Life in Lumbermen’s Shanty on the Mississippi
Carleton Place Canadian, 14 March, 1963
By James Sidney Annable
(Contributed by H. Morton Brown)
Some scenes of the Ottawa Valley’s great square timber era have been preserved in a group of boyhood recollections of a native of Carleton Place, James Sidney Annable, continued here.
As a young boy Sid Annable left his home in Carleton Place to spend a winter in the early eighteen eighties as a cook’s helper at a Boyd Caldwell lumber camp in the forests of the upper Mississippi River district. Over fifty years later he presented his version of his experiences, which follows here in a shortened form. Allowance may need to be made in some respects for the long interval between the time of his youthful employment and his time in writing of it.
“I left home to go to the head waters of the Mississippi River as a cook’s flunkey in the shanty of Boyd Caldwell, Sr., pioneer lumberman with timber limits near Ompah. We outfitted in Lanark village and travelled by wagons. There were about thirty teams of horses. The wagons were loaded with bob-sleighs and tools, along with provisions to feed seventy men that winter. The foreman in charge, we shall call him Bob Price, was six feet tall and weighed about 200 pounds.
Wagons were loaded to capacity with flour, beans, black molasses, salt pork, sugar, tea etc. The cook wagon was equipped with utensils and food already cooked to feed the crew of teamsters, axemen, roadmen, sawyers and river drivers.
At Lavant Station near Ompah our camp site was already staked out. On our arrival at Snow Road the ice was on the inland lakes and creeks. We arrived with a number of men sick with colds and sore feet. Many of them had to cut brush roads. At last the wagons arrived.
Building the Bush Camp
We lived in tents while the shanty was being built out of hemlock logs. Trees were felled and axemen notched the ends and locked them on the corners, boring an augur hole through each tier and driving dowel pins of ash and hickory to hold the corners intact. When the walls of the shanty were up and the plates were hewn out, rough timbers were placed on top of them. Rafters were made out of tamarack and spruce tapered from eight inches at the butt to four inches on the top. The pitch of the roof was about thirty degrees.
The roof was made by hewing out the centre of eight inch split logs with an adze. They were placed alternately, first concave and the next convex, allowing the edges to lie down snug in the concave side. This made the roof watertight and almost air tight when completed. Ventilation was provided at the eaves, and by the big open chimney which carried off the smoke.
Around the south end of the shanty, bunks were constructed three tiers high and five feet wide, each to hold two men. The beds were made soft by cutting cedar boughs and filling the bunks with them. Each man had to make his own bed, the blankets being furnished. Pillows were ‘out’ until flour sacks were empty. They were filled with straw and in time everyone had his pillow.
The cookery was a log box about six feet wide and eighteen feet long, filled two-thirds full of sand. Tamarack wood in six foot lengths would burn and crackle at both ends of this fireplace. A post was set in the centre with iron bands, with loops for the large iron pipe that supported the cooking utensils over the fire. When we were boiling spuds, beans and ‘sow belly’, the beans when boiled soft were placed in a two foot cast iron kettle with a cover which projected out over its edge. These were buried in the hot sand and ashes overnight. They were ready to serve for breakfast piping hot, flavored with blackstrap molasses, and with plenty of salt pork browned to a golden hue.
The bread was baked in the same way, the huge loaves coming out of the Dutch oven with crust on all sides. They were cut in wedges. At meal time each man took his tin plate and tea basin and knife and fork, and stood in line until the cook or the cook’s devil would help him with his food. After each meal each man took care of his dishes and utensils and put them on the rack ready for the next chow time.
Days Work Done
When the day’s work was done and supper over, the boys, seated on the long benches that ran in front of the bunks, would enjoy themselves by playing euchre, pitch or old sledge for tobacco or any of the goods that were in the company’s van. The men could have all the supplies they wanted as their credit was o.k. until spring. There was always music galore, flutes, fiddles, mouth organs and jews harps. Old shanty songs prevailed. The old timers took delight in hanging it onto the tenderfoot, but it did not take long for the first-timer to learn his way about. Wrangling and fighting were taboo.
Washing was usually the Sunday pastime. This day was my hardest task. It was up to me to see that plenty of hot water was in the big cauldron kettles and that the soap, which the cook made, was not wasted.
Fresh meat was seldom served in those days but there was plenty of wild game to be had. With no shooting allowed we used to snare rabbits, and trap deer.
Partridge were plentiful and many a brace would come to camp, killed by the boys on the trail. Venison was packed in snow and on Sundays we usually would have a feast.
Spring Drive Starts
Now spring was coming and the square timber that had been hewn by the broadaxe men on the banks of the river was slid down on the skidways, greased with pork rind, into the water. Each stick would be sixteen inches square and thirty to forty feet long. They were floated alongside each other and held together with swifters and rope sometimes made of the inner bark of the ash or elm. They were formed into cribs of twelve sticks each. If the streams were narrow the cribs were made narrower so they would float and not break apart. When the drive was ready the cribs were polled by hand down to the big waters or lakes. Then they were fastened together to cross the lake. In the centre the cookery was located, and tents for the river drivers.