohio area -- also not Becker County -- the drive is about 17 hours straight through. At the time I was younger and had driven as a courier for years, so no big deal.
As it turned out, two weeks in the trail mix, the plan, and just the whole thing went bust, and my buddy called for an extraction. So, new plan: I’ll drive up, grab him, he’ll be well rested from waiting and we’ll drive home. Perfect.
Well, 45 minutes into the drive home he doesn’t feel well and suspects he is “detoxing” from the hike. I’ll spare you the details. We wind up plummeting through the beautiful countryside for another drive -- this time, it’s 35 hours long. This is a lot of time with my thoughts.
Here comes the self-deprecation for you -- the whole time I am rolling through the hills and forestlands of the eastern states, seeing houses nestled in every two or three miles, sharing the roads with a bunch of big logging trucks, I’m thinking to myself, “These are nice homes, but what on Earth do people do up here for a living? What is there for industry way out here?”
Finally, somewhere in the 30th hour, it clicked for me -- THEY LOG HARVEST.
This is maybe 100 years after other folks started doing the same in Becker County.
So I’ve made it back to Becker! I hope you stayed on for the ride.
Moving on to today, as in right now, the museum’s little log house on the Becker County Fairgrounds is having some restoration work done on it. Among the many supplies we’ve needed are, well, logs! Eight-inch-wide Norway Pine logs, to be specific. About 22 feet long, at most.
This begins a sequence of challenges down the path of then and now.
When people built little log homes out of the local trees over 100 years ago, they used logs they could handle. Mills would of course handle larger ones, creating rough-sawn square lumber, but not at all on the level that we do now.
So off on a quest I go, thinking, “This should be easy! We have plenty of logs around and they still make log homes -- in fact, they are on the upswing now.”
Turns out, smaller logs are not too popular anymore, as most everything is milled or cut or finished in some way. It’s pretty hard to get much more than one two-by-four out of an 8” log. It creates a lot of waste.
The other thing is, modern log homes come in dozens of styles that get pretty far from your basic “unpeeled” log. Our log cabin has Dutch Lap or German Lap siding in the gables, and cedar shingles on the roof. There are quite a few things to learn about all of that, such as that cedar shingles and shakes are different, having to do with the angle of the split, cutting versus splitting and such.
Logging has been around for a long time here in this area and, like so many things, much of it is similar to how it began, but some key nuances have changed. Logging used to be done with a lot of hand tools and saws; these days, there are so many ways to handle logs, lumber and timber, from the common chain saw to big machines that cut trees down, cut them to length then and transport them to a truck or train. Personally, I am fascinated by watching them in videos.
The one thing I can tell you is that it is far easier to locate and buy an enormous log now that it was 100 years ago, just as it’s easier than buying an 8” log.
So go forth to your yard and build a log cabin if you like, or stop by the museum to see some old logging tools, or swing out the fairgrounds to see our little log cabin. Any time you grab your chainsaw to trim up a bit, think about those early folks using the big manual saws in our exhibit. Even if quite different from those early days, the logging industry is still alive and well here, 150 years later.
The Becker County Museum is located at 714 Summit Avenue in Detroit Lakes. For more information, visit beckercountyhistory.org or the museum’s Facebook page.
This column is a regular feature of the Tribune's monthly History page. Kevin Mitchell may be reached at the Becker County Museum by calling 847-2938.