Some Lumberjack Myths
J. E. Rockwell. “Some Lumberjack Myths.”
The Outer’s Book February 1910: 157-160.
Some Lumberjack Myths
No region is richer in myths than the northern Minnesota lumber woods, but with the passing of the old time “lumberjack” and the coming of the modern woodsman, the myths are rapidly being lost. The old stories told around many a roaring log stove are likely to be forgotten unless an effort is made to preserve them in print. The old time lumberjacks were French Canadians―Maine men, men from the big woods of Michigan, specialists in their line. They were big, red-blooded, courageous men, who followed the woods as a profession, and an interesting, dangerous profession it was. They were men of nerve, imagination, and great physical strength. The modern woodsman is little more than a common laborer. Improved logging machinery has done away with many of the perils and hardships of the old days, and the men who follow the woods now are the men who work on the railroad gangs in the summer. But occasionally, in the camps of Northern Minnesota, men may yet be found who have logged in Maine, ridden the rapids of the Ottawa, helped strip Michigan of her forests, and who are now beating down the last stand of the white pine in the North. These are the men who will tell you of Paul Bunyan, and his famous camps, for nearly all of the lumberjacks’ myths center about Paul Bunyan; and the “Side Hill Gouger,” the “Hide Behind,” the ‘ Swamp Bogger,” the “Snow Snake” and the “Hodag.” The stories of Paul Bunyan are innumerable. This famous hero of lumberjack mythology was the center of almost every tale told in the camps in the old days. His exploits were related in every tie camp, every cedar camp, and every white pine logging camp in Northern Minnesota, and they lost nothing in the telling. Each camp had its own set of stories, and the men, in traveling from camp to camp―for the old time lumberjack was a rover―swapped these yarns in the long winter evenings, when the steaming socks were hung over the roaring sheet iron stove. It would be impossible to collect them all, but some of the best known exploits of this famous character will be related:
Back in the 80’s Paul Bunyan set up the first of his famous camps at the forks of the Little Onion and the Big Tobacco rivers. It was the biggest lumber camp ever built, and Paul ruled with an iron hand over the 3,000 men under him. He was eight feet tall and weighed 300 pounds. He had a voice like a bull roaring, and every man in his employ jumped when he spoke. When he yelled the noise broke the branches off the trees. It seems that Paul was a powerful heavy smoker. He had a pipe with a bowl that held about a bushel of tobacco, and he kept one cookee busy shoveling tobacco into it. He always smoked Peerless, the test of the real lumberjack. It was the winter of the “blue snow” when Paul was first heard of. In that winter, the tale goes, there was a forty-foot fall of blue snow in Northern Minnesota. That winter they had to cut the trees from forty feet above the ground, and in the spring there was a forest of stumps forty feet high. But the pine was so big at that time that it didn’t make much difference in the size of the logs. The cooking arrangements in Paul Bunyan’s famous camp were unique. Cooking for 3,000 men was no easy task. They had a cook stove so long that a man could not throw a stone from one end to the other. The cook had two little nigger boys, and he would strap slices of fat pork to their feet. They would skate up and down the stove, and the cook would follow on roller skates, pouring out the pancake batter as he went. After him came the cookee, flapping the pancakes, and the second cookee followed throwing the cakes off into baskets carried by helpers. That winter the camp ran out of beans, owing to the long spell of cold weather. A huge blue ox hauled all the wood and water for the camp. This ox measured eight ax-handles between the horns. The cook harnessed up the big blue ox and started for the nearest town, one hundred miles up the Little Onion river and across Little Onion Lake. They were on their way back the next day with the beans, when the spring thaw set in. The thermometer went from zero to eighty in the shade when the cook and the blue ox were crossing Little Onion Lake, and the entire outfit broke through the ice. The cook escaped drowning by climbing on the end of one of the ox’s horns, and standing there with just his nose out of water, from sundown to sunup when he was rescued by Paul Bunyan and a party from the camp. Paul, it seems, was very wrathy at the loss of the beans. The breakup had come with a rush, and with no beans in camp the men would not work. The Little Onion River was a raging torrent, and quick action was necessary. Paul thought a moment, drawing at his huge pipe, and then instructed all hands to dam up the outlet of the lake. With the lake dammed, he set all hands to building fires around its shores, and within an hour the lake was a bubbling pot of bean soup, with a slight taste of beef to it. The men, with a cheer, returned to work, and at meal times the cook would open the sluice in the dam, and let out a supply of bean soup for the men working on the river one hundred miles below him. During the winter of the big blue snow, the famous snow snakes made their appearance. They froze up in the winter, and the Jacks used them for skids. In the spring they would thaw out. The first thing a snow snake did when he thawed out was to make for the river for a drink, and carrying the logs on their backs. It saved the men a lot of unnecessary work.
One of the strange creatures that inhabited the Little Onion Mountain at the head of the Little Onion River, during the winter of the blue snow, was the “Side Hill Gouger.” There was only one Side Hill Gouger, an old female. Her two right legs were shorter than her two left ones, so she could only travel in a circle around the mountain. The animal belonged to the cat family, but was larger and more ferocious than any member of the feline tribe. It was easy to escape the Gouger, because she could only travel in one direction, and if the men got behind her she was powerless to reach them, except by backing up or running on around the mountain, which she could do with amazing celerity. The old Side Hill Gouger had a litter of little Gougers in the spring of the blue snow, but she made the fatal mistake of starting them off the wrong way around the mountain, and they all rolled over and over down the hill, losing their lives in the Little Onion River, because none of them could swim. No one ever heard what became of the Old Gouger, or at least the surviving members of the old crew of lumberjacks do not remember. Perhaps she too tried to turn around one day, and was drowned in the Little Onion. A strange bird, called the “Deep-Winter-Flying-Midget,” made its home on the Little Onion Mountain. The bird used to frequent Paul Bunyan’s camps, and the cook always kept it supplied with food. It would lay its eggs right out on the surface of the snow. Cold, instead of warmth, hatched the eggs. To prevent the eggs rolling down the mountain side, the midget always laid square eggs. But if the animals and the birds of the Little Onion region were strange creatures, the fish in the Little Onion and Big Tobacco rivers were much more so. The commonest fish was the “Whirly-Gig” fish. The jacks, on Sundays and holidays, spent all their spare time catching the Whirly-Gig fish. They would bore a small hole in the ice of the river, and bait it with cheese, smearing the cheese around the edge of the hole. The fish, it seems, had a ravenous appetite for cheese, and could smell it for miles. They would come to the hole, and then one of them would begin its whirling motion under the hole. Presently it would shoot up through the hole, and holding itself up by its back fins, placed near the tail, would begin eating the cheese. The fish had a queer mouth shaped like a sucker’s mouth, and would suck up the bits of cheese. It would soon begin to swell, for the fish apparently could not control their appetites for cheese, and presently it would pop out of the ice like a seed squeezed from between the thumb and first finger. It was then an easy matter to catch it on the ice, and the hole was rebaited. The Whirly-Gig fish was very fine eating. The “Hodag” was a monster of hideous mien, a re incarnation of the spirit of the lost ox. In Paul Bunyan’s days horses were not used in the lumber camps. Oxen were the beasts of burden in the woods. Once in a while one would wander away and never be seen again. The lost oxen, according to the lumberjacks, turned into Hodags, and became as wild and terrible as they were formerly tame and peaceable. Their cry was something to make the stroutest heart quake. Not many years ago “Gene” Shepherd, the famous Wisconsin woodsman joker, hoaxed the whole scientific world with a photograph of a Hodag, caught in his lair. Among other things Gene had learned taxidermy, and at some expense and no end of labor, he transformed a peculiarly shaped log into as ferocious an animal in appearance as ever a Jack saw in his wildest nightmare. During the winter of the blue snow, much of Paul Bunyan’s work went for naught. It seems that Paul had a mortal enemy, Old Drumbeater, and after his winter’s drive had been completed, Paul found that the logs he had cut were taken from Old Drumbeater’s land, and his arch enemy threatened to take possession of them. This was too much for the Lumberjack King, and he assembled his river hogs once more. Collecting the logs from the pond, he drove them back upstream, and rolled them back on Old Drumbeater’s land, determined that his enemy should not profit from the mistake. There are many conflicting statements regarding the exact location of the Little Onion River and the Big Tobacco. Many place them in Northern Minnesota, but some of the old time lumberjacks claim they were located in the Dakotas, and that Paul Bunyan logged so thoroughly that he turned both these states into wind-swept prairies. Mrs. Bunyan’s personality is also wrapped in mystery. She is described as an enormous woman, almost equal in size to her husband, and some lumberjacks make her the cook in the famous camps, while others have her as a lady of leisure who waited in the city for her husband’s return from the woods. Paul Bunyan stories are seldom heard in these modern days, when the average lumber camp is a Babel of tongues, but they cut a big figure in the life of the old time lumberjack, and many old woodsmen will remember the first time they listened with open eyed wonder to the tales of the famous old hero of lumberjack mythology.
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