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REMEMBER THIS? In praise of lumberjacks

The lumberjack's influence is wide-ranging and timeless

Mackinaw jackets, work boots and big pine logs.

When we have winter temperatures outside no doubt most of us are grateful for a warm home. Is it just the adjustment of a dial or the flick of a switch that allows a few more degrees to turn up your heat, or do you choose to heat your home the old-fashioned way and heat with wood?

What is not to love about the look of a fireplace, the slight smell of wood burning and the romantic ambiance that a wood fire evokes? Though wood heat offers many positive attributes, someone had to do the physical labour to harvest the wood.

Now let us think about one of the latest fashions. Have you noticed the popular styles around town and in retail stores? A whole lot of people, both men and women, are wearing checkered jackets. Red and black, green and white, any colour combination looks great on these bush-type jackets. Their proper terminology is a Mackinaw and so many people today wear them. Then there are the guys who are sporting big beards along with checkered jackets. And how about the boots that resemble just a plain work boot that are all the rage now too?

After more than 100 years, the lumberjack is still in some ways influencing society.

Transport a lumberjack-looking man of today, back before the turn of the century and although he might look like a lumberjack of yesteryear, there would be some vast differences.

The lumberjack, say 120 years ago, could be found walking throughout the lumber towns, searching for a place to spend some of his earnings. Having been relieved of his term in the bush, he could be waiting for the time to pass to enter back into the bush to do the next lumbering job. He could be in the bush sawing large pines and hauling them or he could be found on the river, jumping over piles of jammed logs as he jarred them using a cant hook to break up a jam. He might even be settled back at the lumber camp! These men were tough! They were strong and they were not afraid of a gruelling day of physical labour. They were the lumberjack.

In lumbering towns, the lumberjack was most often regarded with contempt. Holding no position of real influence, many locals sneered at them. However, it is also written that they were one of the most hard-working and necessary bodies of men in Canada.

Their jobs were arduous and very dangerous. An eight-hour workday of today would not have ever been considered. An absurd concept such as this would have been laughed at! A day in the bush was counted as what could be accomplished between the hours of sunrise and sunset.

They were often described as hardy, rawboned, “real men.” They felt at home among the tall timbers of the thick Northern bush. He often bragged about his endurance, boasting about how many sticks he could cut in a day and was proud of his hairy chest that showed through the unbuttoned neck of his mackinaw.

The lumberjack’s day started at 5 am. If he was able, a quick sponge bath started the day. It is said that there are two things that the lumberjack was known to do the best. One was getting dressed and the other was eating his breakfast. It was then off to the nearest job, which could have been anywhere from a two to five-mile tramp through the bush through deep and wet snow. Venturing far into the bush meant isolation and danger as they faced nature head-on. In the early hours of the morning, up hills and around many obstacles with temperatures ranging from 0 to -40, this was a job for the strongest. Starting the day out in the dim of the morning and through until it became dark, the men still had the long trek back to their camp with thoughts of the “grub” that would be waiting for them in the cookhouse.

When back at the camp, a blasting horn would sound, indicating that food was on the table in the cookhouse. No man with a dietary preference could be found here! The staple foods were salt pork, beans, bread, prunes, molasses, and tea. The choice of vegetables was potatoes, turnips, carrots, and cabbage. When supper was served, mounds of food disappeared quickly from the tables! Little conversation was heard, or any complaints about the food. Whether it was not up to standards or even if it was excellent, little was said to indicate either. Nor were there complaints about the individual who did the cooking. The cook rarely received feedback about the meals served.

After being fed and back at their camp, life took on a lighter tone. Men were relaxed. As they rested on their bunk beds which were made of roughcut timbers and a couple of armfuls of hay, the men literally “hit the hay” at day's end. There was always a variety of musicians who played familiar camp songs and step-dancers to jig along. Spellbinders spoke of his prowess with saw and axe, hook and peavy, leaving famous lumberjacks like Paul Bunyon trailing behind.

With male egos and close living quarters, came boasting about which lumberjack could put the most logs on a skidway in a day. For years, many men vied for this title until a man named Archie Gagne successfully claimed it! He was an old-timer with great strength and skill. To claim the title, a skidding competition was held. While other men relied only on their horses to do the work of skidding, it is said that for every 3 logs Archie’s horses skidded, Archie accompanied the team with one smaller log under his arm, claiming his exemplary title!

The information stated in this article was gathered from various Sault Daily Star articles on lumbering in the Algoma region and most specifically the Thessalon / Kirkwood area. The forest in that area was rich in mining and forestry reserves. Magnificent white and red pines were harvested after the mining industry and the area died down. White pine trees towered over 100 feet in height and some four to 5 feet in diameter!

Gone are the days of the men who laboured so heavily to provide all of Canada and areas of the United States with such a valuable resource as lumber. And to think the harvesting was done primarily by the brute strength and wisdom of the men we know as lumberjacks.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provide SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more "Remember This?" columns here.

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