Posts Tagged ‘lumberjacks’

In The Blood

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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.)

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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.

 

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Where Burly is the New “Hot”

A modern-day Paul Bunyan

A modern-day Paul Bunyan

Monday September 30 was Woodsmen’s Day at the Fryeburg Fair and I was not about to miss it!  Besides the usual midway, agricultural exhibits, farm animals, crafts, harness racing, hucksters, and fried food (the amount of oil used during the week of the Fryeburg Fair is enough to fuel a small country), Woodsmen’s Day is a full day of lumberjack contests and events.

This vendor was selling custom-made wood signs.

This vendor was selling custom-made wood signs.

I guess some customers request all sorts of inappropriate sayings.  I give the vendor a lot of credit for posting this sign, despite a potential loss of business.

I guess some customers request all sorts of inappropriate sayings. I give the vendor a lot of credit for posting this sign, despite a potential loss of business.

Participants come from all over New England, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Minnesota and Wisconsin to participate in crosscutting, bucksawing, underhand chopping, axe throwing, log rolling, springboarding, chainsawing and tree felling through thousands of pounds and lengths of logs, boards, blocks and trees as they work against the clock.  There are identical contests for lumber “jills” as well as “jacks,”  and their muscle mass is pretty intimidating!   The event is held at the infield of a racetrack, and the huge grandstand is completely packed with 8,000 – 10,000 onlookers.  Who knew that sawing a piece of wood or rolling a log could be so exciting?  And yet I found myself cheering the victors and groaning when contestants failed along with the rest of the pumped-up crowd.

Both tiers of the grandstand are completely full, along with spectators watching on the ground.  The woodsmen's contests attract thousands of spectators.

Both tiers of the grandstand are completely full, along with spectators watching on the ground. The woodsmen’s contests attract thousands of spectators.

This event, called the Under Hand Chop, requires enormous hand-eye coordination!  The contestant stands on a solid wood block, and using his axe, must chop through the block between his feet with some very powerful swings without falling off the block or, G-d forbid, injuring himself in the process.  The winner chopped through the wood in less than 15 seconds.

This event  requires enormous hand-eye coordination! The contestant stands on a solid wood block, and using his axe, must chop through the block between his feet with some very powerful swings without falling off the block or, G-d forbid, injuring himself in the process. The winner chopped through the wood in less than 15 seconds.

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This pictures was taken moments before the final cut, when he chopped all the way through the wood beneath him and was left standing on what was now two pieces of block wood.

This picture was taken moments before the final cut, when he chopped all the way through the wood beneath him and was left standing on what was now two pieces of block wood.

Working against the clock, in this event logs must be unloaded as quickly as possible into a neat pile beneath the truck.  Then they must be reloaded back onto the truck.

Working against the clock, in this event logs must be unloaded as quickly as possible into a neat pile beneath the truck. Then they must be reloaded back onto the truck.

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First, the contestant must chop a gash into the tree trunk that will be large enough to accommodate a slab of wood.

First, the contestant must chop a gash into the tree trunk that will be large enough to accommodate a slab of wood.

Then he climbs atop the slab, and hacks away at another gash higher up on the tree.  He then makes his way up to the top of the tree, chopping gashes, inserting the slab, and climbing, again and again.

After inserting the slab of wood into the gash he’s created, he climbs atop the slab, and hacks away at another gash higher up on the tree. He then makes his way up to the top of the tree, chopping gashes, inserting the slab, and climbing, again and again.

Once he gets to the top, a new challenge awaits:  he must chop a thick block of wood that is nailed to the top of the trunk in half.  This is much harder than it sounds:  he is now balanced precariously on the narrow plank of wood that he inserted into the gash on the trunk, while 12' - 14' above the ground!

Once he gets to the top, a new challenge awaits: he must chop a thick block of wood that is nailed to the top of the trunk in half. This is much harder than it sounds: he is now balanced precariously on the narrow plank of wood that he inserted into the gash on the trunk, while 12′ – 14′ above the ground!

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At the final stage, chopping the attached solid block of wood at the very top.

This woman (known as a "lumberjill") won every one of the women's events.  She was STRONG!

This woman (known as a “lumberjill”) won every one of the women’s events. She is STRONG!

Women also compete!  The winning time for chopping through this solid block of wood was just over 6 seconds!

Women also compete! 

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The winning time in the men's division was just over 5 seconds

The winning time in the men’s division was just over 5 seconds

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The logrolling contest was much more difficult than it appeared, and many lumberjacks were flummoxed.

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This extremely big strong guy was the champion chopper…

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. . . but perhaps in his next life he’ll join the plumber’s union 😉

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Here are the winners of the crosscut competition.  These women sawed off two pieces from this solid block of wood in about 6 seconds.

Here are the winners of the crosscut competition. These women sawed off two pieces from this solid block of wood in about 6 seconds.

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This woman is all smiles - - she won 4th place in the young women/collegiate division.  She comes from a logging family.  "Once wood gets into your blood, it stays," she said.

This woman is all smiles – – she shows off her 4th place ribbon in the young women/collegiate division.  She came to the competition from the University of Minnesota. She comes from a logging family. “Once wood gets into your blood, it stays,” she said.

The lumberjacks and jills who entered the paired crosscut competition were all tough and strong, but they babied their saw blades with a gentle touch.

The lumberjacks and lumberjills who entered the paired crosscut competition were all tough and strong, but they babied their saw blades with a gentle touch.

Making sure the handle is tight before the competition.

Making sure the handle is tight before the competition.

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Both immediately before and after the event, the saw blade is oiled lightly with a brush, and any dirt or dust is removed.

Both immediately before and after the event, the saw blade is oiled lightly with a brush, and any dirt or dust is removed.

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Both men and women entered the axe-throwing contest.  Here a man takes aim and is about to throw the axe toward the target.

Both men and women entered the axe-throwing contest. Here a man takes aim and is about to throw the axe toward the target.

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And now he lets it fly!

Excellent shot, but just short of a perfect bullseye.

This woman executed an excellent throw, but it was just short of a perfect bullseye.

Lest you think it can’t get any more exciting than this, you haven’t been to the skillet-throwing contest.  This is a women-only event, in which a heavy cast iron skillet is tossed as far as the tosser can throw it.  It is measured for both distance and accuracy.  Sadly, the fair’s oldest regular contestant, Mildred Heath of Conway, NH passed away this past February at age 103.  In recent years she threw the opening toss from her wheelchair, but she always won in her age category!  This year’s winner in the “under 45” category tossed the skillet 61 feet.  You won’t want to mess with her!

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Before I left the fairgrounds I went to the Expo Center which held two different displays (one from Maine and one from New Hampshire) of dueling moose taxidermy.  A pair of bull moose in rut (mating season) were dueling by charging against one another and head-butting.  Their antlers became entangled and tragically, neither could break free.  They died from a combination of exhaustion and starvation.  Their decomposed bodies were found and reconstructed with great skill by expert taxidermists.  Here is the result:

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