Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

January 29, 1997, Page 36

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Oldies" Articles 


Good Old Days


By Dee Zimmerman


First Settlement


The first occupancy of Clark County was brought about by the wealth of animal life in the forests, by its geological advantages tributary to the Wisconsin, Chippewa and Black Rivers, and by its position as the common hunting–ground of the Chippewa, Dakota, Winnebago and possibly the Menominee Indians.


It was in the autumn of 1836, when the falling leaves carpeted the forests floors, when few wild blooming flowers were left, the wild geese and ducks were southward bound.  The fur bearing animals of forest and stream had grown their winter coats, or were preparing for their hibernation when a party of  French Canadian trappers and fur traders, working for the American Fur Company, appeared on the East Fork of Black River and established a temporary post.  Living in close touch with Nature, they had endured the past seasons severe winters so another long and dreary winter had for them few terrors.  They were accustomed and hardened to the long ordeal ahead of them.  Constructing a comfortable shack in the thick forests overlooking a winding steam, they made it their headquarters until the following spring.  From their humble abode, they set out on their winter expeditions, penetrating into the surrounding wilderness in all directions, returning form time to time with their hard-earned booty.  Many a blustering nights passed when members of the party, assembled around the roaring hearth and narrated by turns their wild and adventurous experiences.  They were apt to join in with songs of the frontier, or some gentler ditty reminiscent of the civilized life back home.


A sixteen year old lad, Norbert St. Germaine, traveled along with the traders.  He hired out as a packer to the American Fur Company, coming to Wisconsin by way of Lake Superior and in the fall was sent with a party of traders to spend the winter on the East Fork of the Black River.  The imagination is aroused in contemplating the experiences of this courageous lad, far from home and family, accompanying those hardened adventurers on their excursions through the bitter cold.  His experiences, the witnessing of the haggling between traders and natives over exchanges of furs and trinkets, and then returning over the dreary route to the isolated, cold his slender shoulders bent with the weight of a heavy pack of valuable fur – it had to have made a man out of a boy, quickly.


At the end of winter, the fur traders left but young St. Germaine stayed in Wisconsin.  In the winter of 1837-38 he worked at the Perry and Vander Mill in what is now Portage County.  He was given charge of a trading post of John DeLaRonde on the present site of Mauston.  At intervals, he continued to work for the American Fur Company.  Later, he abandoned the fur business and became a river man, running lumber on the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.  In 1851 he took up his residence in Necedah and remained there for many years.


Life of the Riverman


A logging camp on the Back River presented to the spectator a combination of animated sights and sound.  Camped in log shanties, and with log stables for oxen and horses, were congregated together anywhere from twenty-five to nearly a hundred men, according to the size of the winter’s work laid out for them.


Some of the men would be engaged in cutting down the pine trees and were called “choppers”; some were engaged in sawing the logs into lengths, varying from 12 to 18 feet, or more, the average being 16 feet.  Other men worked with oxen; skidding the logs out of the woods to the skid-way; where teamsters worked at hauling great loads of logs on immense sleighs.  The loaded sleighs were pulled along the iced skid-way down to the river where they would be unloaded either on the ice on the river, or else put on the roll-a-ways on the river bank.  At the opening of the river in the spring, the logs would be tumbled down into the swift running stream, being termed “breaking the roll-a-ways.”


Before the logs were landed, they were marked on the bark on the side of the log with the owner’s log mark, and stamped on the ends of each log several times with what was known as the “end mark.”  Each logger had his own marks, which were registered in the lumber inspector’s office at La Crosse.


The log mark of Leonard B. Stafford was a long line cut across the back, with four smaller lines cut across at a certain angel, making it have the appearance of four X, and was called the long forty.


Hewett, Wood & Son’s log mark was the letter K, enclosed in a diamond, and the end mark was the same and was known as the diamond K mark.


Lindsay, Phelps & Co., of Davenport, Iowa, had the figures 41 both for side and end marks.


The log mark of Bright & Withee was BXW with BW stamped on the ends.


A full collection of all the various log marks used on the river by the various loggers would show considerable ingenuity in their make up, no two of them being alike.  The purpose also was to design a mark that cold easily be cut upon the log with an axe.


With the coming spring and the disappearance of the snow from the logging roads, labor in the forest came to an end.  The loggers then turned their energies to the log drive.  Presently rivers were freed of their thick top coat of ice and spring floods were at hand to carry the logs to the mill.  The logger could be presented with a problem when his operations took him far upstream, if the melting snow and the spring rains produced only a slight rise of water.  Then his logs were tied up and he must wait for a more favorable year to carry them to market.  But when the river was high the men set about the hazardous work of “break” the roll-a-ways and delivering to the swollen stream the accumulated harvest of the winter’s work.  The drive was the most adventurous as well as most dangerous portion of the season’s operations.  Down the ice cold torrent thousands upon thousands of logs went surging and hurtling, sometimes halting at an obstruction as if in hesitation and piling up in ride masses, then rushing onward again with greater momentum than before.


A crew of men furnished with boats or bateaux, with tents, blankets and provisions would follow down the river behind floating logs.  Armed with pike poles and cant hooks, they endeavored to keep the immense sea of logs floating down the river in constant motion.  Often the logs would be piled up against some obstruction like a rock, or pier of a bridge, causing a jam.  Sometimes those log jams would extend for more than a half a mile up the river, and the problem was how to break it.


The dexterity the men showed in accomplishing that was fascinating to watch.


The work was done at the head of the jam and the drivers attacked the logs that like the keystone of an arch bound and held the great mass together.  The work was dangerous and sometimes a daring fellow lost his life.  Such workers were well paid, log drivers in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s received from $3 to as high as $7 per day.


When night fell the “Waunegan” boat that carried the tents, blankets and supplies was headed into shore, camp was made, fires were built, and after a hearty meal, tired out with the day’s hard work, the men slept the sleep of just, to be routed out at day break for a repetition of the labors of the day before.


There was a flavor or resemblance in those men, with their boats and camps and their songs that identified their prototypes, the old French Canadian Voyagers, the days of the past.


Work in a logging camp was for the hardy.  The hours commenced at daylight and ended with darkness for some.  Teamsters generally continued their duties long after daylight had gone, in the care and attention that was necessary to give their teams of horses or oxen.


When the logs were banked at the landings they were visited periodically by the “scaler” who measured the logs, with the Scribner rule, estimated the number of logs scaled with their marks, and the number of feet board measure that they contained and filed a copy of the same with the Lumber Inspector at La Crosse.


The logging industry has greatly changed their methods of cutting, clearing and moving the harvested timber compared to the late 1800’s. 


“Youth is a gift of Nature; Age is a work of Art.”

(Author unknown)



Loggers overseeing a “break-away” as the logs piled along the river bank were started rolling by the help of pike poles.  (The Tibbett crew of circa 1930)


The A. C. Bass Logging Camp was located at Curtiss, northern Clark County, in the winter of 1888; the boss of the camp was the cook, who’s wearing the white apron.  The men liked to eat so they tried not to offend the cook.

The Black River at low tide during summer near the railroad trestle on Neillsville’s west side, late 1800’s; some logs remain on the river’s edge, remnants of the spring logging drives.  (Photo courtesy of Clark County Historical Society’s Jail Museum)  



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