Paul Bunyon and the Myth of the American Lumberjack
Blum, Albert A., Contemporary Review
Public officials, businessmen, labour leaders, and teachers like to think that they are masters of their environments, that they can influence and perhaps even manipulate how people work. But so often what causes workers to change has very little to do with conscious plans or designs. Many important changes occur inadvertently and even incrementally. Astute public figures have to be alert to these small changes as they take place if they are to be ready for the resulting big changes that will eventually force them to react. One such change occurs in the myths in which people believe and how they change over time. Sometimes the myth involves specific people: in the United States there is George Washington and his cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln and his log cabin. Other myths involve ideas. One example is the family farm which continues as a myth even though its actual economic importance has become increasingly irrelevant in every passing decade in American history. Yet it still continues to affect behaviour - such as legislation passed in Congress - or at least provides the rationalization frequently offered behind such legislation.
We all carry a host of such myths in our intellectual baggage. They need not be true or false; they need not be based on facts. They must, however, be believed and that belief itself becomes a fact influencing, for good or bad, social behaviour. The myth may live on long after the reasons for its birth may have disappeared. New conditions, however, will often alter the nature of the myth and sometimes, in fact, bring about its demise. Such has been the case in the lumbering industry which has been changing throughout this century. One victim of these changes has been the old lumberjack and mythical figure, Paul Bunyan.
Rexford Tugwell, then a young intellectual, teaching at the University of Washington and later to become a famous 'New Dealer' under Franklin Roosevelt, painted this imposing if not completely accurate picture of the Pacific Northwest's forests in the 1920s: 'Graceful, majestic beyond belief, and beautiful with a weathered, timeless beauty, the boles of the firs and spruce rise. One who with any casualness can go for the first time into the big woods, could walk as casually into and out of Notre Dame. Indeed they are like a vast cathedral . . . And up, far up, a hundred and fifty feet or more, the feathery roof shuts off the sky. Hushed, lovely, triumphant, the forest greets its men.'
The lumberjack, as he marched through these same forests, no doubt likewise was impressed. But he was no passive observer for with the power of his arms and the cut of his axe and saw he shattered the hushed silence of the forest with his shout of 'timber' as the magnificent trees crashed to earth. There are those who claim that he talked about these forests but not in the exact, lovely language of the college professor. Instead he told 'tall tales'. Some claimed that his tallest tales involved Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox, Babe. But it is clear now that Bunyan was a figment in the imagination of a couple of popular writers and public relations men. They put such stories into the mouths of the lumberjacks and Americans believed them true. This indicates something about the romantic image Americans held of lumbering. Whether or not the lumberjack, in fact, spoke of Bunyan, he did tell other folk tales and the powerful Paul can stand in for all of the mythical folk heroes.
Paul Bunyan, supposedly born in the Maine woods, reached his adolescence in Michigan, and then marched along with the lumberjacks across the country into the Pacific Northwest. This truly was an appropriate habitat for this wandering folk hero. The mighty trees turned into puny matchsticks in his hands. There he was to live, to prosper, and eventually to die, entombed between the covers of books. 'In the woods Paul Bunyan is dead,' comments Jim Stevens, then of the West Coast Lumberman's Association, a lifelong student of Bunyan folklore and one of his creators. 'The old tales mean nothing to the loggers of today. Some of them appreciate the books and pictures . . . But all would gag at any suggestion that Paul Bunyan stories are even told in camp by actual loggers.'
Why is it that no one ever claims that lumbermen talk any longer about Paul Bunyan or similar folk heroes? Perhaps it is because the type of lumbermen who might have told such tall tales also died. But they still lived as the timber holdings began to expand to the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the twentieth century. The rich, practically untapped source of lumber on the west coast tempted many of the Great Lakes lumbermen to try their luck near the Pacific as their old source of supply began to disappear. Although exact figures are lacking, it has been estimated that in the 1920s about half of the labourers in the western lumber industry had once worked at similar jobs in the Great Lakes region. They brought with them many of the customs, tales and habits of the region from which they came.
The typical lumberjack was young, single, often of foreign origin and frequently illiterate. In 1900, sixty per cent of the loggers and thirty per cent of the sawmill operators were foreign-born. A conservative estimate made in the same year claims that more than two-thirds of the lumber workers were unmarried. With no roots planted in a family, or, for many, any deep roots in the country, a large number of loggers had no stake in any of the lumbering concerns either. Some 'drifted' into a logging camp every night to take the place of those who had quit during the day. The 'bundlestiffs' used to walk round the country, a bundle on their backs, not interested in a permanent job or a career - just a few dollars. Once having earned them, they moved on. As a result, the industry had a tremendously high turnover; in 1915, for example, it was over 500 per cent. One company complained that it had to hire five men for each job on the payroll. Of course, many loggers looked towards their occupations as permanent ones and only moved because the seasonal nature of the work forced them. Even at best, they could only hope for eight to nine months' work a year.
'Homeless, womanless, voteless,' these workers felt a deep sense of insecurity. The industry was migrant; they were migrant. When they worked, the living conditions seemed makeshift too. Their homes in the logging camps were crowded shanties. One hundred might live in one shelter whose only accommodations were hard beds for which the loggers had to provide their own bedding, sometimes using hay instead of a mattress. They slept sometimes two-decked. The sanitary conditions were primitive, with no baths, very few washbasins, and in at least one camp, a toilet made of a split log. The air in the bunkhouses hung heavily with odours of drying clothes and unwashed lumberjacks. It is no wonder that a steady and often fruitless fight proceeded against bedbugs and lice.
Loggers frequently complained about the lack of food in these camps or the way in which it was prepared. 'Garbage' was the way one union official described it, although others were more satisfied. In any case, to keep a lumberjack adequately fed would appear practically impossible. One newspaperman described a typical noonday meal he had in an Oregon lumber camp during the 1930s. He reported that they ate all of the following: chicken-tomato soup, veal chops, braised beef stew, flesh asparagus, baked beans, 'German-fried potatoes', rye hardtack, white bread, rolls, milk, tea, lettuce salad, stewed gooseberries, lime jelly with cream, assorted fruit, three kinds of cookies, and two kinds of cake.
Whatever the quality of food the logger ate during the first decade of the twentieth century, he surely needed a substantial amount to carry on his arduous labours. Up before daylight, he ate breakfast between 3 and 5 am and worked through until twilight. One man remembered that if the loggers worked for a gyppo (a contractor of labour), 'all they had to do was get up at dawn and take care of their horse, and clean themselves up a little bit, eat breakfast and go to work and return at night. They would take care of the horses, eat their supper and go to bed.
Between dawn and dusk, the logger worked hard and often dangerously. Early statistics on accidents are fragmentary but, since 1926, when the United States Bureau of Labour Statistics started to gather such data, logging had steadily held the dubious honour of being among the leading industries in the number of injuries per million employee hours worked. The 1939 frequency rate was 105.39, with 173 disabling injuries for every thousand workers. The BLS figures were gathered for a period when the workers normally worked no more than an eight-hour day. How much higher these rates may have been as fatigue caused the workers' attention to wander during the tenth or eleventh hour of work can only be imagined.
Wages for this difficult and dangerous work have always been a source of discord. Although workers in the lumber industry in the west normally received twice as much as southern lumber workers, nonetheless, their wages did not compare favourably with workers in other western industries. Adding to the discontent were the methods by which they were paid. 'Pay day will be any time we are dissatisfied with you or you are dissatisfied with us,' announced one company. Other companies paid on a monthly basis or on 'drag day' for those who needed money in between.
Once paid, the loggers eagerly sought relaxation on the neighbouring skid rows. The thirsty loggers quenched their thirst at taverns. Yacolt, a small town in Washington near a lumbering camp, had seven saloons, three stores and only one church! The men would often get so drunk that the logging camp supervisors had to come into town, drag them into a sled and carry them back to camp to sober up. One enterprising saloon-keeper in Yacolt not only sold liquor but imported prostitutes. A long line formed of loggers anxious to pay their $2.50.
Thus in liquor, or with women, or elsewhere, the loggers sought release from the tensions, the fatigue, the rootlessness of their existence. They also sometimes sought release by sitting around the bunkhouse fires and telling tales which exaggerated their own prowess. No wonder romanticists could claim, and the public could believe, that the lumberjack talked about the imaginary and greatest lumberman of them all, Paul Bunyan, and how he had pitted himself against the tremendous forest and had conquered it.
But the opiates of liquor, women and romantic daydreams did not make the loggers forget the problems of their everyday existence. They began to look elsewhere for more realistic methods for satisfying their desires. To some, the answer proved to be unions. As lumberjacks had done in other countries, American loggers marched to the left and in the United States supported the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World. The vague, inchoate, and yet bitterly romantic goals of the 'Wobblies' could tempt lumberjacks with their dreams of 'pie in the sky by-and-by' being served here on earth and with their talk of revolutionary action to end government. But the 'Wobblies' could not provide bread and security now, and eventually disappeared from the scene.
For a time the US Government, prompted by the pressing need for spruce during World War I, did give more bread and some security to lumbermen through the government-sponsored Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen - but only for a while. After that the workers had to wait until the New Deal and the upsurge of unionism that followed it. For a time the CIO and AFL unions, along with a communist faction, fought each other for the loggers' loyalty, but eventually this dispute too was resolved while the communists, like the earlier 'Wobblies', dropped out of the picture. The end products were labour-management negotiated agreements which fixed wages, hours, and working conditions and improved job security, a job security that has been disappearing in the 1980s because of the decline in the lumbering industry during this decade.
But the unions were not the only force changing the conditions under which the lumberjacks worked. Management also altered the workplace - frequently under pressure from the government and organised labour, but also often on its own. No longer would firms be satisfied with the harsh conditions under which loggers had lived. In the camps, housing conditions improved and instead of bunks with straw mattresses, there were beds with real mattresses; instead of fireplaces around which men flocked to grow warm and to talk, there was central heating, and if flock they must, it was around a television set. Indeed, the workers did not have to live at these somewhat antiseptic camps. They could and did reside in their own homes with their wives and children and drove to work every morning as did other workers. As a logger recently reported, 'it used to be a lumberjack would go in and cut wood and raise hell on the weekend. Now it's a lot more complicated than that.' Now when loggers arrive at work, the tools they use are no longer primitive or dangerous. Technology has reached the timber camp and made the lumberjack not much different from the automobile worker.
Then there are the 'environmentalists' who have helped to weaken the concept of the logger as a romantic figure. To the 'environmentalist', the loggers were destroying the image of the forest as a 'vast cathedral' as they cut down tree after tree, leaving ugly scars across the landscape. The 'environmentalists' believe that the loggers and their employers not only were desecrating the environment but also were killing animals - the spotted owls, for example - who might disappear forever from the earth as the lumberjacks emptied the forests of the places where the spotted owls might live.
This struggle has brought the lumberjacks out of the forest into the political life where they argue that their jobs require and society needs the products that result from their hard work. True, they recognise that spotted owls might disappear, but so could their jobs. These children of the 'Wobblies' are no longer willing to dream of eating 'pie in the sky by-and-by'; instead, they continue fighting so that their families can eat something today. The struggle, therefore, continues: the lumberjacks fear that the 'environmentalists' will take away their jobs, while the 'environmentalists' fear that the lumberjacks will take away 'their' environment.
At times both sides have compromised and at times they have continued fighting. The conflict between jobs and the environment surely means that the image of the romantic logger has disappeared. He no longer had a reason to talk about how many trees Paul Bunyan could cut down, for now new machines like the feller-puncher, with its scissor-like claws, can cut down far more trees than a single logger ever could. Nor would Bunyan and his fellow lumberjacks move round the countryside as much as they once did, since the union-management agreements had made them more stationary. Many, instead, would have to leave the industry as efforts by 'environmentalists' have reduced the number of trees they can legally cut down. The remaining loggers, if they want to continue working, have been forced to move across the country, since the industry, still somewhat nomadic is moving from the Pacific Northwest to the South. There, tree farms with their long monotonous rows of pines are 'neither dark nor lovely nor deep' as they are along the Pacific coast. In addition, the increased use of roads, lorries and cranes make not only the blue ox obsolete but also many loggers. Computers have taken the place of the expert book-keeper, Johnny Inkslinger.
So the unions, management, 'environmentalists' and the government have helped to change the nature of the loggers' work, and consequently the logger himself. By doing so, they have changed Paul Bunyan from a living folk story, however mythical, to a collector's item. Even if the relatively few remaining lumberjacks wanted to sit round, talk and dream about Bunyan, with whom would they converse? Not with each other but with wives, shop stewards, personnel managers and politicians. They would talk, often now in a southern accent, about more pressing subjects than Bunyan - for example, how long they would continue working in an industry that has been losing its jobs. But they might not even be talking because the TV set would be on!
[Albert A. Blum is a professor at the New Mexico State University. A much earlier version of this article appeared in Western Wildlands.]…
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Publication information: Article title: Paul Bunyon and the Myth of the American Lumberjack. Contributors: Blum, Albert A. - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 269. Issue: 1571 Publication date: December 1996. Page number: 286+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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