Lumberjacks were lousy with bedbugs and lice.
Common knowledge in the 1880’s was to avoid the hemlock tree.
Lumberjacks thought this slow-growing, long-lived evergreen that lent elegance to the landscape brought blood-sucking bugs to your bed. It was believed by woodsmen the conifer gave shelter to bedbugs during some part of their life cycle. When looking for a tree to lean against or sleep under any man with common sense avoided the hemlock.
Lumbermen working in Michigan’s forests walked back to their base camp at the end of each day where bunkhouses sheltered from thirty to a hundred ‘jacks each night. The men slept fully dressed on wooden boards padded with twigs. They covered themselves with horse blankets. The long, low, log buildings were overcrowded, overheated and smokey. The air smelled of sweat and dirty socks.
Men with head lice from sleeping in hay lofts or bedbugs from leaning on hemlocks brought the plague to their fellow bunkers. Men in the timber woods had to be resourceful. Their solutions for destroying the vermin were often creative. Some even worked.
One fix was to seal all openings, windows, doors and cracks between the logs. Then the men would run a steam hose from a locomotive and fill the building with hot, wet air. The solution worked as long as a steam engine was available, and it worked until the next infestation arrived to feed on the sleeping woodsmen.
When a ‘jack noticed the quarter-inch bugs walking around coal oil spilled on the floor planks early one morning, his observation led to a plan to keep bugs out of beds and off chairs and tables. He had the men stand their furniture legs in empty Copenhagen cans filled with coal oil. The bugs that ventured up the cans died when they dropped into the acrid-smelling oil.
The bugs modified their maneuver. The creatures crawled up the walls, crept across the ceiling and dropped down on the sleeping ‘jacks.
The logmen reshaped their defense and stretched large white sheets over their beds suspended from the ceiling on strings. Around the edge of the sheet the resourceful men poured strips of sticky molasses. Early the next morning the bedbugs dropped on the white sheets instead of the men.
Adapting, the insects moved across the sheets and were about to parachute from the edge when their legs became mired in molasses. When the ‘jacks awoke they were well rested and cheerful. They let down the sheets and swept the bugs into the fire.
White sheets were at a premium in the lumber woods. An idea man from the bunkhouse came up with a simple solution. He poured a strip of molasses on the floor around his bed. The bedbugs that tried to crawl over were glued to the molasses and met their end the next morning under one of the men’s size fourteens. The idea was a success until the molasses drew swarms of ants that were worse than the bedbugs.
Another idea man lined his bunk with cedar slats. He knew moths avoided cedar and learned bedbugs were not fond of the smell either. The insects marched by his bunk and fed on his neighbor.
A Native American woodsman used his family’s cure. He crushed the leaves of wild mint, rosemary and aromatic lavender sprinkled around his sleeping area. The men around him complained. They preferred bedbugs to the stench of fresh herbs.
My father told me how my grandmother kept bedbugs from invading her log cabin. When my grandfather came home for the weekend, no matter the weather, he had orders to strip naked before he would be let inside the house. The lumberjack followed instructions without complaint and knocked on the door when he was naked. The shivering woodsman was greeted by a hot bath in a washtub and a bar or homemade soap. While he soaked and scrubbed his wife dropped his clothes in a washtub to boil clean and then hung them before an open fire to dry. After a hot meal Grandpa got to crawl in between grandma’s clean, bedbug-free sheets for a tumble and a good sleep.