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Genealogy of Communities: Logging Camps

First generation residents of an intentional community are not born there. They come for a specific reason. Skilled lumberjacks were drawn to logging camps for employment well off the beaten path—much too far to commute. The result was the logging camp community composed mainly of men able to harvest large forests of much-needed lumber and drive the logs downstream. As with any community, there were other residents who provided related services and goods. We can study a logging camp much as we would any community because they were counted by census enumerators as though they were cities.


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We do not always think of logging camps as communities because they tended to be temporary and they existed for harvesting mature fish on an annual basis. Nevertheless, logging camps were very much communities and some survived and became traditional towns.

Loggers who lived in the camps reported their tent in the wilderness or their log cabin as their main residence and were counted in the census enumerations. Logging was hard work. Loggers tended to leave the profession as they became older and the work became harder for them, and they married.

Expect to find younger men in the logging camps, and very few families. Loggers who remained often came to be known as the founder of a town the camp left behind.

Logging camps were more than just lumberjacks. Logging was not only hard physical labor. It was also dangerous work. Camps did not always have physicians in camp.

In at least one region of Michigan, a local physician invented a medical insurance system. Loggers from a number of regional camps paid a small insurance premium for him to ride out to the camp on horseback and treat them if they were ever injured. When loggers who paid him for "insurance" were hurt, they moved to the top of his list of priorities and he saddled up his horse. The others had to come to him, unless he was in the area.

Eventually, the logging camps moved as they finished harvesting an area. The census will show if the doctor followed, stayed behind, or moved elsewhere. If you lose track of a lumberjack in Maine, look for them in Michigan or farther west, such as in Washington Territory or Oregon.

Logging camps were remote locations and commuting was not easy. As logging progressed, the camp moved farther from civilization. A cook was essential and usually followed the camp as it relocated. It was steady work with little competition, and logging companies often hired the cook to keep hungry lumberjacks fed.

There were few women in the logging camps. Women tended to be washerwomen or prostitutes. Sometimes they served as cook and prostitute. In the 1880 U.S. census of the unorganized territory of Kalkaska County, Michigan, the camp foreman's wife was the cook.

Logging consists of various tasks. Keywords for searching the logging camps include "logging" or "logger" or "logging camp." Logging companies hired foremen and workers to "drive" logs on the river. Some camps built sawmills onsite and employed "laborers," who did not always have more well defined occupations.

Among the logging camps were many immigrants that researchers might not think to look for high in the trees. Logging camps in the late 1800s were full of young men who hailed from Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. In Kalkaska County, at that time, one logging camp foreman was from Germany, two were from Canada, one was from Michigan, and one was from Wisconsin. Men who drove logs down the river were mostly Norwegian immigrants. Cooks were generally identified as "white," except for a few Chinese.

A good lumberjack who was unafraid of the tallest and thickest tree and knew how to take it down without cracking the wood was in high demand. As lumbering moved West, the lumberjacks followed. If an ancestor disappeared after working in a logging camp in Maine, look for him in Michigan or Oregon. What lumberjack could have resisted harvesting the first giant redwoods from what seemed like endless forests of them—and the weather was better than in Michigan.

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Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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