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History of logging industry is also a cautionary tale

NORFOLK — When Michael Palin of the British comedy group Monty Python sang, “I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK, I sleep all night and I work all day,” he was historically accurate.Dr. Paul K. Barten, executive director of the Great Mountain Forest and professor of Forest Resources at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, painted a similar picture of life in American logging camps as part of his lecture on “The Myth of Inexhaustibility: 19th-Century Logging, 21st-Century Lessons.” The talk was on Saturday, April 9, at the Norfolk Library. The Great Mountain Forest is a 6,000-acre working forest in Falls Village and Norfolk.Logging was dangerous work, Barten said. The expression “pass the hat” originates from the practice of literally passing a hat when a crew member was killed. “The money went with the body to the widow.”The loggers worked in the dead of winter, when it was easier to get the wood out. And while 19th-century technology made incredible advances in about an 80-year period, the chain saw was years in the future.Not that it mattered much to the loggers. “A crosscut saw in skilled hands was not much slower than a chain saw,” Barten said.As timber harvesting moved west, the difficulty in getting the trees — much, much larger trees — increased. Technology kept things rolling.The railroad, the steam engine, incredible wooden bridges built in vast crevasses — all these things, combined with relatively cheap labor, contributed to the industry.A logger’s daily food-fuel intake was 8,000 to 12,000 calories per day. Logging camps budgeted 65 pounds of food per man, per week.They took Sundays off, had a wash and maybe a card game. Otherwise they were on the job. And since they were paid on a piecework basis, they worked as hard as they could.There was a strict hierarchy in a logging camp, starting with the camp boss — usually a veteran logger who had shown some executive ability in managing a large group of large men with ready access to sharp, heavy instruments.Next came the scalers or cruisers, who located the timber and did the mapping.The cook was next in the pecking order. Barten said losing a cook was catastrophic for a camp.Then came the guy who sharpened the saws and other equipment, the blacksmith and/or farrier, the company clerk and the cook’s helpers.One of Barten’s slides showed a photo of a river choked with logs, as far as the camera could see. Hence the term “log jam.” The loggers became river drivers at this point — work even more dangerous than the logging.And if they survived that, many worked in the sawmills during the summers.But eventually the industry started to run out of raw material. From Minnesota to St. Louis along the Mississippi River there were 73 major sawmills in 1879; by 1915, there were none.What happened to American forests between 1850 and 1920 is “a cautionary tale of an unfettered, unregulated free market,” Barten said.Barten also spoke of the near extinction of the American buffalo and the extinction of the passenger pigeon in making his point: “We have it in our DNA to alter the environment beyond its capacity to deal with us.”

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