Timber! To an Era

Today’s post comes from Clyde of Mankato

My last guest blog asked you to look closely at grass. This time I want you to examine two slides taken by my mother in 1954. They capture an end of one era in the forest and the beginning of another.

First I apologize that the horse’s head is at the semi-exposed end of the roll. Adeline and I long bemoaned that bad luck. We both recognize the photograph has family and larger significance. Today the ratty right end strikes me as appealingly quaint.

End of one era: the horse for one, which you probably realize. In 1955 it was rare to see horses used for logging, but more than my father were still using them. However, the images also show the tail-end of old growth trees in northeastern Minnesota. Look at the size of the those birch logs! How long had they lived? You perhaps think they were sawed into birch lumber. In 1954 it simply was not done. Birch was then a difficult wood to manage as lumber. Today those logs would be worth as fortune.

I feel an affinity for those logs. First because they are birch wood, as am I, being a German birchwood. Secondly because I spent the next eight years using pieces of the logs as chopping blocks, before which I spent many an hour swinging an axe. I was well acquainted with that birch tree before it was felled. Its grandeur appealed to me. For my father it was a massive temptation to cut down. Because of the girth of the stump, he did not attack it, not having a proper two-man whip saw to do the task. Then along came that yellow chunk of steel in the other image.

Logging 1

Beginning of another era: our nearest neighbor Floyd (man on your left) was a full-time time lumberjack (cutter of trees for lumber) and gyppo (cutter of trees for pulp wood). He was a famously surely tough old bastard, older than he looks in this photo. A couple years later while cutting pulp by himself in the Superior National Forest, he broke his back when a widow-maker fell on him. He had to crawl out to a road to get help, which took two days and nights. Three months later he was back in the woods alone. His personality made working solo a necessity. Being a bachelor, Floyd could not have made a widow.

A few days before these pictures were taken, he stopped at our house to show us his new prized possession, the chain saw. They had been around, but now they were mass-produced at a level that made them affordable for professional cutters. Also, they were dependable. They were still very heavy, nothing like today’s light-weight wonders. Yet even at that weight, a new era swept the woods, for one thing allowing old birds like Floyd to earn real money cutting alone.

The moment my father saw the chain saw before him, he pictured that birch tree. And down it came, my mother coming along, after the fell deed, it seems, to photograph the results.

What you see are only the two bottom lengths of the trunk, minus the two butt pieces on which I am standing, which became the chopping blocks. It took several loads to bring up all of that tree. My father knew how to coax every piece of firewood out of large trees. How long it must have cooked our meals and heated our house! You may wonder by what means the logs made their way onto the sled. My father and I did it alone. How that is done, I will leave a mystery.

If you had those birch logs today and could pay the cost, what use would you make of them?

39 thoughts on “Timber! To an Era”

  1. I love birch. the blondness and non aggressive grain are peaceful. I’d make flooring and doors, a rocking chair and a cabinet of contemporary design letting the grain dictate the final curves. I love woodworking. I had my sons in the woods up three this last weekend and talked about the first growth woods hat were there in he early 1900’s white pines and furniture makers galore. I have family pictures of the clear cutting near duluth at my grandfathers deer shack called the machalovich. it was indeed a different era. when I was a kid it felt like it was ancient history, today it has a different time frame. 50 years earlier doesn’t feel so long ago now.

    that chain saw is a hoot. I’m sure floyd thought nothing of the weight when the option was to hand saw your way through the tree
    it reminds me of the early snowmobiles with function determining form. ah American ingenuity.

    I was telling my boys hat you grew up farming near two harbors and they couldn’t understand how anyone could farm there. I assured hem it was true and that it made for a very salty personality to learn the ethics of farming in an area as rugged as the north shore. they were impressed, me too

    what did you mean that you being german are birch wood?
    is that what your name translates to?
    I saw another berkholz on the news last night who planted a 50 year old apple orchard near taylors falls. 12 acres of trees and strawberries and pumpkins. it looked like hard work too but being a good german he made it a family project too.

    thanks for the post clyde and the family photos. it does take you back doesn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dale edited this a bit, for which I am grateful. He has let me last several post as I wrote them. He caught three flagrant typos. He also changed one part over which I was not sure. Oddly he changed it to the other option I had not used.
      tim, birk=birch; holtz or more commonly holz in its combining form = wood.


  2. Presuming I can afford the wood I hope means that I can also afford the time and money for a skilled craftsman to advise me on the nest use.

    I know a little about wood but next to nothing about birch.

    Breaks my heart to see wonderful materials forced into uses they are ill-suited too. Just as bad is seeing good material butchered by a hack.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    My favorite use of birch is in the woods where the white bark shines so white. I have always been partial to birch trees, especially that fascinating bark. I would like to produce some artwork and drawings using the bark. I had quite a stash of bark which I picked up in the woods and finally parted with after never, ever using any of it. A little birch bark is the best kindling ever due to the intrinsic oil in the bark.

    I think if I was young I would want to fashion an Indian-style hollowed out canoe. Too old for that kind of work now!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. no you are not. it may take ten years but in ten years you were going to be ten years older anyway. its very learnable and the teachers would be exceptionally cool. check youtube and google for birchbark canoe makers

      lou needs a project to work on with you. get him collecting some birch


  4. Since this is a complete fantasy then I’ll roll with it. Nice deck out back, couple of lovely Aidirondack chairs for the yard, two rocking chairs (one more for downstairs and one for my bedroom) and several floor to ceiling bookcases!


      1. The reason the deck and the chairs were fantasies was because the birch would be FREE! As always, money is the issue!

        Hosta Transfer – what are you thinking? I’m pretty much free all weekend.


  5. I’d opt for bookcases, too, a wall of them. I’d hire a good carpenter to build them. Maybe PJ’s husband.

    When I had cabinets made for the kitchen, I’m pretty sure I chose birch. Much prefer the subtle grain of birch.


    1. Dream on, Linda. Husband no longer does woodwork. To be on the safe side, he sold all of his machinery when he went out of business. Anyone asks him to help with a project, he can truthfully say, I’m sorry, I don’t have any tools. These days he considers himself a photographer and pickle ball player.


  6. bookcases are great. easy to make but so cheap to buy ready made. if you would like to look into making a custom set to fit exactly into your setting let me know. i may be able to lend a hand. hans would be better but i am easier i think


    1. A friend of mine’s father built custom bookcases for a room in her house. They are beautiful – they fit from floor to ceiling exactly and go around the corners. Big matching roll top desk. I can’t even go in there as my envy-o-meter shoots right through the roof!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Greetings! I would totally do everything that VS wants as well! Love the idea of Aidirondack chairs, rocking chairs and some other fine furniture as well. And you certainly can’t have too many bookcases. Instead of a bedroom dresser, I always wanted to just have just built in shelves with little French doors for each type of clothing. Wouldn’t that be so much easier than digging through drawers?

    My very first apartment — or actually room — that I rented, I did not have a dresser, but I did take this huge old divided book shelf from my parents house. I loved using that to hold my clothes, books and assorted things.


  8. Wonderful blog, Clyde. I love your description of Floyd, he sure sounds like one tough old dude. The second picture is wonderful; you, all bundled up against the cold, and the two adults – I’m assuming the man in the red shirt is your dad? – in their shirt sleeves and with bare hands. Tough indeed, but also, I’m sure, warmed by the hard work of felling the tree.

    I’d love to have new kitchen cabinets made of birch. With its light color, it seems Scandinavian to me, although it’s not indigenous to Denmark. We’re past the point of needing or wanting more furniture, but new kitchen cabinets are on my wish list.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Clearly a warm day. My father, and yes that is he in the red, was very sensitive to the cold. He would only be dressed like that if it was warm. I would have worn a much heavier coat on top of that one if it was cold. !n 1954 wool you had to be multi-layered to stay warm. We often cut wood in 20-30 below weather.


  9. 1. Jacks and gyppos were a breed apart. Floyd was fairly typical. My father had been a jack off and on and was on our land and nearby during the winter. My father fit the breed. The story I was writing which reminded me of the two photos is an attempt to capture the point of view of three jacks I knew who were my age. The word gyppo seems to have died out.
    2. Drying birch lumber is the problem, which modern kiln-drying solves. Everything in 1954 was air dried, which was/is an art form in itself. Later we had a sawmill, which my father designed and built, not thirty yards from where that majestic white birch had stood. An odd things is that the birch was solid all the way through even at the stump.You built stacks of pine lumber with lots of space between boards and levels for air flow. On top you used junk lumber as a rain cap. My father sawed up popple (local name for aspen/poplar) and birch for the rain cap. After 3-4 months the one-inch-thick birch would be bent and twisted in amazing ways, even on occasion making a large U. Those boards would then be sawed up for the kitchen stove. Nothing was wasted. To air-dry birch you had to leave only little space between boards and weigh it down heavily and evenly. Even then some would be lost. Kilns changed that.


  10. My Grandfather Tjepkema had some skill as a wood worker. I don’t. If I knew more about wood working I might be able think of a creative use for those big birch logs. I understand that birch can be used to make high quality furniture. We have never invested in high quality furniture. It would nice some better quality furniture, so I think I would have the birch wood made into a set of furniture including tables for use in our dining room and living room and some chairs.


  11. The practice of logging using horses is not gone. I attended a tour that stopped at a place that provides horse logging services. Horses can drag logs out of wooded areas without causing the damage to woodlands that occurs when the logging is done with machinery. The guy that did the horse logging also had a portable sawmill. He showed us how his horses could do some fancy maneuvers to set logs in his sawmill. He had canvas bunk and cook tents that he set up in the woods during the winter creating a logging camp.


  12. I’ll borrow ideas from a couple of you. I’d love to have a wall of custom bookcases and a new (smaller) dining room table and chairs.


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