Sawing square-edge lumber at the McGinnis sawmill from timber downed at Harvard Forest. Such mills were set up at sites across New England to quickly deal with the huge quantities of logs being salvaged. Image courtesy of Harvard Forest Archive.
To call the hurricane that pummeled the Northeast on September 21, 1938, “New England’s Katrina” might be to understate its power. Without warning, the storm plowed into Long Island and coastal New England, killing hundreds of people and destroying roads, bridges, dams, and buildings that stood in its path. Not yet spent, the hurricane then raced inland, maintaining high winds into Vermont and New Hampshire and uprooting millions of acres of forest.
Stephen Long, the co-founder and former editor of Northern Woodlands, just published a new book on the subject called Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New England. What follows is an excerpt about the salvage operation in the wake of the storm. Imagine waking up and finding your woodlot blown over, then, as news trickled in, realizing that the whole region was facing the same problem. Here’s what happened next.
Congress was not in session at the time of the hurricane, so New England senators and representatives could see the damage firsthand. Population centers would have gotten their attention first, but in case they didn’t understand how bad conditions were in the woods, their constituents let them know. One such letter found its way to the archives, written to Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts on October 5 by Judron Foster, a selectman in the Town of Westminster. Sparked to write by “numerous inquiries” he had received, Foster focused his letter squarely on the timberland.
This disaster, to my mind, measured by value, is far greater than dwelling and factory damage combined, and it seems if the Federal Government is favorable toward performing a magnificent and far reaching service, ways and means of operating these damaged timberlots could be established. It is vitally important, however, that all the lumber be housed and protected until more favorable prices are assured.
The average rural inhabitant of New England has saved and nurtured his timberland to tide him over in later life, in other words, timberland has been his bank account. Many of these individuals haven’t under normal conditions means to operate their lots, cutting, drawing, sawing, etc., say nothing of clearing out the present tangle of fallen trees, and it would seem that unless something definite transpires before spring, the fire hazard will be a second threat against the revenue derived from taxation.
In conclusion, I most earnestly ask you as the representative of the people in this vicinity, to make every effort to establish ways and means to cope with this most unfortunate condition.
People knew how to write letters back then (isn’t “a magnificent and far reaching service” priceless?), and Foster sets the stage very well, noting the double whammy of the fire threat and further loss of income potential for a populace already reeling from the Great Depression. He and many others had heard stories of sawmill owners and loggers offering their services to forestland owners to remove their damaged wood at a price that was far below the going price paid for stumpage. Stumpage is the rather artless term for timber sold on the stump or “as is, where is.” Before the hurricane, white pine stumpage was bringing between $4.18 and $6.79 per thousand board feet.
An official from the Federal Land Bank of Springfield, Massachusetts, elaborated on the problem, noting that “the mill men, at least some of them, thought they were going to make a good thing out of the blow down. In some cases, they offered to remove the timber only if it was given to them, and in other cases offered from 25 cents to 50 cents” per thousand board feet. In southern New England, as Foster suggests, most of the forestland owners were not working the land themselves but were holding it as a bank account. So some unwary landowners were thus liquidating their bank accounts at a value of pennies on the dollar just to be free of the colossal mess in their woods.
The potential for gouging made Foster realize that the lumber would have to be stored long enough for its value to be stabilized, and he also realized that it couldn’t be done without the “ways and means” of the federal government. Others who acknowledged the same situation suggested that logs rather than lumber should be stored while prices could stabilize.
The Forest Service analyzed the situation in this way. The average volume of lumber sawn in New England’s mills in recent years had been five hundred million board feet per year. Reliable estimates showed there was at least five times this amount lying on the ground. The lumber industry, having contracted during the Depression, simply couldn’t build itself back up to handle this amount of timber in a timely fashion. And even if mills could saw it, who would buy it?
The market couldn’t be counted on to take care of the problem, because any increases in normal market activity would handle only a small amount of the downed timber. Further, as long as supply exceeded demand so vastly, there would be little or no price paid to the landowners for stumpage, and negligible profits for loggers or manufacturers. In addition, the Forest Service officials were concerned about the consequences of failing to salvage the wood. They feared that the “remaining down timber, for which there was no immediate market, would rot on the ground, forming tremendous insect, disease, and fire hazards in addition to economic loss.”
The Forest Service saw the need for a stabilizing influence on the price of logs and the flow of lumber to market. The only way it could accomplish that was to put the power of the federal government to work, establish a fair price for logs, and buy up all it could. The service could then meter the logs out into the market as demand required. At the heart of this reasoning was that the purchasing program would allow thousands of local landowners to realize a decent return from what could have been a nearly total economic loss.
The only problem was that the Forest Service had no authority to purchase two billion board feet of logs, or the money to spend on it.
A Program and A Plan
While the Forest Service is most widely known as the administrator of the nation’s many national forests, from the start it has had two other core responsibilities: to conduct research and to assist and cooperate with administrators of state and private forests. Ferdinand Augustus (Gus) Silcox was the Forest Service chief at the time. A Roosevelt appointee, he was both a systems guy and a man’s man. He was also no friend of the timber barons of the day, who he saw as exploiting working people while pillaging the public good for private profit.
Silcox advocated for federal acquisition of forests, cooperation with private landowners, and public regulation of forest practices on private land. To that end, he had been instrumental in drafting legislation that would have granted his agency regulative authority over timber harvests on private land. The measure had been defeated, but his efforts had made him many enemies in the forest products industry.
In the 1930s, there was a name for people who thought as Silcox did: communist. And indeed, after five years on the job, in the month before the hurricane blew through New England, Silcox was charged as such during a congressional hearing by Representative Noah Mason, a Republican of Illinois.
Silcox’s reputation as anti-industry was well established at the time that New England’s landowners faced the daunting dilemma of salvaging value from their downed timber. So when Silcox designated a deputy to manage the New England Forest Emergency project, he turned to a man who was on better terms with the forest industry. Ted Tinker had been supervisor of two national forests, then worked on land acquisition in the Lake States of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Later, when the Lake States became a Forest Service Region unto itself, he was named to lead it. Success in that role brought him in 1935 to Washington, where he was named the first head of the State and Private Forestry Division. By all accounts, Tinker was a pragmatist, someone who knew how to get things done.
Tinker worked well with the state foresters and with the forest products industry. He had run interference for his more idealistic boss before, assuring the industry that any regulation would be local, not federal. And even though he could have been deemed suspect because he’d spent much of his career in land acquisition for the Forest Service, Tinker had plenty of experience working with private landowners in the Lake States district, where the private acreage greatly outweighed that of the public, and he’d earned their trust. In a 1954 profile in American Forests, Nard Jones wrote about Tinker’s assignment to lead the New England emergency effort, “It was a big job, a tough job that had to be done in a hurry. And it was fraught with political dynamite. Ted Tinker got that job.”
At the same time he was overseeing the buildup of the New England firefighting capacity, Tinker was making the rounds, meeting with all the state foresters and with representatives of the industry. He sought their advice and their help in analyzing the extent of the salvage problem and what should be done about it. That said, there was never any doubt that the Forest Service would step in to buy much of what had blown down.
Behind the scenes, he and his boss were figuring out how to accomplish all of this without an appropriation from Congress, which was not expected to return to Washington any time soon. Neither the Forest Service nor the Department of Agriculture had borrowing power, so they had to come up with a different source of funds.
Tinker proposed to make use of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), an entity wholly owned by the federal government that administered aid to state and local governments and made loans to private entities. He suggested that the RFC could make available a revolving loan fund of $10 million to a newly formed entity to purchase delivered logs from landowners. The new program wouldn’t buy stumpage – it would be up to the landowner to arrange and pay for the cutting and delivery of logs. The stored logs would serve as collateral for the loan. The program would then sell the logs or, if it proved necessary, saw logs into lumber and sell the lumber. Tinker’s team, the one being created to handle the problem, could take care of the details. And he offered to use the Boston office to get the program started and then hand it over to the loan maker over time.
What the government was doing, he argued, was to “merely establish a market for logs, and leave to the local people the business of logging and milling.” Many owners of small woodlots would have preferred not to have to contract with the logger to cut and deliver the logs, but Tinker felt that it would be too cumbersome to get in the logging and sawmilling business. Four days later, on October 13, Silcox wrote a memo to Jesse Jones, the powerful chairman of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Following Tinker’s recommendations, he proposed establishing a government-owned nonprofit corporation to handle the situation in New England. Management would come from the Forest Service, with broad powers to set prices, purchase logs, and sell logs and lumber.
The proposal was batted around, tweaked, and ultimately approved in short order, a display of inventiveness and flexibility characteristic of the New Deal environment. Silcox and Tinker created and funded a new program to handle the salvage by finessing relationships among three corporate entities that were wholly owned by the federal government: the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC), the Disaster Loan Corporation, and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Out of the fancy footwork came the Northeastern Timber Salvage Administration (NETSA), staffed with Forest Service personnel but operating within FSCC. The $15 million loan that established NETSA was secured by mortgages on all the timber it would purchase from landowners. The loan would be repaid out of proceeds from subsequent resale of the logs and wouldn’t come due until January 1, 1942. Silcox quickly delegated his authority to Tinker to run NETSA. The pragmatist and the idealist clearly worked well together. By November 14, 1938, everything was in place.
The first item on Tinker’s to-do list was determining the price to be paid for logs. NETSA studied price reports from the preceding five years and came up with a schedule of prices for the different species. The initial proposal had landowners receiving 80 percent of the price up front, with a supplemental payment coming after the government had recouped its money. Landowners found this unacceptable, and few of them delivered logs on this basis. NETSA responded by increasing the up-front percentage to 90 percent and increasing the prices paid for the lower grades, a concession large enough to start the trucks rolling.
A more difficult sticking point was deciding how to measure the logs. Given that a log is essentially a cylinder with a slight taper, it seems that knowledgeable men could come up with a reasonable method for measuring its volume. Over the years, they have – dozens of them. Each state had its preferred log rule or measuring system.
In New Hampshire, they used the Blodgett rule, and across the river it was the Vermont or Humphrey rule. Maine had the largest selection to choose from, the Holland, the Bangor, the Saco River, and the Square of Three-Fourths. Massachusetts had its Mill Tally Log Rule for White Pine, and the foresters working on the Green Mountain National Forest used the Scribner Decimal C. The scaling systems are called log rules because the volumes and the corresponding diameters and lengths are printed on a long wooden ruler, more like a yardstick, used in the log yard.
The peculiarity about log rules, and this continues today, is that the log is not scaled according to the volume of a tapered cylinder but by how many board feet of lumber can be sawn from it. The rule predicts the volume of the boards that will be sawn from the cylinder. Each rule springs from a different formula that takes into consideration the unusable parts of the log: slabs cut from the perimeter and the sawdust lost from the saw’s kerf or thickness. Some rules favored larger logs with little taper; others, the Blodgett, for instance, have a built-in advantage for logs with smaller diameters.
Each state wanted to use its own rule because that’s how its mills and loggers were accustomed to buying and selling timber. As the primary buyer, NETSA wanted to simplify its program by having a single log rule govern the whole region. After considerable study, it adopted the International Quarter-inch Rule as the standard, having determined that it would closely and fairly approximate the amount of square-edge lumber that could be produced by an efficiently operated mill.
That solution satisfied nobody, and it absolutely enraged the boxboard industry, because it sawed round-edge, not square-edge, lumber. In sawing round-edge (which today is usually known as live-edge), they sawed each log straight through, never turning it on the carriage to find the best face. Straight-through sawing essentially does to a log what an egg slicer does to a hard-boiled egg.
The boards’ edges were left curved and intact, the bark often still attached. Because there was so little waste, the log volumes in the Massachusetts mill tally ran 10-20 percent higher than ordinary rules. Especially in Massachusetts, but also where boxboard still ruled in New Hampshire, the NETSA log rule became known as the “swindle stick.” The rest of the country had moved on to square-edge sawing and had developed a complex system for grading both logs and lumber.
NETSA also imposed a grading system on the logs it purchased. This was tough love for log sellers, providing higher prices for the best logs, though there were few. In hiring log graders, NETSA favored young men out of forestry school to do the scaling because they were new to it and didn’t have any preconceptions. NETSA paid eighteen dollars per thousand board feet for the highest-grade pine log, fourteen dollars for the middle grade, and only twelve dollars for the common log.
Seventy percent of the logs were purchased at the lowest grade. On top of that, logs that weren’t straight had their scale reduced.
Jim Colby, whose sawmilling career began with Thirty-Eight, fumed about this way of doing business: “Good god, they were screwing the people right and left. You’d have a log with just a little sweep in it and they would cut it right down as far as scale.”
NETSA had some other restrictions. It agreed to purchase only from storm-damaged areas, and only those trees damaged in the hurricane. To ensure that it wasn’t buying only the dregs from a woodlot, NETSA insisted that a landowner sell it all or none of his logs. The Maine state project director wrote, “We are not in the market for the ‘skim milk’ in instances where some private purchase has taken the ‘cream.’ ”
Where did all these logs go? War movies often depict situation rooms in which generals examine a map and move pins around on it to show strategic positions: enemies, fuel depots, key topographical features. The equivalent of that situation map for Thirty-Eight resides in the archives at Harvard Forest. A flat wooden box about three feet square, it unfolds on hinges to show a map of New England. Peppering it are hundreds of pins, their tops color-coded to designate either a NETSA or a private sawmill. Many of the NETSA pins also bear a flag with an identifying number. Dots colored red or blue mark the location of the log storage facilities, with blue signifying a wet site (pond or lake) and red a dry site. The presence of a pin and/or a dot means that there was enough downed timber within ten miles or so that it was worth setting up a place to store and saw logs.
The density of the pins gives a clear impression of the extent of the damage. Central Massachusetts east of the Connecticut River looks like a dog’s nose full of porcupine quills, southern New Hampshire slightly less so. Other areas are more sparsely marked. Few dots or pins adorn the map west of the Green Mountains in Vermont, and while they don’t extend far into Maine, there is quite a clump of them in Cumberland County.
NETSA scouted for ponds, because wet storage would buy them time, keeping the pine logs from staining or being chewed by beetles.
Hardwoods don’t float, so those would have to be stored and sawn quickly at a dry site, but pine and spruce could be stored almost indefinitely. An early memo from Tinker shows that he assumed they’d be storing pine logs for as long as five to ten years. NETSA ultimately found 260 wet sites and began taking deliveries of logs, the first loads arriving at two sites in New Hampshire on November 21, 1938, one week after Tinker took charge of NETSA and exactly two months after the hurricane. A mythology has developed over huge pine logs still to be found in the depths of New England ponds. It’s true that some of the logs sank or were stuck in the mud bottoms. NETSA even did a study of it and found that approximately 2.5 percent of the logs sank if they were stored for two and a half years. I spoke with a man who earned money for college scuba diving for logs from a New Hampshire pond, and he said that the logs were well preserved but tended to be small.
It didn’t take long to realize that NETSA wouldn’t be able to find enough wet sites, so it contracted with farmers to lease open land for dry sites, and at the dry sites, there was no time to waste. The logs would have to be sawn by the middle of the following summer to retain their value. Tinker hadn’t wanted to get into the business of sawing lumber, but the clock was ticking and NETSA began contracting with sawyers.
Many New England lumbermen felt threatened by the government competing with them, and rumors spread about NETSA planning to dump low-priced lumber into a market that had finally been stimulated by the need to repair and rebuild after Thirty-Eight’s wholesale destruction. Tinker and his Forest Service crew met with industry leaders, including the heads of two trade associations – the Northeast Lumber Manufacturers Association and New England Lumbermen’s Association – at the Toy Town Tavern in Winchendon, Massachusetts, and the working group became known as the Winchendon Committee. It hammered out an agreement spelling out the terms of the sawing program and publicized it to quell the rumors. Logs would stay in the ponds indefinitely, and only the logs at the four hundred–plus dry sites would be sawn. After sawing, the lumber would be stored at the mill site until a buyer could be found for the entire site. NETSA mills sawed the lumber square edge because it was to be marketed outside of New England – south to the Potomac and west to the Mississippi – so it wouldn’t compete directly with the New England mills, which would presumably be purchasing the logs from the ponds to saw into lumber for local markets.
NETSA advertised widely for loggers and owners of portable mills to come to New England, and it was soon under contract with sawyers who trucked in portable mills from throughout the region and beyond, including New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.
Jim Colby’s father, Joe, retrieved his mill, which had sat idle for the previous decade in Northfield, New Hampshire, and joined the legion of sawyers. The Colbys set up that mill in Concord’s Rollins Park, whose old pines had been destroyed. Joe Colby may not have agreed with federal government’s scaling or grading practices, but he knew a good business opportunity when he saw it, and he quickly bought another mill, then another, until he ultimately had seven mills sawing up hurricane logs. He set up mills at dry sites in Canterbury, Boscawen, and Concord. He also sawed the logs stored in Clough Pond in Canterbury, Deermeadow Pond in Epsom, the Bay in Salisbury, and at the Girl Scout camp on Lake Tarleton in Piermont.
At two of the mills, Colby sawed square-edge lumber for NETSA at its going rate of $7.50 per thousand board feet. But at the other sites, he sawed round-edge lumber. At Clough Pond and Deermeadow Pond, he sawed on contract with New England Box Company, which bought the logs at the NETSA scale and made out well.
Jim Colby explained how that worked. “If there was 100,000 board feet in the pond scaled by the government, it overran 25 percent, and New England Box got that 25 percent because the government sold them whatever was scaled in that pond. It worked out for us because we got paid so much per thousand to do it, and it worked out for them because they got the extra money.” So it turns out that the swindle stick worked to the box companies’ benefit. All told, the Colbys’ mills sawed more than fifteen million board feet.
Over in Vermont, which had fewer ponds to choose from, one of the dry sites was in Bradford at Wentworth Blodgett’s, who leased eight acres to NETSA. It had to be that large to store logs, set up a sawmill, store sawn lumber, and store sawdust and slabs. The rent was a dollar a year plus a portion of the sawdust and slabs. Logs were skidded there from the Blodgetts’ and three other neighboring farms. I could find no records to indicate whether logs were delivered by truck to the site from other owners in the vicinity, but given that Bradford and Newbury had significant blowdown, we have to assume that it bought logs from beyond the four farms.
Fifty years later, Wentworth’s son, Put Blodgett, was curious about the huge event from his childhood, which led him to Ken Stockman, who had helped salvage the logs. Stockman responded to Blodgett with a letter explaining how it went. His father, Harold, ran the operation for the Blodgetts and the three other farmers. He hired five or six men to go into the woods with their axes and crosscut saws. The workday lasted nine hours, which earned a man three dollars a day. Blodgett’s father purchased an Allis Chalmers Model M crawler tractor designed for hauling logs, and Ken Stockman was given the job of running it. The crew started in late October, and the cutters worked their way through the tangles of trees and began to convert what they could into logs. Another man, a Finn from Corinth, used two horses to skid the logs out to skidways where they could be loaded on scoots for the crawler to pull to the landing.
A scoot was essentially a sled with two eight-foot-long elm runners and a pair of heavy bunks that could hold eight hundred to a thousand board feet of pine. Stockman would deliver an empty scoot to one of the skidways and then go pick up a loaded scoot at another. As driver, he didn’t have to load the scoot, but he did have to unload it at the landing. He wrote, “In order to keep up with the cutters, there was no time to loiter. On the trip back from the landing you opened the throttle wide open and let it go.” Stockman guessed that in six months, they salvaged between half a million and three quarters of a million board feet, “not bad for a bunch of mostly amateurs and considering the conditions we had to work under.” It turns out that he underestimated; NETSA records show that it purchased 849,000 board feet at Vermont’s Dry Site number 10. Stockman’s crew finished logging in April as mud season kicked in, just after a man arrived from New York with a portable mill. This was typical of the way the work progressed everywhere. Across the region, any man with the slightest logging experience could find a job. Besides the dangerous work, they suffered through a snowy winter. Jim Colby worked with the crew at Lake Tarleton Girls’ Camp that winter. “We had thirty-four men chopping and logging, and four teams of horses. We’d shovel our way in in the morning and get in there about eleven o’clock and we’d shovel our way out at night. Oh, that was a terrible winter,” he said.
Despite the difficulties, most of the logs were delivered by July 1939, with a peak of 110 million board feet delivered in March 1939. NETSA continued to accept logs until June 1940, at which point it had purchased 690 million board feet from 13,563 landowners, paying out $8.3 million. New Hampshire, whose citizenry has long prided itself on its independence and its belief in small government, was by far the largest beneficiary of the program, its landowners receiving 59 percent of the $8.3 million. The volume salvaged privately couldn’t be measured precisely, but NETSA estimates that it came to 560 million board feet. Combining NETSA and private operators, 1.25 billion board feet was salvaged, slightly less than half the estimated 2.6 billion that had blown down.
Though NETSA hadn’t wanted to be responsible for sawing lumber, in the end it managed to sell only 84 million feet – 12 percent of the total – as logs. Along the way, it found itself with a huge standing inventory of square-edge lumber and nobody to buy it.
Realizing at the start that it might own the lumber for quite some time, NETSA required the sawyers to sticker and store the lumber in piles, with overhanging roofs built according to its exacting specifications.
Across New England, in as many as four hundred farm fields and log yards, lumber stacked twelve feet high in pile after pile stood drying out, while NETSA tried to sell the contents of each yard in its entirety. Ultimately, it did even better than that, selling 425 million board feet – more than two-thirds of the lumber – to a single entity. L. Grossman and Sons, a pioneer in the building supply retail business in Quincy, Massachusetts, created the Eastern Pine Sales Corporation to purchase lumber and eventually logs. It signed the contract in late 1940, which was a huge relief for the NETSA officials, who could now go about their business knowing that they could make good on their loan. The total cost of the salvage program was $16,269,300, of which almost $15,000,000, or 92 percent, was recovered by the government.
The efforts of individual landowners were bolstered by an army of recruited loggers who brought the logs out of the woods. Hundreds of sawmills and their crews sawed it into lumber. CCC, WPA, and Forest Service crews stripped the logs of any highly flammable material. At a time when jobs were scarce, rural New England was put back to work.
Neither Silcox nor Tinker, the two architects of the operation, was around to see it all play out. Tinker resigned from the Forest Service on December 16, 1939, to take a job as executive director of the American Pulp and Paper Association. Only four days later, Silcox died of a heart attack. He had already written his annual holiday letter to his Forest Service family, this one under the title “Guarding Democracy.” In it, he wrote,
Although these are days when armies march as dictators command, America stands firm for democracy. It is the job of every one of us to help maintain that stand. As a Nation we draw civic and spiritual guidance from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. For most material things on which our strength is based we turn to the earth, its minerals, its soils and waters, and to the plant and animal life they yield. As members of the Forest Service we therefore rededicate our efforts to securing wise use of our natural resources.... You and I are members of an organization permeated by the spirit of public service. Foresters, we are also citizens of a democracy. I am confident, therefore, that our efforts and our lives are also rededicated to preservation of tolerance, kindness, and those ideals that guided our forebears when, seeking blessed sanctuary, they founded this United States of America.
The day after Thirty-Eight transformed the region, the headlines in the papers told of its devastation and of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Then, as the New England Forest Emergency program reduced fire hazards and the Northeast Timber Salvage Administration bought logs and sold lumber, the drums of war were beating ever more insistently. When the United States entered the war in December 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a huge percentage of the hurricane lumber was sold back to the government for military use, much of it as crating. The government had gone out of its way to avoid the New England tradition of sawing round-edge lumber for boxboard, and then ended up using much of the nicely manufactured square-edge lumber to make boxes and crates for shipping war materiel.
If NETSA administrator John Campbell saw that irony, he glossed over it in touting the program’s accomplishments: “That New England, the nation, and the anti-Axis allies benefited from the program is unquestionable. The stock pile of lumber provided for promotion of the war effort substantiated the old adage that ‘It’s an ill wind that bloweth no man good.’”
Stephen Long’s Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New England, was published by Yale University Press in March 2016. Visit his website here.