Woodswork In The 1930s

by Malcolm Macdonald, October 12, 2016

My uncle Forrest was the youngest of Lillian Robertson and John Macdonald's six children. Forrest's childhood nickname was Huck, the characteristics associated with that moniker separated his personality from that of his more serious-minded siblings. He was born in 1909, twenty-one years after his eldest brother. Forrest took a year off from high school to make money working for the Albion Lumber Company. He returned to Mendocino High School, graduating with the Class of 1928.

By 1930 he was employed in the woods north of Fort Bragg. What follows is a transcribed account of Forrest's experiences there over an eight month period, told entirely in his words:

“Out on Ten Mile, Camp 24, Churchill crick. That was mighty fine timber out there. That was the good old days.

“Oh hell, I was an old pup by that time, eighteen or nineteen. That was pretty old. You worked all day and slept all night and eat Chinaman grub. That was about all there was to that.

“The cookhouse had six Chinamen cooks, six Chinamens. They had about a hundred men to feed, hundred an' twenty-five.

“They each had a cabin, one at each end of the cabin. Sixteen feet long. You had one end to yourself and the other guy had his end to himself. You got one day off and that was Sunday.

“Oh, I come home pret' near every Sunday. The railroad was there. I don't remember the name of it. There was usually three trains went to town, every day. Two little engines, well one went on past Churchman up to camp 11. Then the other one picked up the logs out at Churchman crick, took 'em down the track to what they call the siding down there.

“Then the big engine... they made up a train, a string of cars, about fifty. Then the big engine took 'em into town. The big engine ran once a day, sometimes twice.

“Never heard of a chainsaw then. The choppers, there was two of 'em. You couldn't, they wouldn't let you, work alone. The cross cutters worked alone and the peelers, the barkers. Peelers and cross cutters got paid by what they did and so did the choppers. But the logging crew, they got so much an hour.

“I was doing nothing mostly. Scaling... I got paid by the month, one hundred fifteen dollars. Wadn't bad until January the ninth when they shut the whole damn thing down. Too much lumber, I guess. 1930.

“Oh, accidents? Hell, they killed a few of 'em. Well, the first one was out at the mouth of Churchman crick, where he got... tree fell on him and mashed 'im. Let's see, the second one was, uh, don't remember how that went.

“Then there was Squealin' Charly, a little Dago. The railroad track was on a slope like and he let the loaded cars down... log cars... and stopped them down a ways. Squealin' Charly was lettin' a loaded car down to couple onto these that were already down. And the goddamn coupling went... He backed up and it coupled right through him. That took care of him pretty fast.

“A month or two later an old boy was cross cutting up on the hill and he didn't show up for supper, so I and the other scaler, Johnson... Adolph Johnson... and another fella went along with us. Don't remember what his name was. We found this old Squarehead underneath a bunch of logs up on the hill. Couldn't get any of them helpful characters to get ahold of the old boy or touch him. I packed him and dragged him down to the railroad tracks and then we put him on the speeder and that hauled him along. I don't know what happened, didn't have much to do with him after that.

“Then there was old Jukka Hyman. Fort Bragg was full of Hymans. Stuck his ax right down through his foot. I met him on the railroad track. He was coming down there and the blood was squirting up out of his shoe, his boot. “Oh god damn it, I cut my foot.”

“Helped him into camp and old Fred Ball took over and I let him have him. I left. There was some more got killed, I forgot. Accidents at least once a month anyway. Pretty often.

“Worked there for about six months then went back and worked in the rigging for a couple months.

“Rigging... I was loadin' cars, second loader. Off of that I got forty-one cents an hour, no, thirty-one cents. A log'd be layin off here to the side and you put two cables around it, two straps, and they'd pick that up with the donkey and put it on the car. I stood on my end and the other guy stayed on his end. You better watch out to keep outta the way. Gotta duck once in awhile. Oh, it wasn't bad, I think it was thirty-one cents an hour. Worked ten hours and got paid for eleven.

“Then I got a dollar a day extry to go up the poles and grease the block every morning. I had to go down a half an hour early. Hundred and eighty, two hundred feet. Pulled you up with a cable. Didn't have to climb anything. Had a stick with the cable wrapped around, tied on there. You got on there and sat on the stick. Just hung onto the cable. I was young and crazy. A dollar a day I got for that.

“You carried a gallon bucket of grease and up on the block there was, oh, kind of like a grease cup you'd fill that. Had to go down a half hour early to do that. They had three different blocks. The high lead block was the upper one. That was the skyline, or main line. Then the back line was the next block. Then the next line below that was for the loadin' machine. You greased up the back side of the pole. That was easy money.

“Had a roommate at the other end of the cabin. He was a choker setter, but I learned more about cards there. I decided I didn't need to know any more and got outta that line. He could take a deck of cards and deal you any hand you wanted, whatever you asked for and you couldn't see how he done it. When he got ready, just before Christmas, he cleaned 'em all and left. Thirty, forty years old, don't know where he come from or where he went to.

“He used to take his fingers and sandpaper his goddamn fingers. Don't know what he was doin'. Guess he was gettin' the hide off, but he sandpapered them fingers down just the way he wanted 'em. He had about three or four names. Went by any name that come along. I forget what he called himself then. Should know, but I don't.

“You didn't have alcohol in the camp, wasn't allowed. One thing the boss kind of frowned upon. But I imagine he had his own jug. I was young then and hadn't got really goin' on the benefits of alcohol.

“You packed up your own lunches. All the stuff was laid out there and you took anything you want. You had a little old lunch bucket, a tin thing which they furnished. That was before thermos bottles. The bucket had a top on it. Most of 'em filled it up with coffee. I never put anything in it. A lid that fit on top of your lunch bucket. Wish I had kept a couple, or stole a couple, or done something, but I didn't.

“Had breakfast about six in the morning. Took fifteen minutes to walk from the cookhouse up to where I worked. Had to be there at six-thirty to go up the pole, like a monkey. Then supper was at six o'clock. Worked 'til five. Supper, they really fed good there. You had all the grub that you could eat. Didn't make any difference what you wanted.

“This Big Finn used to have a square table and set there. A Chinaman brought a platter, usually five or six steaks to a platter and that big Finn'd reach over and scrape all them steaks off onto his plate then stack 'em up. Ate everyone of 'em. Another thing that impressed me was he'd take the salt and by spoonfuls he'd make each steak white, just cover it with salt. Great big monstrous guy. He'd had his jaw broke and his face was twisted up a little bit.

“The Finns clung together, and The I-talians, and the white people, what few there was, it was just like they were segregated. Scotch or Irish.

“Had what they called a bull buck. He swept out cabins ever'day and he assigned who went in which cabin. Had a little mattress, four or five blankets and a pillow. No sheets. If you wanted some, bring your own. I didn't bother.

“Bull buck cut wood for the cook-a-house and, oh, he done other little chores around like that. One by twelve board cabins, with a little piece of batten over the cracks. There could be knot holes and what not, you had to patch them up yourselves. One by twelve boards for the floor, too, no tongue and groove.

“In the good old days we had steel cots. Put each leg of the cot in a gallon fruit can with about a couple, two-three inches of kerosene. Oh, bedbugs... soon as the lights went out you'd hear them pop down, but they couldn't come through that kerosene up into bed. They'd drop from the ceiling. That's your problem.

“Oh, they had a recreation room where you could play cards, but most nights you went straight to bed. Put in a day's work.

“No heat in that recreation room. Had a little box stove in the cabin. Got your own wood for your cabin, wherever you could find it, wood everywhere.

“Brought my clothes home every week. Some of 'em, they used the same pants for months I guess.

“Didn't get around without them corks on the bottom of your shoes. Them ol' trees were layin' on some pretty steep hills.”

(Forrest's account was recorded in 1982 by Margaret Macdonald and Irene Mallory Macdonald, remaining unheard and unpublished outside of immediate family until now.)

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