That Winter on the Clam – Part One –

December 20, 2018

By Julie Traynor

Hopefully Jim Lithen’s book The Road to Marion Town has folks in these parts ready to settle down after the holidays and enjoy the story of how we got to be us.
In that spirit I give you a local tale in two parts. “That Winter on the Clam” was written by Fern Beebe Berry in 1929 and appeared on the front page of the Marion Dispatch on January 5, 1930, the first edition of the year. Although late in the lumbering years, this loosely details the workings of the lumber camp of her father Milt Beebe. The Beebe operation always included family. Here it is again, in an edited and updated two-part version.

The crews of swampers, skidway men and road monkeys working in the Clare county woods in the winter of 1908-09 did not seem to mind the raw Michigan wind that whipped at their faces and turned cheeks cherry red. The clapping of mittened hands and the stamping of heavy boots on frozen ground became part of the working rhythm of the crews. Across the woods men dressed in heavy woolen Mackinaws bent their backs to the wind and cold. They swung axes and worked two-man saws. There were trees to cut and haul.

“Zip-whang!” was the sound sawyers axes made when starting a notch in a hardwood. With a whining “swish-swish” and a warning cry of “Timber!” tree after tree fell to the two man saws.

The hauling of logs to the high rollway on the river had not yet started. Swamp roads were not frozen deep enough and the Old Man, as the crew called him (he was the father of Frank and George), had crews cutting and throwing brush and short logs into the mud of the swamp. They would tramp it firmly before it froze and when covered by a heavy snow, this would make a splendid road for transporting logs.

The rollway the crew would use was located a distance away on a high bank of the Big Clam River. Before spring arrived they would fell many trees and have several million board feet of logs piled high on the towering bank. Once it was time for the thaw river ice would break up and high water would come to the river. It would be time to set them free.

The logs would be floated down the Clam and into the larger, deeper and swifter Muskegon River. They would be floated down river to the mill town of Temple where the logs would be cut into lumber and shipped on by rail. Once the logs arrived in Temple, the season would be over for the crew and spring would come to the woods.

The steady ‘gee and haw’ from the skidders to their teams rang out in the crisp morning air as they navigated their way through the swamp to where the days’ work lay. They would drag the topped and trimmed logs to a collection point along the road. When the swamp froze solid the logs would be moved to the rollway. All of this was easy work compared to what was to come.
“Goin’ to the shin-dig tonight, Bud?” asked one of the sawyers to his partner.

 The Beebe Crew working in Clare County’s Winterfield Township during the winter of 1908-09. George, Frank and Levi Vanderhoef stand on logs at left. Old Tucker and his mules Jack and Jenny are on the far right. The Old Man and Art Emory are at the center.

The Beebe Crew working in Clare County’s Winterfield Township during the winter of 1908-09. George, Frank and Levi Vanderhoef stand on logs at left. Old Tucker and his mules Jack and Jenny are on the far right. The Old Man and Art Emory are at the center.

“Don’t think so. Too far to walk after a days’ draggin’ a cross cut saw.” Bud replied.

“Aw, too blamed bad about you. Here we just begin and you’re talkin’ about bein’ tired. Just you wait. Soon enough the road’ll freeze and the real work’ll begin. Then you’ll have a chance to talk about bein’ tired. That is if you got the gumption at the end of the day.” The sawyer laughed.

“When the logs go into the river in the spring you’ll hop around worse than you do now unless your frozen clothes slow you down. I know. I been with the Old Man for six winters and we ain’t never left a log in the woods yet.”

Frank, the Old Man’s oldest son, came bumping along the rutted road in a single buggy behind Fox, his sorrel filly. The two sawyers stopped their conversation and returned to work. Frank was one of the best cant hook men in the Michigan woods and this morning, they could tell he was in a hurry to get into the woods.

Before the men knew it the dinner horn sounded. Tools were dropped and teams were unhitched from their tasks. Both men and horses headed to camp. It had been too long since the morning meal. The animals were given their ration and the crew headed for the men’s shanty. After a hasty wash-up they filed into the cook shanty and seated themselves at the long board table which ran the entire length of the cook shanty. It was comfortably covered with the ample noon meal.

There was no excess chatter here.

“Pass the beans.”

“Send up the spuds and meat.”

“Pie and more coffee, please.” This was the extent of the table conversation. The ‘please’ was used with respectful tones to the Old Man’s wife who was the cook. She was assisted by their daughter Anna. The two did all the cooking, waited on the table and cleaned up, often just in time to do it all again. They were assisted by young Fern and little Crissy.

After dinner the men once again donned their sheep skins and Mackinaws, pulled on caps and, filled with a hot meal and steaming coffee, filed out into the cold, ready for an afternoon’s work. Some rode with the haulers and others walked and soon enough everyone was back at work. The rhythm resumed. More trees were felled and trimmed. Men and horses moved them, one after another until the winter sun began to sink and the light to wane. Another day in the woods was done.

The crew returned to camp in the gathering dusk. They knew good and hot supper awaited them. They also knew that the sheet iron stove in the men’s shanty would be stoked to red hot and that the chore boy would be there with a pail of hot water for washing up.

The men ate the evening meal with even less talk than they had at noon. The work and the weather were tiring. After a hearty supper of fried pork, fried potatoes, fresh bread, beans, applesauce and hot coffee or tea, the men returned to their shanty.
The evenings’ entertainment in the men’s shanty was varied. Some played cards, others told stories of the old days in the woods and the people they knew. Old hands reminisced about the memorable winter of 1886 in the big pines. Others offered an indifferent and off tune rendering of the “Devil’s Dream” or “The Shanty Boys” or “Poor Harry Vail”, accompanied by banjo or mouth organ.  Some of the boys joined in and a couple even had good voices, although a bit husky from shouting in the cold all day long.

Occasionally, Anna, 18, and sister Fern, age 10, were allowed to accompany the Old Man or Frank or George into the men’s shanty. They liked to sing with the boys. Anna had a very good voice and her alto was greatly appreciated, especially by Art Emory. Little Fern was enthusiastic at best. The good natured lumberjacks showered pennies upon her for her efforts.

The men hung damp work clothes all about the shanty to dry for the next day. Sox were hung on a wire stretched above the wood stove and all about the room steam rose from damp woolens, Mackinaws and boots.

The work clothes carried a particular odor all of their own. Most of the men changed sox only when holes made it necessary. Add to this pleasant mix a thick fog of tobacco smoke and good old plug. The atmosphere was pungent in the men’s shanty. Some claimed smelly cheese melted on the stove would have been more pleasant.

The men’s shanty was built of rough-sawn boards. The walls were lined with crude bunks, stacked one atop the other. They were piled with straw ticks and the men used wool blankets for cover. The potbelly stove stood in the center of the room with a table and rough stools. Nine o’clock was the official end to the day and often the strike of the clock found them all abed and snoring loudly. The wake up call would come at four o’clock and even earlier if the weather threatened a change.

Things went smoothly for the Old Man’s crew during this winter. A good freeze was followed by a heavy snow which put the road in good shape for hauling heavy loads. More men and teams were put to work. Even Fox, Frank’s pride, was put in harness with Gyp, the Old Man’s five year old mare. Old Daisy and Dick were teamed together and George, the Old Man’s younger son, drove them. Dick was George’s horse.

Art Emory was a Hartwick township neighbor and George’s chum. He was good in the woods and had a way with the horses. He was trusted with the prized Gyp and Fox team.

The man known to all as Old Tucker had been with the Old Man for a long time. He was an Ohio native and as full of superstitions as one man could be. During the slack season he stayed at the Old Man’s farm in Highland and worked there as a blacksmith. This was not because he was particularly good at the job, but because he had no where else to go. Besides, the Old Man liked him. He was put on the haul with Jack and Jenny, his team of mules.
The boys liked to play pranks on Old Tucker. They knew that he was very superstitious and believed that whenever he found the horses manes tangled it was because witches had been riding them. Needless to say he often found them so. His belief was reinforced when those same taunting witches tied monkey wrenches about his mule’s necks with red ribbons. Even though he never saw them Old Tucker always kept an eye out for the mischievous witches. He just knew they were hiding somewhere about the camp.

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