Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Woodsmen's Day At The Fair

After thirty-four years of wanting to, I finally went to Woodsmen’s Day at the Fryeburg Fair. It’s always been on a Monday and I always had to teach at my old school about half-a-mile away. If I skipped and went to the fair I’d see dozens of people who knew me, knew where I was supposed to be, and who could see I wasn’t sick, so I put it off until after retirement. Weather wasn’t the greatest though. Rain was forecast. It didn’t come, but the day was mostly cloudy, damp, and raw, and that added to a certain sadness I felt.Why sadness? There was a kind of “John Henry” feeling about it. Older readers may remember hearing someone like Johnny Cash sing a version of the old “Steel-Driving Man” ballad. As the legend goes, John Henry was a big, strong man who drove steel spikes into wooden ties to hold down the rails. His job was threatened by a steam-driven machine that would replace human labor and he challenged that machine to a contest. John Henry won, but it wore him down so much that he died of exhaustion in the way a horse will run itself to death.Woodsmen’s Day had lots of ax-wielding events - though axes are a tool you’re not likely to see at a logging site anymore. There were buck-saw and two-person crosscut saw events too. All these old tools were replaced by chainsaws, of course, and there there were also competitions for those. Guys with whining souped-up saws cut through a 10X10 pine beam three times - down, up, and down again - in less than four seconds. If you blinked, you missed it.Lately, even chainsaws are being replaced in the woods. Giant machines called feller-bunchers with big steel arms grapple onto trees while a huge steel circular saw cuts them off at the stump, then lays down a bunch of them for newer grapple skidders to muckle onto and drag to the landing where another giant machine grabs them and feeds them into a chipper. They’re getting more common than chain saws and old-style steel-cable skidders. Feller-bunchers were on display for sale in an area adjacent to the Woodsmen’s Day events. You’ll probably still see a chainsaw on a logging site today but it’s seldom used. Somebody may pick one up to cut a little tree out of the way or, ironically, to drop a tree too big for the huge machines to handle. As far as I know, there are no competitions planned at Fryeburg Fair for feller-bunchers, and Paul Bunyan isn’t around to challenge one of those machines the way John Henry did in the twilight of his profession back in the 19th century.They’re all dead now, but when I moved to Maine way back in the 20th century, there were still guys around who had logged with horses, crosscut saws, buck saws, and peaveys. One showed me how easy it was to limb a downed tree with a sharp ax. Chainsaws and skidders had taken took over by then however. Most loggers worked in three-man crews - one called a chopper downed the trees and limbed them. Another drove a cable-and-winch skidder to drag logs to the landing, where another worked to cut the trees to market-length logs. When the landing was full of logs and/or pulpwood, an independent with a logging truck would come in and haul them to the mill.

Cutting firewood and twitching it out of the woods with an old tractor for about twenty years gave me enough of a taste to know it’s all very hard work, and dangerous too. I cut only ten or twelve cords a year - just enough to keep my family warm and sell a little once in a while. As soon as I became prosperous enough, I went back to using oil and only worked up a little wood here and there for the fireplace. I could still do it, but I won’t unless I have to.Quite a few competing in the Woodsmen’s Day events were older than I am and there was a special category called “Masters” for them. That’s a euphemism for old-guy league and I found myself rooting for them. They came from all over the country and Canada too. One looked amazingly like Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country For Old Men.” Jones’s character played a sheriff in rural Texas who was near retirement and struggling to deal with how much the world and the people in it had transformed around him.Tommy Lee Jones in "No Country For Old Men"Separated At Birth?

I was surprised to see women competing in their own classes for nearly every event. Most looked like Russian weight lifters, but not all. Some looked quite feminine and handled their axes and saws with great skill. That got me wondering if the Fair Association will ever start calling Monday “Woodsperson’s Day.”


Anonymous said...

Mr. McLaughlin - thank you for sharing the insight and experiences from your retirement. I enjoy the perspectives of rural America. Please keep up the great writing!
Dan P.

Gaffer said...

Although with the newer equipment it may help many woodsmen never grew that old as they either wore out or died from accidents in the woods. It is still a very hazardous occupation and one that uses up a man very quickly. It is one I choose not to do.

Anonymous said...

My brother tried 'lumber jacking' when he was about 18, in 1956. He decided college was more sensible.