Thu. Dec 7th, 2023
Exploring the history of logging and loggers in Ontario

Today’s post comes from Sonje Bols, Northeastern Ontario Parks Discovery Program Coordinator.

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be a lumberjack 100 years ago?

Was it a life full of adventures? Or was it a hard and exhausting existence?

Did some lumberjacks really have superhuman strength? How much truth can be found in the legends and songs that describe their exploits, struggles and triumphs?

Here are five objects from the River Marten that illustrate what the life of a woodcutter was really like!

But first, a little context.

In the country’s early days, much of Canada’s population was employed in the logging industry.

For Ontario, logging was (and remains in the north) an important component of the economy and defined the settlement patterns of many of its communities, especially in northern Ontario.

An antique black and white image of a horse-drawn carriage dragging a load of wood through a snowy forest.A team of horses negotiates a slope on an ice road. The spiked horseshoes allowed them to grip the icy surface.

In the early 20th century, the area around the Marten River was a hotspot for the logging industry, with several logging camps located in what was then known as a “pine forest” due to the abundance of white pine.

Marten River Provincial Park is now home to a complete replica of an early 20th century logging camp called The Winter Camp, as well as a logging museum.

This museum houses an extensive collection of objects that were used in the winter camps of that time.

Here’s a look at some of what the museum houses and what it tells us about the lives of lumberjacks 100 years ago.

1. Time for breakfast!

A woodcutter’s day began with a good meal.

This heavy metal triangle (called an “iron gut”) hung outside the kitchen and was used to call the men at mealtimes.

Gut Iron metal triangle hanging outside the cabinThe Marten River “Winter Camp” kitchen has a heavy metal triangle or “iron gut,” which is used to call the men to eat.

The Cook (or a cook’s helper) would tap the inside of the triangle with a metal rod, and the loud clang would let the entire camp know that the food was ready.

Breakfast was eaten quickly, long before dawn, so that the woodcutters could make the most of the limited winter daylight.

They arrived at their cutting area just when there was enough light to work.

Lunch was prepared for the bush, which they ate sitting on felled logs, and dinner was served after dark, when the men finally returned to camp.

These long days of hard work meant that good, filling meals were very important!

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The lumberjacks consumed about 7,000 calories a day; However, by the end of the season it was common for some of the larger ones to lose 30 to 40 pounds due to constant hard work during the winter.

Kitchen table with dishes and oil lamps.The kitchen tables are set and waiting: the woodsmen ate hearty meals that fed them through the long, cold days of winter and the hard work of sawing the pine.

Typical menus included many preserved meats and fruits, fresh bread, and many desserts.

Cooks were generally skilled and highly respected, and many enforced a strict no-talking rule at the table to minimize distractions and keep mealtimes efficient.

Food was essential and taken very seriously!

2. A lumberjack’s best friend

Beginning in the 1870s, the cross saw It became a common fixture in logging camps for felling trees and cutting logs, which certainly made the job much easier than using axes.

old photo of men sawing a treeLumberjacks called “sawyers” cut the thick pine trunk with their cross saw.

It doubled the productivity of the axe, so a team of three loggers could cut about 100 logs per day instead of 50.

Lumberjacks who were good with the cross saw became “sawyers” and were paid more.

hanging saw collage, saw closeupThe specialized teeth of the crosscut saw help cut through the wood and remove sawdust from the cut.

It took some time to perfect the two types of sawtooth: cutting teeth saw the tree, and rake teeth to remove sawdust. The spacing and length of the tines had to be correct to do the job easily.

3. Weightlifters

horseshoeHorseshoes with metal cleats helped horses maintain traction while pulling heavy loads.

Horses, another good friend of the lumberjacks, they were indispensable in the early days of logging.

Unless you had superhuman strength, you couldn’t do much in camp without these “hay burners,” as the men called them.

They worked closely with loggers to accomplish incredible tasks: from hauling 20-ton log sleds to freezing roads with a zamboni-shaped tanker truck.

Many of these horses were brought to camp by their owners, who worked with them on their farms for the rest of the year. Teamsters (those who cared for and drove horses) generally preferred to work with horses they knew.

horses carrying water tankerThe tanker paved the ice roads used by the horse teams

Because most of the logging work was done in winter, these horses had to navigate snow and ice conditions. For that reason, they were “shod” with spiked horseshoes to grip the icy roads.

4. Lighting the forge

One of the defining characteristics of one of the first logging camps was its self-sufficiency. The fields were self-sufficient by necessity. Most were very isolated from the closest communities, due to distance, lack of roads and winter snows.

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With his anvil, the blacksmith could make or repair most of the tools that woodcutters needed.

Lumberjacks couldn’t just walk to the nearest hardware store to buy equipment parts, tools, or a box of nails!

They needed someone available who could do all the repairs and tools they might need. This person was the blacksmith.

Blacksmiths did everything from shoeing horses to making and repairing chains, wood stoves, hooks, peaveys, and a variety of other tools and pieces of equipment.

Anvils like the one above would have required a lot of work in one logging season.

person holding horseshoe

Once the area around the camp was completely logged, a process that took only a few years, it was abandoned.

The blacksmith would take all the tools and also the important pieces of metal with him. While they were heavy and required effort to transport, they were very valuable and worth the effort.

Almost everything else made of wood rotted!

5. Give us a tune!

The lumberjacks worked from sunup to sundown, six days a week in all winter weather conditions.

Sunday was their only day off, so Saturday night was a time for games, stories, and music.

A side-by-side image of a violin and a person dressed in a red shirt, jeans and suspenders playing the violin outside a log cabin.

Most camp bosses tried to ensure that at least one of their employees was also a musician to keep your spirits high during the long winters.

Born in these isolated camps, loggers created great stories and legends such as those of “Big Joe Mufferaw” and “Peter Emberley” to commemorate the notable or tragic lives of their friends.

These songs and tales, born from the legends of the winter camps, are still told and sung today.

Tools of the trade

These five objects are some of the “tools of the trade” that loggers used daily while living in winter camps, and each one tells a little bit of its story.

Using objects like a crosscut saw or a horseshoe to tell a story can help us understand the people who lived and worked in an era and industry that was an important part of the development and history of Ontario.

Their ingenuity, efforts and struggles, and their stories, continue to fascinate us today.

Visit Winter Camp!

In the early 1970s, park staff began planning a logging museum that would replicate the type of seasonal logging camp that loggers would live in during the winter months while they cut down the massive pine trees.

winter camp

As a result, Marten River is now home to the Winter Camp, a recreation of those temporary logging camps common in Temagami and the north during the horseback logging era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Visit the Marten River for a day or come camp along the banks of the Marten River and explore winter camping!

Looking for more logger history? You’ve come to the right place! See the story of how Winter Camp was built. Marten River hosts Lumberjack Days every summer. Check out their event calendar for more information on this year’s events!