Archive for July, 2009

This past weekend saw the Lumberjack World Championships take place in Hayward, Wisconsin.  The annual event of sawing, chopping, climbing, and log rolling contests celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.  While the golden anniversary is cause for celebration, signs of the sport’s decline in popularity seemed to be more evident than ever.  A New York Times article covering the championships addressed this issue, noting the lack of television coverage and the drop in participation levels.  The number of big-time contests held in the U.S. has also dwindled. It’s now virtually impossible to make a living from winnings on the American lumberjack contest circuit.

For decades the Lumberjack World Championships were a featured television event — from ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” in the early years, to ESPN and the Outdoor Life Network more recently.  That all ended this year, when the event was given no national TV coverage.  Some former champions are questioning whether the lumberjack sports themselves are dying.  “The best years are gone,” seemed to be a common refrain.  While the glory years of the sport may in fact be behind us, there are still many talented young lumberjack athletes — such as J.R. Salzman, an Iraq war veteran who lost part of his arm to a roadside bomb in 2006, and returned this year to win his seventh log rolling championship.

With others looking towards the past, though, this is the perfect time to highlight some of the visual documentations of lumberjack competitions from yesteryear found in the FHS Archives.  Below is a small sampling of images documenting the sport’s past, as well as some of the larger-than-life figures.

Paul Searls axe chop

Lumberjack legend Paul Searls (left) with his son Max competing in a tree felling contest.

Paul Searls bucking

Paul Searls competing in his specialty event, log bucking. Searls was a world champion log bucker from 1932 to 1952, as well as a former Guinness World Record holder in the event. On May 28, 1937, Searls also helped dedicate the Golden Gate Bridge by sawing through a 34″ redwood log in record time at the bridge’s opening.


A three-time International Log Rolling Association Champion and leading competitor from the 1930s through the 1950s, Jim Herron prepares to perform his infamous log rolling striptease as his alter-ego “grandma” character.


The axe throw event at the Albany (Oregon) Timber Carnival in July 1958.

Clive McIntosh saw

Clive McIntosh (right), with partner D. Mann, examining their saw after winning the World Championship Doubles Sawing Contest at Sydney, Australia. McIntosh was an Australian lumberjack legend, as well as an influential axe and saw designer.

The selected photos here come from both the FHS Photograph Collection and the American Forest Institute Records.  If interested, also take a look at this 1920-era log rolling film footage from the FHS YouTube Channel, as well as the previously posted Loggers–Rodeos photo subject gallery.

Special thanks to Jeffrey Stine for telling us about the NY Times article that inspired this entry.

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On this date in 1822, Franklin B. Hough was born on the western edge of the Adirondack Mountains in Lewis County, New York.  Hough would become the first forestry agent of the U.S. government, the first chief of the Division of Forestry, and one of the most influential figures in early American forestry.  Gifford Pinchot himself would refer to Hough as “perhaps the chief pioneer in forestry in the United States.”

Franklin B. Hough

Portrait of Franklin B. Hough by Rudy Wendelin (from FHS Archives)

Franklin Hough began his professional career as a practicing physician, but retired from medicine in 1852 in order to pursue his research and writing interests.  Hough wrote several histories of the Adirondack region and also oversaw the New York State census in 1855 and 1865.  While compiling census data for the latter, Hough was alarmed by the declining trend in available timber in the state.  This discovery led to the cause of forest preservation becoming his life’s work.

In the 1870s, when his calls for allowing active forest management in the proposed Adirondack forest preserve went unheeded, he turned his focus to the federal government.  In 1873 Hough presented a greatly influential paper, “On the Duty of Governments in the Preservation of Forests,” to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Hough’s paper revealed the depletion of America’s eastern forests and declared the need for forest preservation and forestry education.  The paper was especially notable because it called on governments to aid in forest preservation efforts, a radical departure from American free market ideals.  Hough recommended that laws be passed to protect forest growth, and urged the scientists in attendance to bring to the attention of Congress and their state governments “the subject of protection to the forests, and their cultivation, regulation, and encouragement.”  The following day a committee was appointed, with Hough as chair, to petition Congress about the critical national need for forest preservation.

The actions of this committee, as well as Hough’s own work, would lead Congress on August 15, 1876, to create the office of Special Agent in the Department of Agriculture to assess the state of the forests and lumber in the U.S.  Commissioner of Agriculture Frederick Watts appointed Hough to this position on August 30th.

Over the next year, Hough traveled the country and began preparing his detailed report on the nation’s forests. (more…)

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I just returned from a trip to Montana, where I conducted an oral history interview with the 15th chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Dale Bosworth. While there, I took the opportunity to visit Mann Gulch, site of the first smokejumper tragedy. There, sixty years ago next month, 13 firefighters (12 were smokejumpers, 1 a fire watch guard) were killed when a fire they were dispatched to fight trapped and then overwhelmed them. Three men survived—one by doing the then-unthinkable and setting an escape fire and two others by miraculously outrunning the fire in what has to be one of the most difficult runs in recorded history. What happened at Mann Gulch forever changed wildland firefighting—new training techniques were developed based on what was learned and the Forest Service began studying fire behavior as part of an effort to improve safety. It also changed those 13 families and the lives of the three survivors.

Getting to Mann Gulch requires going over rough terrain, both physically and emotionally. Years ago, I had read Norman Maclean’s flawed take on the incident, Young Men and Fire, and then refamiliarized myself with the incident in 2004 while doing research for The Forest Service and The Greatest Good. The night before going, I read the U.S. Forest Service fire research report generated as a result of Maclean’s pressing the agency for help in reconstructing the events of August 5, 1949. His book and the report both focused on the fire more than the men. I thought I understood what they faced that day, but even some of the best writing and best research describing what happened does not do the setting justice.

Before the trip I had also finished Mark Matthew’s new book, A Great Day to Fight Fire, which drew on personal interviews conducted in 1999 with the survivors and the victims’ families. To learn about each of the men and then read of their deaths, how each died—and then to see where each man died—made the visit more difficult than I had anticipated. To stand where they fell is overwhelming, sobering, and mystifying. To see the distance and steep incline Bob Sallee and Walt Rumsey scrambled up to survive struck me dumb and humbled. To look upon where Wag Dodge set his escape fire and see just how close so many of the others were to him surprised me. To gaze at their names etched in stone twice—each site has two markers, with a second one having been placed there in 1997—is a stark reminder of what was lost that day. To see some of the markers in desperate need of repair saddened me.

Leonard Piper's cross lies in ruins. All that remains intact is the rebar that once held the cross.

Leonard Piper's cross lies in ruins. All that remains in place is the rebar that once held the cross. The Forest Service decided in the 1990s not to rebuild them and opted to place the granite columns there instead. Click any photo to enlarge it. (All photos are property of the author.)

While standing at the bottom of the deep gulch, looking up at the steep sides I had just hiked down with some difficulty, I tried to envision running full tilt up a nearly vertical wall of loose rocks and slick grass with a wild fire coming at me. I could think of only two things: “Those poor guys didn’t stand a chance” and “How the hell did Sallee and Rumsey make it out of here alive?”

The view from where Stanley Reba died, looking up toward where Sallee and Rumsey went through the rocks to safety.

The view from where Stanley Reba died, looking up toward where Sallee and Rumsey went through the rocks to safety.

Located in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness area in the Helena National Forest, Mann Gulch is reachable only by boat from the Missouri River or by horseback. A tour boat will drop you at Meriwether Canyon, the same place from where Forest Service fire guard James Harrison started his hike to meet the smokejumpers sixty years ago. At the top, you’ll find this interpretive sign and can look across Mann Gulch.

The view from the ridge opposite of where the smokejumpers were killed. Click on the photo to read the interpretive sign showing the timeline of events at Mann Gulch.

Click on the photo to read the interpretive sign showing the timeline of events and their locations at Mann Gulch.

The hike along the ridge and around and down to the markers takes another hour or so. In all, it’s a six or seven mile hike roundtrip that took nearly six hours. A most difficult but rewarding six hours that will be with me for a long time to come.

As I looked back over the sight before heading down for the boat, I had one final thought: I hope the interpretive sign overlooking Mann Gulch is right—that those 13 men did not die in vain.

The Mann Gulch memorial, installed in 1999 and located at the mouth of Meriwether Canyon.

The Mann Gulch memorial, installed in 1999 and located at the mouth of Meriwether Canyon. You can see this before starting the hike up and over to Mann Gulch.

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