Park logging lore

“Adirondack Timber Cruising” reads like gabbing with old loggers

Linn tractors pulled great lengths of log sleighs. Photo Jim Fynmore. Courtesy Black River Canal Museum

The contents of William O’Hern’s “Adirondack Timber Cruising” are a treasure, the packaging not so much. Plagued by many of the problems of self-published books taken to press without the intervention of an editor or designer, it offers no introduction to explain the book’s aim, with crowded, dense pages following no discernable organizational scheme.

It’s full of great details and anecdotes, but it’s not always clear who wrote individual sections. Buried in a faint font at the head of each chapter is a name (or names); there is no explanation, but after a while you figure out that this indicates the author of that chapter, which might be a newspaper column, often written many years ago, that O’Hern has reprinted here. These are scattered throughout the book’s 56 chapters.

But dig in and you’ll find compelling reminiscences and anecdotes about Adirondack logging before the intense mechanization of the modern era, along with abundant, splendid photographs, including a gallery by Dante Tranquille, for many years staff photographer at the Utica Observer-Dispatch. Other photographers include Dewitt Wiley, a logger himself, who carried his camera to camps throughout the Adirondacks and Tug Hill, and the legendary Jim Fynmore of Boonville.

What, asks O’Hern, does a forester do? The answer is many, many things. A forester understands how forests mature, how insects and disease operate, how accurate surveying is essential to any job. The first thing a forester must learn is timber cruising, assessing what a forest can yield in the way of profit. The cruiser surveys a tract, identifies the species and their proportional representation and the age and size of the trees. This is the critical step before actual cutting and involves an inevitable tension between the need to generate a short-term profit and the desire to leave a forest promising further profits decades down the road.

One of the book’s most interesting narratives is by Barbara Kephart Bird, who was married to forester Roy Bird and worked with him in the western Adirondacks starting in the 1920s. Her book, “Calked Shoes: Life in the Adirondack Lumber Camps” (1952) is a little-known but invaluable memoir, and O’Hern has reprinted some key chapters. Roy Bird, like many of the loggers cited or quoted throughout this book, worked for the Gould Paper Co., a towering presence in the western Adirondacks in the first half of the 20th century. Over the decades, its mill at Lyons Falls turned untold millions of cords of New York softwoods into paper. “Adirondack Timber Cruising” offers priceless photographs and reminiscences about the many camps and crews operating for Gould Paper.

We have samples of columns written for the Adirondack Express by Mart Allen, former general manager at the Adirondack League Club, recalling his logging days. We have reminiscences of long-gone loggers and other colorful characters like C. J. Strife, Dewitt Wiley, the Rev. A. L. Byron-Curtis (famous as a country philosopher and angler), and Norm Villiere. Accounts of logging at Brandreth Park recall logging with horses, early mechanization after World War II, the threat of logging accidents, the peril of driving a truck fully loaded with hardwood logs. We have Dan Christmas thoughtfully recalling Tupper Lake logging and loggers in the 1980s. And we have a delightful account of the life of a lumber camp cook by Rita Chiasson.

In sections by O’Hern himself, we see him tracing the evolution of Adirondack logging from the cut-and-run ruthlessness of the late 19th century to the sustainable practices of the mid-20th. This followed the arrival on the scene of trained experts, of whom Roy Bird was a good example.
O’Hern tells us about his own life in the logging industry, starting as a common laborer in 1967 and moving up the ladder. He describes a mechanized and still dangerous industry and life with an assortment of eccentric comrades. “I’ve always found people who take on risky jobs or attempt seemingly impossible feats, activities that could easily kill them, to be interesting characters.”
There is still more in this well-stocked book. It’s like you’re sitting around the stove at a country store, and all the old loggers are there, reminiscing about a distant day. There’s no particular plan for who talks or about what, but it all adds up to a detailed picture of a critical part of the Adirondack story.

About Philip Terrie

Philip Terrie is an Adirondack and environmental historian, and the author of five books on regional history, including Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks (2nd ed., Syracuse UP, 2008) and Seeing the Forest: Reviews, Musings, and Opinions from an Adirondack Historian (Saranac Lake: Adirondack Explorer, 2017).