Dangerous Life of Michigan Lumberjacks

MESICK, MI: In the 1880s Michigan was America’s biggest producer of lumber.  Magnificent stands of hard wood and white pine had been purchased on the cheap by timber barons who made great fortunes clear cutting Michigan forests. By 1930 it was gone. 

Log on sleds, ‘jacks’ and saw in foreground, Mesick, MI, 1914

But the hard-living men who sweated sawing and hauling giant trees became the stuff of legend like cowboys in the American west.   Lumberjacks (they called themselves ‘jacks’) were brave, hearty men who dove into the woods in October, endured the austere life of the camps, and emerged with the spring thaw.  Typically, they went back to farming and then returned to logging after the fall harvest.  

Logging was winter work because only by turning trails and roads into ice could the massive logs be hauled to the river banks where they would be floated to saw mills once ice had broken up.  Camps housed up 100 men. The work day began before dawn and continued until after dark six days a week. Sundays were for sharpening axes and saws, laundry, card playing and drinking. It was not unusual for one or two men to be killed on the job each winter.  

Bunk house in northern Michigan lumber camp

Michigan white pines were up to 150 feet in height and four feet in diameter. When the massive logs had been sectioned they were hoisted onto sleds and chained down. Teams of horses with spiked shoes pulled the loads. 

Log chained to sleds, Mesick camp, 1914

Artemus W. Miller, my great, great uncle was a typical jack. Known as a rural Don Juan,  street fighter and champion storyteller, he later became a successful farmer and family man. Born on a farm south of Grand Rapids in 1862, Art was a family legend by age 25 because he rescued my three-year-old grandmother from a fire.  As happened often with kerosene lanterns, the farm home near Dorr caught fire in the night.  Everyone rushed outside and formed a bucket line to douse the flames.  But in the confusion little Lulu Johnson was cold and unknown to others ran back inside and got under the covers of her bed. 

A few minutes later Art shouted that he could save the bedding. Rushing inside, he rolled up several quilts from beds and carried them outside, at which point to the astonishment of all little Lulu crawled out from a bed roll. For the rest of her life she bore a shoulder scar from where she had been scorched by the fire. But Uncle Art was a hero. 

Lumberjacks were strong confident men equally comfortable with cross cut saws and their own physical prowess. They generally drank more whiskey than others, gambled, and boasted that they could whip any man who crossed them. 

A story told by Art’s great nephew Frederic Hilbert, reveals how Uncle Art ran into trouble in 1880s Allegan County. 

There was a bar room brawl where Uncle Art had it out with a Confederate war veteran who had wandered up to Michigan for work. The ex-Confederate chewed up Art’s thumb, causing so much pain that Art had to give up. Some months later Uncle Art learned that the southerner was working nearby as a plasterer’s assistant. As was common in those days, Art drove to the location and called out his adversary. The workmen formed a circle for a fair fight and Art apparently kicked the southerner into insensibility, dumped quick lime plaster on the fallen rebel, and then drove off.  Tragically, the southerner never recovered and some weeks later died.  Hearing this, Art Miller, did what was common when you got into trouble in those days, he went west. He remained in the Washington territory for two years before returning to lumber camps in the upper peninsula.

By the mid-teens Uncle Art had become a successful farmer in Antioch, near Mesick in Wexford County.  The photo below shows Art atop a 52-foot elm timber, the longest taken out of Wexford County.  It was shipped to England and used in ship construction. Artemus Ward Miller died in 1941. 

Mesick, 1915 prized elm lumber on sleds, Art Miller in long coat, 4th from right

When the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville passed through Detroit in 1831, he remarked “a mile out of town the road goes into forest and never comes out of it.”  

That tableau like the forests that were cut is long gone. From Michigan’s timber era only the tales of logging camps and lumberjacks endure.

(photos courtesy of Nancy Sanders, Mesick Historical  Museum) 

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