It’s been years since my father passed on. It was only since my English composition class, in the spring term of 2006 that I’d even considered the wonderfully descriptive poetry that he had written over the years. It was almost overwhelming how many of the words, the lyrics, the poetry, had come to the forefront of my consciousness in the few weeks that followed my first assignments.
My dad’s poetry was very rhythmic, and one poem in particular seemed to haunt me. It was my favorite poem that my dad had written. He wrote it shortly after he found his father (my grandpa) peacefully laying at rest in his bed. My father’s poem “A Son’s Farewell to an Old Time Logger” has beautiful voice, meter, and rhyme, but also needs to be put into an historical perspective.
It was the early 1960’s when my grandfather died. He followed my grandma by only a short period of time. He was a healthy man with a skip in his step right up until the day he died. My family had always assumed that he died of a broken heart. He loved my grandmother dearly.
Grandpa was a very large man of the time. He was over six feet tall and towered over all of the other men; to me he was a grey-headed “Paul Bunyan.” I was only a child at the time and my recollection of him is vague at best. I remember an older neighbor telling me that when he was a kid, he’d seen my grandpa with lanterns in hand, hiking the railroad tracks, in the wee hours of the morning, whistling, while on his way to work.
I later learned that grandpa had bought a cabin built on old “donkey” sled for six dollars (two large logs that the donkey was mounted to), but stayed at home with grandma because she didn’t want to be alone.
It was at least five miles from grandpa’s place to “Camp Walker” where he worked as a logger. He and his partner would take their “misery whip” (cross-cut saw) and they would “fell and buck” (cut into logs) trees all day long.
Logging in the early days of the twentieth century was a far cry from the modern methods of today. Some of the processes are the same, but the rigging and the lingo has changed over the years.
In those days, steam engines powered our economy. Trains, rivers, and flumes were the only practical way of transporting the logs to the saw mill (as a child, my father severely broke his arm while playing around a log flume).
The railroad companies would build “spurs” off of the main track to allow the timber companies to transport their logs to mills. The train engines were a gear driven type of steam locomotive that were called, “shays.” After the area was logged, the spurs would then be taken up and moved to the next location. The trestles (bridges) would be removed of the ties and then the creosote-soaked pilings, struts, and beams were just left behind.
The process of bringing the timber from where they were cut into logs, to the site (landing) where they were loaded onto the “logging cars,” was similar to what they call “high lead” logging, today. Rather than a huge steel tower attached to a large machine operating several cable drums, referred to as the “yarder;” the yarders of yesteryear consisted of a “rigged spar tree” and a steam powered “donkey.”
The donkey was the early concept of today’s yarder, and its operation was basically the same. There were three cable drums: “main-line,” “haul-back,” and “hay-wire.” The main-line was the largest cable of the three and was used to pull the logs to the landing. The purpose of the haul-back was to pull the main-line to the logs. The hay-wire was multi-purposed, and in relation the other lines; it pulled the haul-back line through the “corner” and “tail” blocks (pulleys), that allowed the haul-back to pull the main-line away from the donkey and to the logs. The hay-wire would also be used to assist in rigging the spar tree.
When the landing was established and the railroad spur finished, the donkey would be brought in and secured to the ground. The spar tree would be selected by strategic location and strength. The “hook tender” would don his climbing gear and begin the task of preparing the tree. With spikes strapped to the instep of his corked boots, a harness, strap, spools of hay-wire, smaller blocks, an axe and a small crosscut saw, the hook tender would ascend the tree “bumping knots” on his way up (chopping off the limbs). Near the top, the tree would then be cut off and then it was ready to rig.
As mentioned earlier, the hay-wire was multi-purposed. It was designed to be used for lay-out and do any task too heavy for the crew to do.
The “bull-block’ was a very large pulley (sometimes weighing as much as two tons). The bull-block was the pulley that the main-line ran through. After the main-line was threaded over the sheave of the bull-block, the hay-wire would be used to hoist the bull-block into place at the top of the spar tree. Guy wires were secured at the top to hold the spar tree steady. Below the bull-block they would place a block for the haul-back line. Then more guy lines were placed at the middle of the spar (buckle guys) to further stabilize the tree. They were almost ready for logging at this point.
At the end of the main-line they connected the “butt riggin’.” The butt riggin was a term for the large “bead-like” swivels that were used to connect the chokers (cables that were wrapped around the logs). They sometimes referred to them as “jewelry,” resembling a very large necklace.
Once the hay-wire pulled the haul-back through the corner block, then tail block, it would then be connected to the butt riggin’. As soon as the communication link was established, they were ready to log.
As with all steam engines, the boiler pressure needed to be watched closely. If the pressure was too high, it needed to be released. With steam locomotives, the pressure was released via a whistle. The whistle on a locomotive signaled warnings at crossings, among other things such as pressure relief; the whistle on a donkey was used for pressure relief, also, but most importantly, operational directions.
A wire would be strung from the whistle lever to a tree or a stump. The man that was responsible for the communications between the yarder engineer and the men “down in the hole” (choker setters and the “riggin’ slinger”) was the “whistle punk.”
The riggin’ slinger was the lead man “in the hole” (hooking logs). He would use hand gestures and signals to the whistle punk. And the whistle punk would toot the steam whistle in a specified series of toots that told the yarder engineer what to do.
• Four quick toots: Slack the main-line
• Three toots: Ahead on the main-line*
• Three toots followed by three more: Ahead on the main-line (but --slowly)
• Two toots: “skin ‘er back” (pull on the haul-back, bring back the main line)
• Two toots followed by two more: same as above but --slowly
• Two toots followed by three: Standin’ tight line (pick the butt riggin’ straight up)
• Three toots followed by two: Runnin’ tight line (pull and lift, pick em up over the stumps and go!)
• One toot: STOP! (the most important whistle blast of all)
• A seemingly long series of whistle blasts: MAN DOWN!!!
• Log- stilled: release the pressure, shut it down and go home.
As advanced as our communications systems are; most of these signals are still being used in “High Lead” logging operations today.
A very dear cousin of mine once told me, “When you get fir needles in your blood, they never go away.” There is a great deal of tradition and pride in the hearts of loggers.
After being tucked away in a drawer for many years, the voice of my father can once again be heard in this heartfelt goodbye poem to his father, my grandpa.
‘A Son’s Farewell to an Old Time Logger’
That heart so warm, so strong, so true,
No longer throbs within your chest
But I’ll have memories of you
‘til my soul too has gone to rest.
Of how through miles of wilderness,
My arm supported in a sling,
you bore me with such gentleness
Your fledgling bird with broken wing.
Though pain and panic at the start,
Brought forth my frightened childish tears
While nestled near that stalwart heart
Of death itself I had no fears.
I hold your cold and lifeless hand,
Once firm and warm, now thin and pale.
In memory once more we stand
Along a faint, familiar trail.
The barren hillsides lived anew,
We viewed the green and silent wood
And saw how tall the saplings grew
Where once the steaming yarder stood.
A rusted Bull-block lying near
Where rambling, thorny briars entwine
Its sheave which had in yesteryear
Whirled freely with the singing line.
Among the ferns and moss I found
Oil bottles each with rotted thong
Where once you worked and heard no sound
Except your shining crosscut’s song
Bright soots of yellow hillside clay
Outlined the path of roadbed scars
Where once the broad-stacked smoking shay
Had shuttled strings of logging cars.
It seemed as though you heard again
That long-stilled donkey’s whistle blast
I realized this must have been
Your farewell to an era past.
Such phases measure life of man
One segment finished, one begun,
We crossed the tie-less trestle span
Toward the setting Autumn sun,
I stretched my step to match your stride
Mere words my joy could not define
My young heart swelled with love and pride
The greatest dad on Earth was mine.
I clasp your shoulder once again
In life so broad, so firm, so brave
I grasp it gently now as then
That dreary day at Mother’s grave.
I sought to comfort if I could
To let you know I shared your cross
As we with other mourners stood
To face our greatest tragic loss
So valiantly you fought to hide
The grief, the pain, the anguished tears
For fate had claimed from you the bride
You’d loved those many, many years
You struggled as the strongest tries
A shattered spirit to control
And yet your tired tear-flooded eyes
Revealed a bleak, heartbroken soul
I touch your silent waxen brow
Brush back a tousled snow white lock
No other sound around us now
Save muffled ticking of a clock
With heart still full of love and pride
So grateful for the paths we’ve trod
Reluctantly I leave your side
Goodbye, dear one, rest well with God
Welcome to Skippin' Rocks
I originally Started a blog to run off at the mind on politics, hopefully witty and humorous ramblings, and just random thoughts. But, I'll make a new one for that and stick to short stories here. I hope you liked what you've read so far.