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Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

Life in a Lumber Camp

Life in a Lumber Camp | Wisconsin Historical Society

Grade Level: Secondary

Duration: One class period

Introduce students to life in a lumber camp through primary sources: a humorous letter written by an unknown youth, originally printed in The Chippewa Herald, and a popular folk song, "The Shantyman's Life." Both documents offer a varied assortment of "lumberjack lingo," the vernacular terminology that loggers seemed to specialize in inventing.

EnlargeFive men on a log sled pulled by horses.

Logging Sled at the Landing, 1904.

Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. View the original source document: WHI 82990.

Objectives

Students will:

  • Compare and contrast primary sources to better understand a historical issue
  • Use a variety of primary sources in the classroom
  • Understand the strengths and weaknesses of primary sources in analyzing a historical issue




Background

We know very little about the author of "He Didn't Like It," which appeared in the Chippewa Herald in April 1882. The newspaper editor's introduction says that the letter was written by a young man whose father was a minister in Madison--perhaps helping to explain author's distaste for the less-than-genteel lifestyle in the camps. The author had apparently spent one season in "the pinery." We can also infer that he was working in the watershed of the Chippewa River, a region with the richest stands of white pine in North America.

"The Shantyman's Life" is an example of a widely popular early-American song that was revised in Wisconsin's lumber camps. Occupational songs such as this one chronicled both mundane and extraordinary aspects of life in a lumber camp. These were not rhythmic work songs but were sung around lumber camps for entertainment in the evening and on weekends. There were many variations in this song's lyrics. Emery De Noyer, a resident of Rhineland, contributed this version to the Wisconsin Folk Music Recording Project in 1941. Disabled as a child, De Noyer joined a logging operation in northern Wisconsin at age twelve, working as a camp entertainer. De Noyer's sound recording is part of the Wisconsin Folk Music Recording Project, sponsored in the early 1940s by the University of Wisconsin and the Library of Congress. The complete set of these important recordings is preserved at the Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Resource Materials

Discussion Questions

  1. Compare and contrast the account published in the Chippewa Herald with the lyrics for "The Shantyman's Life."
  2. Consider the authors' sentiments about life in a lumber camp.
  3. Does one document contain any substantive information about life in the lumber camps that supports the other? Explain.
  4. What topics do both documents discuss?
  5. Evaluate both documents as historical sources. What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  6. How do the lyrics from "The Shantyman's Life" explain the process of harvesting logs in the pinery?
  7. Do you need more information to use these documents productively? If so, where might you find it?

Enhancement

  1. Have some of your students learn the music and have them perform The Shantyman's Life for your class.
  2. Several museums and historic houses feature exhibits about lumbering in northern Wisconsin. If you live in the northern half of the state, you're probably a short bus trip from a number of museums with lumber history exhibits (PDF, 126 KB).

Bibliography/Links

Search for more images of lumber camps on the Society's website.

Vocabulary

Choppers
Lumberjacks in charge of cutting down trees
"Daylight in the swamp"
A cook's call to breakfast. Lumberjacks often referred to logging as "letting daylight in the swamp.
Jam-pike
A heavy pike with an eight-foot wooden handle and an eight inch spike at the front end, used by lumberjacks to move logs on a river. It was eventually replaced by the peavey.
Loaders
Workers responsible for loading logs on sleighs or freight cars.
Peavey
A tool for rolling and handling logs floating in water.
Pinery
The region of northern Wisconsin and Michigan known for its heavy growth of white pine.
Sawyers
High-level employees who controlled the carriage and other machinery used to saw the logs into lumber. The quality and quantity of the lumber depended on their judgment.
Shanty
Sleeping quarters, bunkhouse.
Shantyman
Original name for a lumberjack.
Swampers
Lumberjacks responsible for removing the limbs from fallen trees. Also called gutter men or trimmers.
Teamsters
Workers responsible for driving teams of horses.

Credit

A version of this lesson plan was developed by the Office of School Services as part of the Wisconsin Stories online activity guide for the secondary-level classroom. Please adapt it to fit your students' needs.