I Have Earned My Place: A Logger’s Year, 1936

I Have Earned My Place: A Logger’s Year, 1936

Prior to the advent of trucks in the woods in the mid-1930s, horse-drawn sleds transported pulpwood from the forest to the railroad or river. Loggers and teamsters loved to set records for the largest load. On March 4, 1925, The Coos County Democrat reported “another record breaker.” Slim Frank, “King of the Forest,” drove a load of 10 cords, 88 feet of pulp, with one pair of horses 4.5 miles from Groveton Paper’s Lyman Brook Valley Camp to George’s Siding, where it was loaded onto freight cars. This photo was taken in the Moosehead Lake region of Maine. Photo courtesy of the Moosehead Historical Society.

In 1936, the United States was still struggling to escape the Great Depression. And things were especially bad in Groveton, New Hampshire – a paper mill town. Groveton’s mill fell two years in arrears on its property taxes beginning in 1932. That same year, lack of orders forced it to shut down the Number 3 Paper Machine. Throughout the 1930s, the mill operated sporadically. Every month a relief truck brought food and necessities to town. Shirley Brown, then a small child, recalled: “I saw my Mother and another woman rolling in the dirt fighting over [a] box of prunes.”

The life of the loggers who supplied the paper mill with four-foot logs was tough even in prosperous times. Cyril (Cy) Hessenauer, a logger who worked in a variety of camps in Stark, Groveton, and Stratford Bog, New Hampshire, as well as Canaan, Vermont, from 1935 until he entered the army in 1942, was something of an anomaly amongst woodsmen. He faithfully kept a diary replete with keen observations of the loggers’ life: the weather, nature, wildlife, and day-to-day challenges. He did not drink; he wrote poetry; and he was a lay preacher and occasional philosopher.

I stumbled upon Hessenauer’s journals from 1936 while conducting interviews for an oral history project on the Groveton Paper Mill. The document had been preserved by Arlene and Francis Roby; Francis occasionally cut pulpwood with Hessenauer after the war. The Robys kindly granted me permission to reprint the following passages that offer a rare view into that long gone era when loggers still relied on axes, bucksaws, and horses. Note: entries in brackets indicate an editorial note or a summary, rather than a direct quote from the diary.

I Have Earned My Place: A Logger’s Year, 1936 Image

Photo courtesy of Deborah and Herb Miles.

January 1: Began the year with bad cold. Nearly all men in camp sick.

January 10: Real blizzard last night. Snowed most of day. Got to load five loads tonight. Do not feel good cannot get used to night shift. Found a louse again last night. Hard to get rid of I guess.

January 11: Barney told me tonight I was to look after night shift. Men discontented … Had rather not taken responsibility for that on down the road and see no reason why I should let them drive me. I have earned my place.

January 25: Stuck a pulphook in my knee last night and is very stiff and sore.

January 30: Shaved this PM. Face pretty badly windburned, chapped and peeling.

February 2: Weather changed in the night wind the worst yet, very very cold … Put on three pair pants over wool union suit, 2 top shirts and 2 jackets, a handkerchief over my ears, under my cap, and a scarf. Two pair of mittens.

February 12: Such a night. One load broke a rocker pin. Tractor stuck. An empty dray had broken runner. Discovered it way up mountain. Got morning at last. Got some wood down anyway … beats all how this job drags now. Can’t make any headway.

February 15: Big joke. Got laid off at noon.
Boss came in said all of us were done.

February 20: It is nice to be in town for a while even if I don’t make as much. Can’t live in the woods all of the time.

February 25: Very wet today had a bad day pinched a finger, a toe, and fell off a truck.

February 29: (Saturday) Crew got laid off so am out of job again. Once more must trust the Lord for work and daily bread. Won’t mind a days [sic] rest if it don’t last too long.

March 1: Am already tired of town and ready for woods again … Guess never can be satisfied anywhere else.

I Have Earned My Place: A Logger’s Year, 1936 Image

A typical New England camp. Photo courtesy of the Moosehead Historical Society.

March 9: Wet snow.

March 11: Wet. Trucks laid off at the [Stratford] Bog. Wonder what will happen to me next.

March 12: Rained all day.
Snow disappeared like magic. No work.

March 13: No work because wood had slid on railroad track … No wood allowed to come in.

March 16: Hard rain all day.

March 17: Was very warm. Getting muddy. Still lots of snow in the woods.

March 18: No work. Went out and helped load a couple of trucks. Started to rain again. River coming up all the time. [This is the day the Connecticut River flooded the small tissue paper mill at Northumberland, three miles south of the Groveton mill.]

I Have Earned My Place: A Logger’s Year, 1936 Image

The Wyoming Valley Mill in Northumberland, New Hampshire, during the flood of March 18, 1936. The overpass above Northumberland Village’s Main Street connected the paper machine building (left) to the finishing rooms (right). Joan Breault was a small girl at the time of the flood. She recalled: “The water was over part of the bridge, and they had a plank from the end of the bridge to one of the windows in by the paper machine because the whole village was flooded. I remember we stayed on the Guildhall side, and my dad went over to check on something in the mill, and he went across and went up that plank into the paper machine side, and they could go across the road and check [the finishing rooms] over there.” Photo by Guy Shorey, courtesy of Rosa and Roland Roberge.

March 19: We took pier out from under bridge. No chance for work in lumbering very soon, I guess. River came up all day bridge became unsafe toward evening at last. No one allowed on it. Much fear for dam above. Much pulp gone; roads under water. But nothing to what was farther downstream.

March 20: River began falling here …
No papers or mail now. We are cut off here from the world.

March 21: Water going down slowly. No mail or papers yet.

April 14: Sun shone some for a real change. Snow nearly gone again now. I feel little bad luck today. The last cut at night, Andy broke a bucksaw blade. He was too tired. I think must watch and not let him overdo. He has not the strength I have any more than most men have.

April 15: Ran crosscut saw till little after noon. Got it filed and it started to storm rain then snow again. We soon gave it up and came home. Ground axe and tried to file bucksaw, but too cold. Snowed very hard.

April 16: More storm. Still snowing hard. We went up in the hill and trimmed out tips for the house here. The boy hauled them in. Upset last load.

April 27: Tried to get out 4 foot wood for Miles. Worked hard fixing road. Got one load about ½ cord out by noon. Used cross tier dray. Wood kept sliding. Thought could fix it but after dinner on [level?] it still slid. Horses lost shoes so could do no more.

April 29: Worked on road pounding stone all day.

May 1: First real warm day. Mosquitoes are coming out strong. 227 feet done. Peeling is not far off now.

May 5: Peeled pulpwood. Flowers coming out spring is here.

May 10: Pulp coming downstream quite a jam at the mill now.

May 20: [Late start. He was ill, but peeled 43 trees. Snowed, cold wind.]

May 26: 5 loads of pulp. Paul seems to think we can get to work peeling on company lot the first of the month. Men still in town waiting to be shipped out. Say the timber is poor this year.

May 28: Cook had brakes, or fiddleheads, for supper that we brought last night. Sure were good.

I Have Earned My Place: A Logger’s Year, 1936 Image

New England loggers in camp, circa 1917. Photo courtesy of the Moosehead Historical Society.

June 20: Cut the biggest one yet a birch. I felt badly about having to cut it down. It probably was a tree when the Indians were here and it saw the spruce forest in which it grew cut and another forest grow in its place and I had to cut it down.

June 22: Dandy day to work cool all day. Not many flies.

June 23: Porkies woke me up trying to eat up camp.

June 26: Our night prowler is a bobcat I guess. Andy got a glimpse of him last night. He comes and digs in the ashes of the hearth to see what he can find. Andy puts the bones and so on in the stove.

July 4: [A black team from Boston played Groveton in baseball on July 4.] Game played very fair. No race feelings showed. Not much sign of drinking till toward night.

July 9: Some rain but not enough to do any good. Timber drying up very fast.

July 11: Our wildcat paid us a visit again last night. I tried to be quick enough to see him. He upset our woodpile but I did not see him.

July 13: Great day for flies worst we have had yet. Andy and I just black with tar and a regular swarm of flies around us all the time trying to find a tarless place. Once in a while biting through the tar.

July 27: Filed new saw at noon and it sure cuts. Hard to pull after the little one. It looks a foot wide . . . Have lost a lot of money because of that little saw.

July 30: Camp Porcupine [Name of his logging camp]. Kitty evidentially caught some animal behind our stove and such a racket. I went out with my flashlight and he was crunching bones just above the camp. He let me get within 25 feet of him. I could see him, but my flashlight was too weak to see him plainly.

August 6: Am going to try to help [Andy] learn to read.

August 15: Real rain at last. Patched socks but did not get up till 8 o’clock. Just rested for once . . . After noon went out and picked raspberries for Kimballs. The berrys [sic] were good had not the bears not smashed them down so and picked them so clean.

August 24: Wind blowing hard. Leaves begin to show signs of coloring in the shrubs and some trees.

August 31: Such a day. Got scale at least 17 [cord] 3 ft. pulp. 15 cd 7 ft cordwood. Comes to mighty $83.85. Only got docked one foot of pulp but could only get $25.00. Eats came to $17.50.

October 10: Andy got mad and left this AM.

October 11: [Visited by pair of coons – younger one is getting tame.]

October 16: Had splitting bee this PM. Powder sure does the trick. Had to learn how much and to get my plug in right but got big tree all blowed.

October 19: Cant hook slipped and hit me in jaw and my lower teeth. Cut gums some.

October 21: Andy refuses to eat what I have cooked. Guess his stay will be short unless he gets over it because I am not going to let him spend half his time cooking now.

November 10: Had what appeared to be an earthquake shook last night very peculiar sound and [illegible word] on shelf vibrated.

November 11: Very windy cold night but wind blew itself out and the sun came up clear over a world of marvelous beauty. The mountains seemed so high the air very close and they all snow [sic] . . . Northern lights burn every night now.

November 21: Andy got up mad again told him to pack up and get out which he did . . . Ronnie came around and scaled. Gave good scale 26.70 pulp. 13 3/8 cd.wd. 1 ft. rough pulp. Went to Groveton got supplies … Drew $20.00.

November 27: Very cold some wind . . . Beautiful moonlight but getting very cold. Timber popping like rifle shots.

November 28: Sounds like a war outside the timber pops so.

November 30: Had some fit of blues this A.M.
Kimballs got me over them. Life going to beat me again.

December 5: Went to Groveton. Walked in.
Big dog at company farm bit me in leg.

December 9: Been awful itchy since Jim came.
Discovered was quite lousy this morning. Went after them.

December 13: Talked about Andy. Afraid he is dead up in woods in Nash Stream. [Note: The Coos County Democrat on December 9, 1936, reported: “Arthur Littlefield, 42-year-old resident of Amesbury, Massachusetts was killed Thursday [December 3] when he fell under a logging sled at Nash Stream. Littlefield was instantly killed, and it is believed that he slipped and fell under the sled as he attempted to jump from it as it neared the foot of the hill. The sled was carrying about five cords of pulpwood and being drawn by a tractor at the time of the accident. He was employed by the Groveton Paper Co. at Camp 21.” Hessenauer’s “Andy” was Arthur Littlefield.]

December 31: Been itching all the time and though could find no more lice here just know must be lousy. Last night found [some?]. Top shirt just full. Boiled today.

A Philosophical Woodsman: Selections from Cyril Hessenauer’s later diary

May 27, 1938: A day in peeling time is a brief interlude between sunrise and sunset. It contains 3 bites of food a million flies a series of bumps and bruises a huge amount of work and a hope to do more tomorrow.

May 31, 1938: A woodsman is a 2-legged creature that lives mostly in the woods. It is very active in the winter but it’s [sic] main value is in the summer as without it millions of flies might starve.

June 1, 1938: A bark peeler is a very distinctive insect. It infests woodlands in spring and summer destroying huge quantities of timber every year. They look very much like men till they are seen at close range.

June 2, 1938: A day’s work in the woods is when you stumble into camp at dark fall into bed and think you are in heaven.

June 11, 1938: Tree squeak soup is a delicious concoction made of the audible vibrations created in the atmosphere by two trees rubbing together. It is best when flavored with a strong wind and an imaginative mind.

December 27, 1941: For my camp wood I am like a spider. I go out and pounce on a piece of wood and lug it into my web (camp) and there I digest it.

Epilogue: After the War, Cyril Hessenauer worked in the woodroom of the Groveton paper mill. The Coos County Democrat reported that on August 1, 1952, he was hospitalized after being overcome by heat exhaustion while working in the chip loft in the mill. He died on September 9, 1971, at age 70 after a long illness. Two volumes of his diaries survive: 1936 and a five-year diary covering the years 1938-1942.

Jamie Sayen is putting the finishing touches to his history of the Groveton mill, You Had a Job for Life: An Oral and Pictorial History of a Northern New Hampshire Paper Mill. He is author of Einstein in America, and he published The Northern Forest Forum from 1992-2002. He lives in Stratford, New Hampshire.

  1. Stanley Long → in Norris, TN
    Sep 12, 2016

    Interested in your story because Cyril Hessenauer was my Uncle, My mother’s brother. I only met him once when I was probably 4 years old.

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