I’ve cut a lot of trees since I first picked up a chainsaw 30 years ago. Besides cutting firewood every year, I cleared the site for our road and house when we first moved here. I enjoy the work and have gotten safer and more effective at it over time, but I am more than happy to leave the real work to a real logger.
We’ve been fortunate to have some fine loggers work on our land for us. The most recent is Kevin Braman, who has been back three times. In Kevin, we have a logger who is both conscientious and incredibly productive in his work. Those two traits don’t necessarily come hand-in-hand because careful work takes time. When I come home from the office to look at his work, the landing is full of freshly cut logs and the woods don’t have a look of chaos. I’ve complimented Kevin on this, and he often deflects it by saying, “You should meet my Uncle Fred. He’s the most efficient logger I’ve ever known.”
When he was a young man of 20 or so, Kevin spent a month logging with his uncle. “It was the best thing I ever did. I’d been cutting trees for years, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.” Besides directional felling, Fred taught Kevin how to lay out roads and how to efficiently fell a sequence of trees to make up a hitch for the skidder.
Early this summer, Kevin introduced me to Fred at the Chelsea, Vermont, farm where he had grown up, and which Kevin now owns. Fred Braman’s 75 years show up in his white hair but nowhere else. He speaks forthrightly and with a classic Vermont accent, wherein words like there and bear are pronounced as if they had two syllables. He has nine and a half fingers, the last knuckles of the index finger on his right hand having been severed in an accident with a firewood splitter. Otherwise he’s unscathed by his many decades in the woods.
The Braman farm straddles the First Branch of the White River, its haymeadows and well-kept buildings standing serenely against a backdrop of steep hardwood hills that have beckoned many a foliage photographer. When Kevin’s father, Wallace, bought the farm from his own father in the late 1950s, he turned to these hills to recoup some of the purchase price. And he turned to his youngest brother, Fred, to cut what had long been the family’s sugarbush.
Fifty years later, Fred still has his saw sharp and his skidder ready. I asked him why he continued working after most men his age had retired.
“The way I’ve always looked at it, everybody has a purpose in life. My purpose is to see them trucks go out loaded with wood,” Fred said. “I like the exercise, to keep my body in shape, and I always loved being in the woods. There’s always something new.”
“And I always like going back after I did a job. It’s rewarding to go in and look and see how the woods are growing back. I’ve had such good relations with landowners, never had any problems all the time I bought lumber. I’m proud of that.”
Fred built such a solid reputation as a straight shooter that he never had to expand his territory, and the farthest job he ever had was only 17 miles from home. To make that happen, he kept to three concise principles: “Make sure the landowner gets what’s coming to him, do a good job, and clean up the landing.”
Revisiting the family woods he’d logged as a young man brought back many memories, which he recounted as we climbed the steep hill. “Wallace was farming and busy with cattle and haying. He wanted me to look after the job and put the road in and the landings and take care of the trucking. Nobody thought we could get a truck road all the way in up here.” But they did, and it saved them from having to skid logs more than half a mile down to the valley.
Kevin still has the paperwork for the job, and he said that his father sold the sugar maple and yellow birch logs for $3,400 and they cut somewhere around 40,000 board feet. At that time, yellow birch was more valuable than sugar maple, going for $120 per thousand compared to $70 for the maple.
Standing where one of the headers had been, Fred shook his head ruefully, almost apologetically, and said, “We cut this pretty hard, Kevin, we opened this up pretty good, because Wallace needed the money.” These soils are so productive, though, that in 1981, Kevin was able to cut another 34,000 feet, and the forest is a showplace, filled with 14- and 16-inch maples likely to be veneer quality.
Fred now lives in Groton, 25 miles to the northeast, and I visited him there a few weeks later. The woods in Groton are entirely different, because the soils are poorer. “It’s not like over in Chelsea,” Fred told me. “They got nice maple over there. We don’t have that on this side of the ridge. It’s more the softwood and the white maple and white birch. I’ve got 50 acres, and I don’t believe I could cut 1,000 feet of good maple logs on my land.”
The different forest meant that he ended up specializing in softwoods, rather than hardwoods, and he was able to turn that to his advantage. Spruce, fir, and hemlock aren’t graded based on quality: it’s either a sawlog or pulp. With hardwoods, whose value is based entirely on quality and can range from a $10 pallet log to a $1,000 veneer log, there’s a lot of sorting and checking on markets. With softwoods, you know what you’re going to be paid when a load of logs goes down the road.
With that predictability, he always knew what he had to produce each week to make a living at it. “When I cut spruce, I’d always like to get four truckloads of logs out and one load of pulp in one week. Lot of times I’d get more than that if it was a decent work week.”
Four truckloads means he was cutting and skidding 16,000 board feet a week. Add in the tractor load of pulp (12 to 15 cords, the equivalent of another 6,000–7,500 feet), and his weekly production would be the equivalent of 23,000 board feet. To reach that volume, he would cut 30 to 40 trees a day. If you’ve ever cut a tall spruce and limbed it, working your way through whorls of brittle branches and covering yourself with pitch, you might not want to repeat that 200 times a week. “You’ve got to like doing it,” Fred said. “And I loved it.”
On the best day of my life, I couldn’t fell 30 or 40 trees, let alone limb them and skid them to the landing. To accomplish that day in and day out, you have to have a clear plan of attack. Said Fred, “I spend most of the first day flagging out the main roads and then the spurs.” Kevin said of his uncle, “When Fred walks in, he knows what needs to be done, knows what to cut first to make the job work.”
When Fred got started, he logged with a horse (two horses if the terrain required it), then moved on to a dozer. In 1978, he found himself working on a job that was more than his dozer could handle. “It was so rough, so much stone and rock, it was shaking the dozer all to pieces. I said, ‘I’ve got to buy a skidder.’” He learned of a John Deere 440B that was selling for $10,000. It was a 1973 model, and Fred told the owner, “I’ve never even sat on a skidder before, but I’m going to have a fella I know put it over the coals, not abuse it but just run it. And if it’s what you say it is, and he says it’s in decent shape, you’ll go back with your $10,000.”
Fred has owned it ever since.
“We can go out there right now. If it turns over more than four times before it starts, I’ll give it to you,” he said. I always wanted to own a nice old skidder, and off we went. He turned the key and pushed the starter button once, and it didn’t start. He didn’t look worried, and second time, sure enough, it fired right up. He smiled. “I think I got my money’s worth.”
Indeed. It only took him six months to pay off his loan, and he has worked since then without a skidder payment. At a time when many mechanized operators have faced bankruptcy because they couldn’t produce enough every month to meet their loan payments, Fred continues to believe that the model of one man and a skidder is the way to go. “That’s where the money is made,” he says.
At his family’s urging, he tried to retire at 62, but he couldn’t stand it. So even though he started collecting Social Security, he just kept working. But he has slowed down. He and his wife, Signa, have been going to Florida each winter for the last 8 years. He hunts, he plays golf, but it’s clear that he would be just as happy logging. This year, he’s pecking away at his own woods, the first year he hasn’t logged for other landowners. “I could go up on one of the places I’ve been logging for the past 25 years, but I’m not going to. I don’t want to be taking work from these local boys. They’ve got families, and they need the work.”
After I left Fred’s, I had one more stop. I headed east, drove past the village of Groton, and just past the old cemetery, I turned in to the new cemetery. I followed the directions I’d been given and arrived at a headstone with a lilac growing beside it. Fred and Signa had it made a few years ago so their kids wouldn’t have to worry about it. Engraved on the granite, in addition to Fred and Signa’s dates of birth, there’s a woodland scene. At the edge of the woods is a cabin, and there’s smoke coming out the chimney. Included in the scene are some of Fred’s tools, an axe, a measuring stick, and a chainsaw. And yes, there in profile is the 440B John Deere skidder, looking like it would start right up. In the foreground are a few stumps. Without stumps, Fred wouldn’t have had such a nice life.