Once felled, "swampers" or "barkers" removed branches, cut the tree into logs and marked them with the brand of the lumber company.

Once felled, "swampers" or "barkers" removed branches, cut the tree into logs and marked them with the brand of the lumber company. Photo By State Historical Society of Wisc

Logging history runs deep in Wisconsin's Northwoods


With rich pine forests and the convenient artieries of Mississippi River tributaries and the Great Lakes, Wisconsin was an epicenter for logging in the 19th century. To early settlers and the logging industry, the forests undoubtedly seemed inexhaustable. At the industry's peak in 1892, 4 billion board feet of pine logs were sent down the Wisconsin, Chippewa and Wolf rivers.

The back-breaking labor was done with handheld tools. But lumberjacks weren't the only workers part of the logging juggernut. The crew included blacksmiths, "wood butchers," "cookees," teamsters, sawyers, "swampers," "river pigs," scalers and "timber cruisers."

Horses and oxen transported logs along ice-slicked roads to waterways, where, in March and April, the timber was moved downstream to saw mills.

Loggers were primarily men, either Americans who follwed the trees from out East to Wisconsin, or German or Scandinavian immigrants. They lived in camps for long winters, making low wages for the difficult and dangerous work.

The lumberjacks took great pride in their work, and the best were the strongest. So it was only a matter of time until the industry spawned its own breed of strongman competitions.

These competitions were especially fierce in Hayward, which would go on to host the first Lumberjack World Championships in 1960. The competition is still held in this Northwoods town every July.

Less than 100 years after commercial logging began in Wisconsin, most of the state's seemingly endless pine forests had been depleted. Not all of the land was suitable for farming, leaving a scarred and barren landscape.

But by the mid 20th century, forests began regrowing thanks to conservation efforts and more sustainable logging practices.

Today, Wisconsin's forest products industry is nowhere near what it once was. But the legacy and lore of the once-booming industry and its lumberjacks lives on.

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