Like the majestic white pines they cut down, lumberjacks of yore loom large in our collective memory. Timber still represents a key piece of Wisconsin’s economy, with tens of thousands of public and private acres under active management for timber harvest. Logging techniques are very different today, but the Wisconsin Forestry Museum and Lumberjack Steam Train in Laona bring early logging history to life.
NEXT BEST THING TO A TIME MACHINE
Your visit starts at the historic Soo Line Depot located on Highway 8 just a quarter mile west of the junction with Highway 32, where you’ll claim a seat on the Lumberjack Steam Train. For more than six decades, this train carried lumberjacks to and from logging camps along the Laona Northern Railroad.
Purchase your ticket and then it’s “All aboard!” for a three-mile ride to the site of an 1890’s logging camp, Camp 5, whose name reflects the tradition of naming camps with successive numbers as loggers completed their work and moved on. In 1914, the Lumber Company Farm was developed at the site of Camp 5 to raise meat, produce and draught horses for Camp 5 and other camps of the Connor Lumber & Land Company.
Several historic buildings remain from those early days and are part of the Wisconsin Forestry Museum: an old hog barn (now a petting corral), a blacksmith shop (now part of the museum) and the old slaughter house. because of its historical and cultural value, in the 1980s, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
At the museum, you’ll learn about logging from its heyday to the present in a video called “Northwoods Saga.” The Forestry Museum houses an extensive collection of tools and other artifacts chronicling the hard work of loggers, as well as household items that added a small measure of ease to an otherwise laborious life. Original account ledgers offer insight into the business of the early forest products industry.
Logging was winter work, with snow and ice roads enabling loggers to transport their product with draught horses pulling sleighs piled as high as 30 feet with massive logs. If the sleigh driver was fortunate, he wore a bear coat to keep warm — you’ll see one in the museum.
The combination of hard work and cold temperatures — often below zero — meant lumberjacks needed hearty meals before and after a hard day in the woods. these were big men with big appetites, and among the artifacts in the museum, you’ll see griddles three feet across. At the blacksmith shop, a skilled blacksmith works at the original forge to pound out mini horseshoes for visitors.
Next, hop on a motorized surrey for a half-hour narrated “green treasure forest tour,” which has won the National Award in Education from the Arbor Day Foundation. Follow the tour with a quiet stroll on the Ecology Walking Tour, a short interpretive trail that leads over an old “corduroy road” and into the forest. There’s also a hands-on nature center on site, along with a working 1900 Cracker Barrel store, and the Choo Choo restaurant, where you’ll find tables in case you brought your own picnic.
I can chop faster than you can
The men who lived the rugged, dangerous logging life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were strong, skilled and competitive. Their work kept them fit and gave them constant opportunity to hone their skills. occasional sporting contests, coupled with ongoing rivalries, helped them keep their edge and their pride.
Today, logging requires very different tools and skills. finesse with the controls of equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars has replaced skill with an ax or crosscut saw. but skills from the heyday of muscle-driven logging remain alive and tested, thanks to a dedicated group of modern day lumberjacks. Every summer, strong men and women gather in Hayward, Wis., to vie for a world title in such timber sports as sawing, chopping, logrolling, boom running, pole climbing and more.
Launched in 1960, the Lumberjack World Championships have drawn competitors from several countries — Australia, Canada, the Czech republic, England, New Zealand, Switzerland and of course, the United States. given Wisconsin’s strong logging traditions, it’s not surprising that many competitors hail from closer to home. the Lumberjack World Championships are held the final weekend in July and are open to the public.
Another place to see lumberjacking at its finest is Scheer’s Lumberjack Show in Hayward and Woodruff. Many of the show’s performers are champions who have earned world titles. take Charlie Fenton, two-time world title holder in the classic boom run competition. or Fred Scheer himself, who held four world titles in logrolling, and one world title in the boom run. Log rolling? Boom run? These were important skills back in the day, when logs were moved downriver and someone had to be able to break up log jams and keep logs of many sizes flowing profitably to a mill. Though much timber came to be moved by rail instead of water, the lumberjacks’ river arts didn’t die out altogether.
In lumberjack lingo, the art of keeping your balance on a spinning log was called birling. In the modern-day version of logrolling, two competitors — birlers — vie to be the last one standing. they twirl the log with their feet, trying to unbalance one another. Bobbing the log and using a kick to splash their opponent is fair game. Crossing the centerline is not. Birlers interested in world titles are not allowed to touch one another.
In the boom run, two competitors race across the water and back on side-by-side booms — logs chained together end to end — without losing their balance and falling in. Fenton earned the nickname “boom King Charlie” for his prowess at this balancing act.
He held the world title in 2012 and 2013, and missed it by mere hundredths of a second in 2014. “The guy who took it from me has been competing longer for it and I really enjoy competing against him,” says Fenton. He’s quick to add, “I’m happy to give the title to him, but I am going to get it back.”
Looking forward to his seventh season with Scheer’s, Fenton says one of the things he appreciates about the show is the emphasis on family fun. Many families return year after year, he says, and “they love that it’s just the same as they remember it…. We really strive for customer satisfaction. We want to see people walking out with smiles on their faces after every single show.”
This article originally appeared in the 2015 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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