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"Life in the Lumber Woods in the 30s"
by Allan P. Clarke (1916-1998)
As told to Frank Clarke his son
When we were young men there was little work for us to do around Victoria to make a dollar. Work was very scarce. We helped men in their gardens ploughing, planting, making hay and putting it away for the winter. We also went into the woods and cut logs which we took to Carbonear to sell. In those days I earned about $1 a day. Other than the occasional trip to the ice there were few ways to get any money to live on, and to help out the family . Since most of our fathers worked either in the mines at Sidney or in the lumber woods. It was only natural that we would do the same thing when we got old enough.
I first went into the lumber woods in March of 1937 when I was 21 years old. We usually stayed there until Christmas. Usually a couple of men stayed behind in the camp to carry out maintenance work. I remember one Christmas I stayed there by myself. There was no advertising for men out our way so we just went to the lumber camps and asked if there was any work. This usually was done by walking to Carbonear and traveling by train to Brigus Junction and catching the train going west. The trip cost between $8 to $10 to go to central Newfoundland, either to Deer Lake or Terra Nova. The trip usually took a day on the train. The trip was very uncomfortable. The seats were made of wood and two of us sat in each one. There were "sleepers" on the train but we couldn't afford them, so we sat up all night. Food was sold on the train but it was expensive so we brought our lunch from home. This was usually jam bread and biscuits. We would buy a bottle of drink on the train for 5 cents. When we got off the train in the morning we left to walk into the camps. I first went to work in a camp about 13 miles from Deer Lake. Before I went up in the woods I bought myself a "pulp hook" at Swartz's store. I paid 70 cents for it. I worked with Stewart Ball and Ken Campbell who represented the Bowater Company. The camps were terrible. The men were expected to live and eat in log cabins with about 40 men in each one. The first time I got there we had no mattresses. We had to pick the tips from fir boughs to make our bunk. The men slept side by side with only a piece of board between them. There was no privacy. Rats roamed the camps virtually unchecked and fleas, bugs and lice abounded. Before we got a real stove we thawed and dried our wet clothes around a stove made from an oil drum and washed, occasionally in water brought from the pond by the "cookee" who brought it from the pond and stored it in large puncheons in the bunkhouse. Our main food was boiled beans, soup, white bread, potatoes, salt fish, salt beef, and fresh meat a couple of times a week and black tea. This was usually accompanied by prunes or dried apple jam. This rough "grub" was usually prepared by a cook who had very little knowledge of what he was doing. Though the food lacked variety there was plenty of it. There were 5 or 6 tables in the bunkhouse and the men sat around them and ate breakfast and supper. We ate our dinner in the woods. The food was brought to our camp by Neddie Goulding from Gambo. He had three horses and a mule hitched to his wagon. It sure looked odd. The food was stored in special sheds built on posts that had a metal collar around them to prevent the mice and rats from getting into it. The sheds also had a metal lining and had mesh around it to stop the rats and mice from gnawing their way through.
Before I got there, the loggers were generally earning about $7 per month. This was common in the 30s and the men were very angry because the companies didn't seem to listen to them. We went on strike and a contract was negotiated with both paper companies, Bowaters and the AND company which raised the price of wood from a range of $1.80 - 1.90 per cord to $1.90 and $2.00 - $2.10. This price was based on "good" and "bad" wood. This was usually determined by the quality of the wood. Generally speaking there were two grades of wood. The fewer "good" logs it took to make a cord the less you were paid. If you had small, knotty or crooked wood you got more money. Bowaters wanted their wood 4 feet long and the AND company wanted theirs 7 feet long. This strike, in effect, almost doubled our pay. It was also during this strike that we got real mattresses for the first time. When I went there, we used iron framed saws or sometimes buck saws. When there were large trees some of the men used crosscut saws which they called "Simon Saws" which were 6ft long with handles on each end.. There were no chain saws then. Usually you worked with a buddy and produced about two cords of wood each a day depending on the quality of our "road." These roads were areas about 50 feet wide and one-half mile long that were assigned to us. Out of our earnings we had to pay board to the camp owner at 60 cents per day which went either to the paper companies or contractors. We had to find our own axes, files and saw blades. If we purchased them from the camp, the files were 10 cents and a new saw blade was 50 cents. After we were hired on, we were assigned a "chop" to cut which the owners expected us to finish by the end of the season. When we went out for the day, two men usually stuck together and shared a lunch box. We carried bread, a 5lb. can of "bully beef" and a gallon of jam which lasted us a couple of days. Sometimes we had a piece of cake and a few biscuits. When we were not careful enough to hang our boxes in the trees the black bears used to break open our boxes and take our food. After two days we always gave our left-over food to the birds and animals.
Even though it was hard work for the men in the woods, the camps usually had teams of horses that they used to pull the wood to the lakes and rivers to float them down river. They had wonderful horses. I believe that they were Clydesdales. They were kept in a large barn.. Usually there were 7-10 horses in each camp owned by the company. Each camp had their own barn with feed stored on the second floor. Loggers were assigned to look after the barn and work the horses. I remember one time going down the river in a boat on a log drive with Ken Campbell and an Indian guide named Jack Stephenson. There was a jam and we had to go back and tell the men up river to close the dam until it was freed. The men then came with "pick poles" and freed the jam and we would then tell them to open the dam again and send down more logs. This was very dangerous work. There was very little for us to do when we were not working in the woods. To help us pass our spare time we would play cards, pitch horseshoes and have sing alongs'. I remember Gordon White and Murdock Cole who had wonderful voices. They sang old Newfoundland songs like " The baggage Coach Ahead," "Young Bungay Rye", and nostalgic songs about home such as "The Wreck of the Flyer Queen." Once in a while on Sundays the Salvation Army Minister would come to the camp and have Church. Services were held in the bunk houses and he read the bible, preached and prayed. We sang hymns too. I remember one man from Fogo Island, Willis Williams who could certainly sing. He knew so many songs that he hardly sang the same one twice in a day. When I finished working in Deer Lake, I sometimes went to work in Terra Nova with George Rowsell. The camps were the same there. A lot of men from Victoria worked in the lumber woods when I did. These are the men I remember:
Walter Clarke Jim Clarke Sam Frampton Ob Murray Silas Murray Marcus Frampton Oscar Clarke Silas Clarke Sandy Clarke Sam Summers Bill Hiscock Bill Clarke Eugene Antle Max Antle Gord White Murdock Cole Eliott Clarke Elihu Clarke
Most of us worked in the lumber woods off-and-on until 1939. After that I went to the ice for three Springs. I don't know where all of the other men went after they left the woods. Elihu Clarke started a taxi service from Deer Lake to Corner Brook, Eugene Antle joined the Navy, Ob Murray went to Sydney mines, Sile Murray joined the Army, Max Antle went to the United States while others went into the Forestry overseas and some went to different parts of Canada. Things were tough in the woods. By the 1950s loggers were no longer paid by the cord, but by the hour. It was the same then as it was when I worked there. The men were more concerned with their living conditions than they were with wages. It was a hard life.
Page contributed by: Frank Clarke
Page revised: Oct. 2002 (Terry Piercey)
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