New Brunswick

Looking back at the life of a lumberjack

If you were a New Brunswick lumberjack in the 19th century, you'd be heading into the woods just about now to work at a lumber camp for the winter.

Spending the winter at a lumber camp was a common way to earn money in the 1800s

Yarding crew at a winter lumber camp, circa 1900-1920. (X15479/New Brunswick Museum, www.nbm-mnb.ca )

If you were a New Brunswick lumberjack in the 19th century, you'd be heading into the woods just about now to work at a lumber camp for the winter.

Young men just starting out and older farmers with families, looking to make money while fields were frozen over, would go off to camps for months at a time to chop down trees.

James Upham, head of public programming for Resurgo Place in Moncton, said machinery has replaced much of the manpower in the forestry industry, but the heyday of the lumberjack is not too far in the past.  

"It wasn't that long ago where it was a physical person with an axe and a horse, and that was, you know, that was the basis of the provincial economy," he said.

It wasn't until the mid-20th century that these forestry jobs switched from axe-swinging to operating machines.

James Upham of Resurgo Place looks back at the early days of logging in New Brunswick. 16:46

Upham said the conditions of the average lumber camp back in the day are the reason lumberjacks earned a reputation for being rough and tumble.

"Occupational health and safety just did not exist in a lumber camp in the 19th century. It wasn't a thing." 

A good cook

All winter, and in some cases for six months at a time, men would live together in rough wooden shacks, get up at five in the morning, scarf down mounds of food and go out into the woods to fell, strip and stack logs. 

Upham said lumberjacks would typically eat four meals and burn about 7,000 calories a day.

Lumber camp at Ferry Bank, Oromocto in 1897. (1964.147L/New Brunswick Museum, www.nbm-mnb.ca)

"It was fuel. These guys didn't eat for kicks, they didn't need for fun, they weren't out there, you know, enjoying their lobster and their chicken cordon bleu. They were eating as many calories as they possibly could as quickly as they could."

Speaking was often not permitted at mealtime, when lumberjacks were encouraged to consume as much as possible in 10 to 15 minutes, then run out to work again.

The quality of the cook could make or break a camp, Upham said. Foods like beans, salted meat and pancakes were basic and cheap, making them staples of the lumberjack breakfast.

"It wasn't exciting food," Upham said. "A good cook could turn that into something that was at least palatable and enjoyable. A lousy cook was just going to say, 'Eat it and get out.'"

The Maritimes' Paul Bunyan

Lumberjacks would often move from camp to camp during the season, looking for the best wages and conditions.

One such man was Larry Gorman, a lumberjack from Prince Edward Island, who worked in New Brunswick lumber camps in the 1860s and 1870s.

A hand-coloured wood engraving printed in Illustrated London news, from 1858. (W3837/New Brunswick Museum, www.nbm-mnb.ca)

"This guy could just, drop of a hat, out of nowhere, completely make up a song about you and everything you've ever done wrong in your life," Upham said.

"And this is this is actually how he ended up in New Brunswick, cause he got chased off P.E.I. for writing an angry song about his boss."

Songs were often a key part of evening entertainment on a lumber camp and were a way to keep things lively and the morale high.

Gorman's songs were often so funny they would be repeated and spread from camp to camp, often as musical cautions about which camps weren't good places to work.

Springtime payday

Come spring, the men would come out of the woods with all the money they had earned over the winter. The following weeks would often be full of big spending and letting loose.

"There's a cycle that has existed historically of young man gets paid, young man goes stark raving mad for about a week, young man goes back out to the camp because he's broke," Upham said.

A big log jam in New Brunswick in 1900. (LS-AT27/New Brunswick Museum, www.nbm-mnb.ca)

Spring is also when the log drives would happen, once the rivers and streams started to flow and all the trees cut down over the winter needed to be transported across the province.

"Another thing that really sets New Brunswick apart from from just about anywhere else in the world, really, except maybe like Venice or something, but you can get almost anywhere you want to go in New Brunswick by water," Upham said.

With files from Information Morning Moncton

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