Eat Like a Lumberjack: Minnie’s Potatoes

Homemade Barbecue Baked Beans in a Black Skillet

Consume 9000 calories a day? Lumberjacks did.

My grandfather, Wilhelm F. Hartman, cooked meals for Michigan’s lumberjacks from 1886 until well into the 1920’s. When this experienced woodsman made breakfast for his grandchildren in the 1950’s, he fried potatoes in lard, cut pork chops or ham from last night’s meal into the spuds, and then split half a dozen eggs into the sizzling cast iron skillet. I remember the robust smell of fried bacon filling our house while my brother and I dressed for school. When Grandpa said, “Come and get it,” we lined up by the stove holding our plates.

The lumberjack breakfasts Grandpa made for us were not unlike the meals he prepared for woodsmen in the timber industry.

My grandfather’s job was to prepare chow and have it “hot and edible” at all times of the day and night. His hardy meals had to stoke the men’s bellies with enough fuel to keep them warm and working. The menu he served from his cook shack was the same for every meal: pork and beans and beans and pork, always with lots of hot coffee.

The lumberjacks were up before daylight. They bolted down breakfast and walked up to five miles to their worksites where they cut 300-year-old white pine with crosscut saws. And then they jogged back for a mid-morning meal, the second of five or six they ate each day. The men stocked their stomachs to keep warm while they hacked off branches from fallen trees and hitched workhorses to tree trunks during the cold winter weather. Teams dragged the logs to the frozen Au Sable River where the lumberjacks stacked the wood on the ice. Then the men walked back to the cook shack for dinner and to thaw their feet before returning through the thick underbrush to the next tree marked for cutting.

Grandpa’s cook shack was moved to a raft for the spring run down the river. It became a lifeline for the men.

Log piles plunged into the river as the ice melted. River drivers danced on top the moving timber directing the rolling logs around river bends and unblocking center jams around islands with long steel pikes. The men took turns eating, sleeping and warming themselves in the cook shack as the float traveled downstream during the day and night.

Should a man fall into the icy water, and if he were lucky enough to climb out or be pulled from the foaming current by his buddies, he would be carried to the cook shack to be warmed from the river’s chill. Grandpa would feed him and dry his clothes on lines strung over the cook stove before sending him back out to work.

The men entertained each other by telling tall tales while their gray wool socks and spiked boots dried on the lines above their heads. They ate their last plate of pork and beans, chewed some tobacco and then sprawled out on the hard bunkhouse boards to sleep.

None of the 9000 calories woodsmen consumed each day came from drinking alcohol. Felling trees was a dangerous business. So was keeping feet free of frostbite and avoiding attack by bear and wolves. Men working in Michigan’s lumbering industry had to keep their wits in tact to survive.

But when the logs arrived at the mill, and their winter pay was in their pockets, the ‘jacks let off plenty of steam in the saloons of the company towns and Michigan’s early settlements. But that’s another story.

Laurice LaZebnik chronicles the lives of immigrants during Michigan’s lumbering boom in her historical narrative, Minnie’s Potatoes, available soon in print or Kindle on Amazon.com.

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One Response to “Eat Like a Lumberjack: Minnie’s Potatoes

  1. Tuesday April 27, 2016 at 8:22 pm #

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