'Good ol' days?' Think again!
By Jack M. Willis
Part of the credo of the Trout Creek Lumber Company, the Good Pine Lumber Company and the Tall Timber Lumber Company-- all sawmill operations within a half-mile cluster located about two miles west of Jena, all owned primarily by the Buchanan family which staunchly observed one iron-clad rule--and that was to never use mechanization in any phase of their timbering and milling operations unless it was absolutely necessary. Instead substitute man power or horse and mule power because all three power sources were cheap and abundant. Their reasoning being: a steam loader was incapable of trading at the mill's commissary.
After Robert Buchanan's adamant refusal to purchase the steam loader, after observing a demonstration, it was business as usual with the rail cars being loaded in their time-honored fashion of using about a dozen men with prize poles and cant hooks, and a team of oxen to load and top out the flat bed log cars. It was not unusual for many of the logs, especially towards the butt of a tree, to measure 36 to 48 inches in diameter and since the logs were all heart, and very nearly pure liquid turpentine, the logs were weighty and unwieldy to get in place on the car.
A bull puncher would pull up to a siding with a fresh load of logs cut the previous day and pull the two bolsters next to the track and unload the logs next to the sides of the rail cars so they could to be handled individually when being loaded. Only one pair of oxen was used to load the car except for the top log, which because of the height involved took all hands and the cook to get it in place. Because of the huge log's size the average flat car could only haul six to 12 logs per car.
The lead team would be unhooked from the other six and moved in place on the left side of the car based on the direction the train would be traveling, which was invariably towards the mill. Logs were always loaded on the right side of the car by double hooking them and pulling them up leaning peeled poles lubricated with their own pitch to aid the logs to slide up and into place on the car, while being pulled from the off side by the pair of oxen.
The Trout Creek Lumber Company had my grandfather's tram construction crew build a main spur line all the way south from Trout almost to the bluffs on the north shore of Catahoula Lake. Some very choice timber was there for the harvesting but the logs could not be moved with the conventional horse and "limber" towing devices, which had been used 60 years before to tow cannon in the Civil War. But, they had to be hauled out on Lindsay wagons pulled by oxen in the often muddy, treacherous terrain.
To successfully log off a tract of land required the intense intermeshing of several different labor groups ranging from the stock tenderers who were hired first, then woods foremen were next because somebody had to examine the applicants for "flathead" jobs to see who was the most productive. Then they hired teamsters to operate the horse-limber combinations, with the bull punchers hired last because the company logged the swamp areas last because of the often swampy areas encountered in trying to get the logs out to the spur lines.
The rich longleaf trees were almost oozing sap while they were being felled and the resin would build up on the saw blade making it almost impossible to pull back and forth in cutting strokes. But one of the saw hands would have an old wine bottle in his back pocket filled with a mixture of coal oil or kerosene and just a tad of light motor oil. They would cram a pine limb down in the neck of the bottle and the cluster of pine needles would sprinkle the kerosene-oil mixture out on the saw blade cutting the resin off, and here they'd go again, back and forth for ten hours a day.
This work schedule was in place almost six days a week. If they'd exceeded production quotas or at least met them, the woods foremen would knock off a bit early on Saturday. The men slept every chance they got-in the boxcars coming and going to the logging sites, and during their too brief dinner hour. Some of them would go in on Saturday evening, take a bath, eat a huge supper and sleep until noon the next day oblivious to the heat or cold. They'd get up and eat another huge meal and go back to bed and sleep until they'd have to get up about four in the morning in order to walk in to the mill yard from outlying residences for six more arduous days of the same old grind.
They had to work sick and crippled because if they didn't show up to load on that work boxcar, there were at least ten men standing around hoping to take the place of the "no-shows." The work was so hard and demanding, and performed in all kinds of weather, that some men's bodies were literally crippled by arthritis, and worn out by the time they were 30 years old. Like one old boy so aptly put it-there weren't no rainouts or snow storms in the logging woods.
Every so often I hear someone wishing they could return to the good old days, and I'm thinking I wish my uncle were still alive to fill you in on some of the rigors of the "good ol' days."