An industry that helped to establish many Northwoods communities continues to play a big role in their economies today.
Like the majestic white pines they cut down, lumberjacks of yore loom large in our collective memory. The men who lived the rugged, dangerous logging life in the late 19th/early 20th century were strong, skilled and competitive. Their work kept them fit and gave them constant opportunity to hone their skills. Occasional sporting contests, coupled with ongoing rivalries, helped them keep their edge and their pride.
Timber still represents a key piece of the Northwoods economy, with tens of thousands of public and private acres under active management for timber harvest, including four to five thousand acres annually in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest (NHAL), which covers much of our Lakeland area.
Logging today requires very different tools and skills. Finesse with the controls of equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars has replaced skill with an axe or cross-cut saw. “The equipment is very technologically advanced,” says Steve Petersen superintendent of the 235,000 acre NHAL. “It’s gentle on the land, has very low ground bearing pressure, it can grab a tree, cut it, control where it lands, lift it gently out and keep track of it electronically.”
But the traditional logging skills remain alive and tested, thanks to a dedicated group of modern day lumberjacks, including Fred Scheer. Timber sports like sawing, chopping, logrolling, boom running, pole climbing and more, are demonstrated several times each week in the summer at Scheer’s Lumberjack Show in Woodruff. Many of the show’s performers are champions who have earned world titles against global competitors in the annual Lumberjack World Championships.
Take Charlie Fenton, two-time world title holder in the classic boom run competition. Or Fred Scheer himself, who held four world titles in logrolling, and one World Title in the boom run. Log rolling? Boom run? These were important skills back in the day, when logs were moved downriver and someone had to be able to break up log jams and keep logs of many sizes flowing profitably downriver to a mill.
The railroad revolutionized lumbering in the Northwoods, and left a commercial legacy that outlived the end of the timber boom a century ago. The legendary Hiawatha used logging rails to bring tourists to Minocqua from Milwaukee and Chicago, and many of today’s most scenic hiking and biking paths are built on old railroad rights of way. The 18-mile Bearskin Trail is an excellent example, complete with several railroad trestles. Though much timber came to be moved by rail instead of water, the lumberjacks’ river arts didn’t die out altogether.
In lumberjack lingo, the art of keeping your balance on a spinning log was called birling. In the modern-day version of logrolling, two competitors — birlers — vie to be the last one standing. They twirl the log with their feet, trying to unbalance one another. Bobbing the log and using a kick to splash their opponent is fair game. Crossing the center line is not. Birlers interested in world titles are not allowed to touch one another.
In the boom run, two competitors race across the water and back on side-by-side booms — logs chained together end to end — without losing their balance and falling in. Fenton earned the nickname “Boom King Charlie” for his prowess at this balancing act.
He held the World Title in 2012 and 2013, and missed it by mere hundredths of a second in 2014. “The guy who took it from me has been competing longer for it and I really enjoy competing against him,” says Fenton. He’s quick to add, “I’m happy to give the title to him, but I am going to get it back.”
Looking forward to his seventh season with Scheer’s, Fenton says one of the things he appreciates about the show is the emphasis on family fun. There’s a lot of word play, and several skits that appeal to audience members of all ages. “The kids laugh because they get the jokes,” he says. “Or if they don’t, they laugh because Mom and Dad are laughing.” Many families return year after year, he says, and those who come back after not seeing the show for many years “love that it’s just the same as they remember it.”
Audience favorites include the boom run, log roll and speed climb up a 60-foot pole, which is timed not by when the climber reaches the top, but by when he returns to terra firma [the ground]. The Scheer’s crew makes the speed climb look easy — they just scamper up — and the drop can look like a free fall, but the climber has to touch the pole every 15 feet going down — not so easy. The log roll draws the biggest applause because it always ends in someone landing in the drink.
A lot of laughter rings out during the matinee performances, when four random volunteers — all children — are invited to step up to the microphone to give their loudest and longest “YO-HO.” Audience reaction determines the winner, but in classic Scheer fashion, every one of them ends up a winner. After each matinee performance, kids are invited to try their hand with a lumberjack on the cross cut saw (leather sheaths in place for safety), for which they earn a certificate.
“We really strive for customer satisfaction and we’re very sociable after the show,” says Fenton. “We want to see people walking out with smiles on their faces after every single show.”
Eat Like A Lumberjack
Lumberjacks had larger than life appetites, requiring hefty meals to fuel them through long, hard days. That tradition is carried on at Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty in Minocqua. Nothing fancy here; the style and atmosphere (and serving sizes!) are intended to hint at the cook shanties that once dotted the Northwoods. Feeding big appetites with all-you-can-eat meals since 1961, Paul Bunyan’s will also fuel your imagination with authentic logging artifacts and historical lumber camp photos. You can’t miss the place; just look for the 36-foot-high statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox, on the west side of Highway 51 just south of Highway 70 West. The bakery and gift shop are worth a stop on your way out.
Our logging history is evident in another restaurant, Polecat and Lace, in downtown Minocqua. Lumberjack Lingo: a Dictionary of the Logging Era defines pole cats as “Railroad tie men who lived far back in the woods away from the main camp.” As their name suggests, the restaurant offers the kind of food that would appeal to a hungry polecat while also pleasing the most elegant turn-of-the-century lady. — MRT