Anything to do with wood – – forestry, conservation, lumber, carpentry, building – – figures prominently in the daily life of many locals here in the White Mountains of Maine. So when I saw the ad this past summer for “In The Blood,” a documentary about the history of Maine’s lumber industry and the iconic lumberjacks who defined it, I knew I had to go see it at the Deertrees Theatre in Harrison, Maine.
Deertrees Theatre is a story in and of itself. It was originally built as an opera house in 1936 by Harrison Wiseman (d. 1945), a Jewish architect from Ohio that designed the Yiddish Art Theater and other prominent buildings in New York City. Even though it resembles a huge country barn, in fact it is technically and acoustically perfect, and its acoustics have been rated the highest of any New England stage by multiple newspapers’ classical music critics. The list of stars who’ve appeared there over the last 80 years is indeed impressive, as is the drama of the Deertrees Theatre, now designated a historical building, and its fight for survival. You can read more about the Deertrees Theatre’s fascinating history by clicking here. (The town of Harrison was incorporated in 1805 and its name is unrelated to Harrison Wiseman.)
Written, produced, directed and performed by native Mainer Sumner McKane, and using historical footage and interviews with the courageous men whose resilience, feisty independence, strength, skill and drive seem sadly a thing of the past, “In The Blood” explores the typical working day and many hierarchical tasks performed by lumbermen from clearing logging roads, cutting down trees, bringing the trees to the river, controlling the water’s flow, running the logs down the river, clearing the log jams that ensued, fighting the unremitting cold, subsisting on beans, beans and more beans for months at a time, and living in crude camps where 30 men slept under the same enormous quilt and wore the same clothes for 6 months without benefit of laundering nor practicing meaningful personal hygiene.
These days, at the annual country Fryeburg Fair, there are lots of lumberjack contests, and one of them involves balancing on and rolling logs while the logs are floating on an enclosed pool of water. Usually the contest comes to an end in mere seconds. By comparison, historical footage from “In The Blood” puts modern lumberjacks to shame. Perhaps most amazing was the old footage of lumberjacks balancing and walking precariously on logs, hurling together downstream in very rough, freezing water. They lacked the technical outerwear like neoprene that we have today. Losing their balance wasn’t just dangerous – it was usually fatal, for if hypothermia or drowning didn’t kill them (and surprisingly, many didn’t even know how to swim), getting crushed by oncoming logs would. These men of yesteryear were truly Maine’s version of Wild West cowboys, with all their stamina, courage, ability to live in austere conditions and isolation in severe weather, and their addiction to death-defying adrenalin rushes. The only difference is that instead of herding cattle, Maine lumberjacks herded logs – – under the most challenging conditions possible.
Sumner McKane, who is behind the film and many other Maine historical movies, is a man on a mission. He now tours New England with his music and films and especially enjoys getting New England youth excited about their history, appearing at schools throughout the region.