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Shanty Boy Stories

What would it have been like to be a Michigan teenager working in the woods or in a sawmill? These stories by former loggers tell of driving the big wheels, sleeping in the shanty, eating in silence, fighting in the cook shanty and playing jokes on new men in the camp.

The stories were told to Edith and William Overlease. They are a part of oral histories about logging that the Mr. and Mrs. Overlease recorded. The Overleases typed and reproduced the oral histories as "A History of Logging in Benzie County, Michigan" in 1973. The Archives of Michigan and the Library of Michigan have copies of the 323-page document in their collections.

"The Same Old Grind, Day In, and Day Out"

I started in at 15 in 1901. I was what they called a swamper. I knocked the limbs off the logs and made the trails for the skidders. I hitched up the logs and put 'em up to load on the drays. . . .

'Cause I was young, I didn't draw a man's pay. . . . I drawed twenty dollars a month and board. And I worked too, and don't you think I didn't! . . .

About five o'clock in the morning you hear the horn blow. It's a horn as long as a door and it'll wake you up . . . . Well, there's a great wrassle, tussle. Who's getting to that sink to wash first. . . . Most of 'em are ready when the short horn blows. And that's to come in to breakfast. . . .

They file in single file. . . . No talking at the table. You could say, pass this or pass that. That's all. . . .

Well ya gets through breakfast. Back to the men's shanty they go 'n. . . . When the foreman decides it's time for the boys to start for the woods, he throws the door open. "Hurrah lads!" And they begin to file out to go to work. . . .

Well, they put in six or seven hours. . . . Comes dinner time. If you're two miles away from camp, you can hear that horn blow, then in ya go. Well, you get washed up and ready. Then a short blow on the horn 'n everybody comes in and eats. In a very short time they're on their way back to the woods. Because they consider from the time that horn blows 'n you was out in the woods, the noon hour begins. . . .

You go back to work and you work another five'n half, six hours. . . . Well, you come in, have your supper same as you did your dinner, set around telling stories, sing songs, some of 'em played cards, too. . . .

Well, it runs along till ten minutes to nine. . . . That chore boy says "ten minutes to nine, boys." He'll say it about three times going the length of the shanty. And he goes back to the cook's shack and helps awhile. . . . Well, he'll be [back] in there at nine o'clock. Them lights disappear. . . .

But things must be quiet after them lights go out. No body talks. . . . Ya got to remember where your bunk was and whether it was the top bunk or the second top bunk or whatever it was. Sometimes there were three bunks high.

Well, that's about the size of it. It's the same old grind, day in, and day out. What it is one day, it is the next day. What is one week, it's that same way all winter long.

Told by Ralph E. Hooker (1886-1965), recorded July 5 and August, 1965, Honor, MI.

"A Load of Sawdust"

D.B. Butler was the fellow that was running [the shingle mill] when I was a kid. I worked there when I was sixteen. I drove a dump cart.

We had a team of course. . . . There was two big dump carts handled with teams. . . .

My partner was another kid sixteen and he piled short wood [wood cut into 16" lengths for use in stoves]. . . . He got 75 a day. I was drivin' our own team. I got my board. I didn't get any money, only when I'd sell a load of sawdust for 10, or somethin' like that. That sawdust was a waste at that time, and if somebody around town that had horses or cattle and wanted sawdust for bedding, they'd see one of us fellas, and they'd say, "I'll take a load of sawdust, and you can dump it in the alley."

Told by Roy Oliver (1884-?), recorded August 4, 10, 1966, Frankfort, MI.

"Driving the Big Wheels"

When I was twelve years old I wheeled them old big wheels. . . up to the mill. They drove 'em down in the woods for me and I took them up to the mill and had someone help me unload 'em. I always went right on the run.

Told by James Bargerstock (1871-1972), recorded July 23, 1965, Thompsonville, MI.

"Piles of Lumber"

At fourteen I piled lumber at a mill three miles north of Manton, on Cold Creek. . . . They had a tramway, and little trucks, tram trucks. They went abut a half a mile . . . to a big lumber yard, and the lumber was piled up there. Hardwood as well as hemlock. Wasn't no pine up there, not that I recall. . . . Then after it dried, why Ed Wiserow, I'll never forget him, he was a lumber scaler, and we'd get up on top of them old lumber piles, and I'd push the lumber off to a fellow named Ashley down below. They'd load it onto them little tram cars and pull it by a horse up on this dock and load it into cars on the G.R. and I. Railroad north of Manton.

Told by William O. Sears (1874-?), recorded August 4, 1965, Benzonia Township, MI.

"Working on the River"

I was fourteen years old, I drove the Betsie River for Jack Osborne. I drove everything, everything that these was work. . . .

They fed you good when you was workin' the river . . . ham and eggs, all you could eat, and good bread. You'd go up here and you'd get the logs and you'd go down the river, and when you'd go down that far, you'd turn and come back. Then another crew the next morning would come and take what you fetched down. . . .

The logs were stamped on the end when they scaled 'em, when they bought 'em in the woods. Well say that you had a thousand feet to sell, or thirty thousand, or three thousand, whatever amount you had to sell. The scaler'd come along, say it was a Bellows scaler, "I give you four dollars and a half, and you put the log afloat." Well, you'd take it, and at that time when they was first startin', four dollars was a big price, and you'd take it. Well he'd come home and use his Onyla and Scribner rule . . . he'd lay his rule out . . . would rule a sixteen foot log into a big hundred and eighty board feet. The rule would tell you what was in that log . . . the scale rule would, and he'd put a mark on it . . . a stamp . . . iron stamp . . . BB, Bellows Brothers. Yeah, a metal stamp right on the hammer. L.W. Crane had a boxed C, a square and a C, and Butler's mark was a boxed X, a square and an X into it.

Told by Jacob (Jake) Long (1872-1966), recorded July 17, 1966, Benzie County, MI.

"Fighting and Joking in Camp"

There was no conversation at the table. That was one of the rules. Obviously, you couldn't talk at the table, because with forty men sitting around the table, if they were all talking, nobody would ever get anything. Your conversation was limited to "pass the bread, pass the potatoes." You could do that and that was all, and the cook watched it very carefully.

We all sat at the same place at each meal, that was the rule. There was nothing but benches to sit on, but your position on that bench was important. When you'd go to a camp, you'd get that position or you'd get that place to sit at the table and you protected it.

I was a youngster when I went in there, and I got in another man's seat. When he came in, he asked me to move over. I resented it because I had my plate full and I was eating because I was hungry. I told him to sit down beside of me because there was lots of room. But he didn't see it that way and finally after a couple of times, he just grabbed me around the neck and dragged me off that seat. Of course, I was just a youngster and I wanted to be a man awful bad. I got up off the floor and I hit him. Then he hit me, and that was the end of it. There wasn't a man that moved to protect this small young boy. It was the law, you couldn't do that. But the cook came out and he was the king of that cook shanty, "Take that fight outdoors." All he was interested in was getting it out of his cook shanty. But it was over with and I remember it. You grew up fast in a lumbercamp. This man was a fine fellow, he was afterwards a real good friend of mine. They explained it to me, why you couldn't do that. It was probably pretty crude, but at the same time, his whole prestige was "protect that seat." He was less than a man if he let someone get it. That was one of the rules.

We had farm boys that came in [to work in the lumber camp] and they were different. . . . They were what we called unskilled but they were swampers and road monkeys and like that. . . . They were usually the brunt of all the jokes . . . in camp.

They used to send them out on trips from way out in the woods to the blacksmith shop to get a skyhook. This was a fictitious deal. The blacksmith being in on the job would give them something real heavy, just about all they could muckle to carry back there, you know.

Another thing was to send them in for a cross haul. A cross haul was a road or just a trail opposite the sleighs that the team moved back and forth on to load the logs. To send one of these fellows in for a cross haul was a lot of fun.

Told by Ellsworth Emmett Joy (1895-?), recorded August 8, 25, 1965, Benzonia, MI.

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 09/10/2010

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