Long Beards and Short Tales: Tyrant of the Log Drives

Long Beards and Short Tales: Tyrant of the Log Drives

The raft in the foreground holds an anvil and brazier for horse-shoeing and tool repair. The other raft carries the Mary Ann, the domain of the cook.

A hundred years ago in the Connecticut River Valley, a logger had to be pan amphibian. When spring came after a winter's work in the woods, the loggers were sent downstream along with the logs. The trip down the Connecticut River could take as long as three months and most of that time was spent on the water, though very few rivermen could swim — and even if they could, the heavy spiked boots which kept them dancing on top of the logs could also keep them submerged.

There were many different jobs available on the drives besides that of river hog or driver, the nimble man with a peavey who pried logs out of jams and kept them moving from "can to can't' — from the first light of morning until nightfall when he could see no longer.

You could be the bolt puncher, or dog driver (the fellow who pounded a metal dog into the end of a log that had been stranded in a meadow, which the horses then hauled back into the river), or the dog tripper (who pounded it back out once it was in the water), or the jill-poke man, a jack-of-all-trades who was handy with the haywire from the ubiquitous bales of hay and who could mend just about anything with it. (If you got carried away, you had gone 'haywire."

Or if your temperament was particularly black, you could be the cook.

A cook was either a boiler or a sizzler, depending on his preferred method of preparing food. They all brewed tea the same way, however—strong enough to float an axe. And most of them were tyrants.

The general tyranny of logging camp cooks is historically linked, perhaps, to the availability of lemon extract among their cooking supplies, and to the powerful fact that men who weren't fed wouldn't work. This gave the cook extra leverage with the boss and extra room for his sensitivities (he was easily insulted) and eccentricities (one cook in Maine, for instance, was known for always kneading his dough with his mittens on).

But no one knew the cook's tyranny better than the cookee, his assistant, who rushed about from three in the morning until late at night, building fires, chopping wood and going on hopeless errands.

The cooks and the cookees on the Connecticut River drives worked out of floating kitchens known as wanigans or Mary Anns. These were collapsible shanties built onto rafts (made out of logs, of course) that could be taken apart at the end of a drive and shipped back north. Inside the shack was a stove and a sleeping area consisting of loose straw thrown over the logs. The deck was used as a porch for collecting things that roll around, for food storage and bales of hay, and for drying laundry.

River-drive cooks were famous for their gingersnaps as big as dinner plates and for their bean-hole beans, which were "planted" in iron pots over embers in a riverbank and covered with red hot stones, followed by sand and dirt, and then cooked for three days.

However, if none of these jobs on the river suited you, you might have found a niche for yourself as a balladeer, especially if you had some French Canadian blood. In which case you might have celebrated the energetic properties of the bean with "la bigne, la bigne, la jolie, jolie bigne," or perhaps something more thrilling, such as these lines from "When the Drive Comes Down":

For it's break the rollways, out, my boys,
     and let the big sticks slide!
And file your calks and grease your boots
     and start upon the drive.
A hundred miles of water is the nearest way
    to town;
So tie into the tail of her and keep her
    hustling down!

See Robert Pike's "Tall Trees, Tough Men' and Katharine Blaisdell's 'Over the River and Through the Years, "for more log drivelore.

 
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