Muckraking journalism was in its heyday a century ago. Meat packers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, oil barons and slumlords got their due. In Maine, saloons and fish canneries entered the spotlight occasionally. In the winter of 1910, conditions in logging camps attracted the public eye as well. Thousands of men, Maine na-tives as well as a growing number of transients, including many immigrants, went to these camps each winter to cut a new crop of logs. Bangor was a major recruitment center for loggers — choppers, sawyers, swampers, teamsters and a multitude of other rough-and-ready characters who felled the trees and got the logs to the rivers for the spring drives.
A piece in Harpers Weekly by Christopher C. Thurber on Oct. 3, 1909 touched off a brouhaha. A few months later, on March 8, 1910, the Bangor Daily News picked up the thread of debate in a sort of symposium of short pieces offering diverse views about whether loggers were being cheated and mistreated.
Summed up briefly, the Harpers Weekly piece called for more Christian charity for loggers, claiming the camps were filthy and the men were robbed by outrageous “wangan” charges and by peddlers of clothing and cheap jewelry who were licensed by greedy operators to prey upon the crews. It also implied the food, although plentiful, was Spartan in variety. “Wangan” referred to camp supplies, as well as to the goods in camp stores ranging from chewing tobacco to mittens.
John P. Hayes, a former newspaper reporter who had spent some time in the camps, took it upon himself to respond to these charges in the pages of the Portland Argus “with a long story from Roach River.” The Harpers fellow, of course, was “a saffron slinger of slimy slander — a fellow who hasn’t even a nodding acquaintance with the truth.”
Considering the distance camp store goods had to be hauled over rough roads by wagon, they were not overpriced at all, said Hayes. Tobacco often cost the same as it would at home, while there might be a slight markup for clothing and “foot-rigging.” As for peddlers, “large operators” did not allow them in their camps.
To verify Hayes’ claim that loggers were well fed, the Bangor Daily News did some investigating of its own. It turned to “an official of one of the greatest lumber concerns in Maine,” who predictably verified the newspaper’s headline that the men “feast like nabobs.” This operator testified (in part), “Once a week round and sir-loin steaks are served. Fresh beef is generally provided, at other times sausages, fresh pork, corned beef and smoked shoulders, while it is no rarity to have fresh eggs and frequently fresh milk is served, as several camps keep cows. Baked beans are served of course, and usually there is a plenty of all kinds of vegetables.”
Still suspicious, the newspaper moved on to a local employment agent who said just the opposite. He declared that stories of high living in the lumber camps was “all foolishness.” “Not for years,” said the agent, “have the woodsmen been treated so badly as this winter. In the camps of one of the great logging companies, the principal food is a salt fish that goes by the name of cod fish, but it probably is not cod. They have beans, of course, but they are a poor quality of beans. … Fish day in and day out is the staple article of food. … All this talk about sanitary conditions and fresh meat every day is foolishness. I have been in lots of camps, and I have never seen one that you nor I would care to sleep in.”
The wangan charges were “something fierce,” ranging from 75 cents for a pair of mittens that ordinarily would retail for a quarter, to 75 cents for tobacco that would sell for 50 cents. “This company that I am speaking of figures that it can safely impose upon the men … because it controls nearly all the camps in the region where it operates …” said the agent. “Come into my office any day and see the men who come down from this company’s camps. When they reach Bangor they are dead broke, or nearly so, and their wages all taken up in wangan charges, car fare, etc., and many of them have to walk part of the way.”
The editor who put this symposium together saved the best for last — a spoof — by a forestry student at the University of Maine. He had spent some time with his classmates in at least one logging camp. Here is a brief excerpt:
“Instead of rising long before daylight from untidy beds in ill-constructed and unsanitary quarters, the guests, many of whom are Polish and Russian noblemen [a reference to the growing number of immigrants employed in the woods] … usually are called by their attendants at 9 o’clock, when cocktails and coffee are served. Then the bath, followed by a stroll through the fragrant spruces and usually at 11, breakfast, consisting of fruits, cereals, chops and seasonable hot dishes, with coffee served according to national preference.”
Lunch consisted of stuffed deviled crabs and filet mignon and a host of other exotic improbabilities, and the afternoon was devoted to golf, skis, snowshoeing. “…. at 5 everybody dresses for dinner, which is served [from a menu loaded with delicacies that appears to have been featured at a luxury hotel like the Bangor House] in the palm room at 6:30 …” to the accompaniment of the Seeboomook String Octette.
As can be imagined, the truth to these weighty questions, would vary with individual camps and the expectations of the loggers. Having run out of space, I will refer readers who want to know more to David Smith’s “A History of Lumbering in Maine, 1861-1960” and Robert E. Pike’s “Tall Trees, Tough Men” — two books that offer tend to be moderate in their appraisals.
An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at email@example.com