Life in a North Woods Lumber CampLife in a North Woods
Lumber Camp

By Thomas C. O'Donnell 
Edited by William J. O'Hern

Life in a North Woods Lumber Camp marries history with warm and convivial humor and provides any reader, from young adult up, with a lighthearted yet informative look at the past. Noted author Thomas C. O'Donnell, who retired to Boonville after a successful literary career in New York City, set many of his books and stories in upstate New York. He grew up in his father's lumber camp in the late 1880s and claimed he was "born with an axe in his hand." He was in the process of writing about those experiences when he died.

Fortunately, with the help of O'Donnell's grandson, noted Adirondack author William J. O'Hern was able to and complete the manuscript - a gem that would otherwise have never been available to the reading public. O'Hern's interest in the logging life comes from more than observation. In the mid-1960s he worked in the Crockets Saw Mill. Later on, he and friend Leigh Portner - a lifelong lumber jack and lumber mill operator - spent years running down, interviewing and filming former 'jacks, blacksmiths, camp cooks, and others who worked in the lumbering business. As O'Hern listened to their stories, and to those of people he met during brief stint at Hammermill Paper and with collectors of old style logging equipment, his admiration for those who were involved in non-mechanized logging grew. In his bushwhacks through the Tug Hill and Adirondack woods, he still keeps an eye out for relics of the old lumbering days. So O'Donnell's story held a personal fascination for him, and it seemed serendipitous that he had the skills and knowledge to put it all together.

O'Hern's highly knowledgeable introductory material is especially helpful for readers who "don't know a pike pole from a peavey," and O'Donnell's non-technical references to camp operations are easier to understand.

Unlike many logging histories, this is mostly not a book about how horses, sleds, and crusty lumberjacks stripped northern forests of virgin timber. While the O'Donnells' camp was much like most others across the northern forests, this is a story about what Tom O'Donnell called "Mother's experiment." It was Alice O'Donnell's idea to keep the family together by living at the lumber camp her husband George managed.

Life in a North Woods Lumber Camp is an autobiography that reads like a novel, and as in all really fine novels, the characters are lively and memorable. George and Alice O'Donnell are optimistic yet practical parents, and Tom's older brother, Fred, is "lovable beyond belief." Crew member Pat Moran keeps the boys entertained with endless stories of his heroism during the War Between the States, passes along valuable fishing instruction, and "being a Civil War veteran, with a limp and a cane to prove it, was without cavil accepted as due authority." John Wilsey shows Tom how to make boards at his sawmill, sparking an early but short-lived career interest. When the logging operation spawns a makeshift community, a school is built and a succession of teachers follows, providing the source for many more comical stories, all imparted in such detail that readers can easily place themselves on the scene of school pranks, after-school squabbles, and grade-school crushes. It seems everyone in the community has some sort of oddity, and O'Donnell makes the most of them.

He also describes the entertainments of the time in his tongue-in-cheek prose. There are Saturday night dances at the O'Donnell house, with Fred, Tom and their parents providing the music, "regarded with no little envy by such neighbors as had no feeling for music and to whom volume was the complete and final end of music." There are also traveling musicians and peddlers, and the musical geography teacher, Old John Bugbee, who "jest gets you to singin' about Roosha and the Amazonic River and things like that. It's real nice fun." Trips to town - especially for the much-anticipated county fair - are particularly memorable highlights.

Life in a North Woods Lumber Camp is much more than an engaging coming-of-age story, although in that category it could rank as a classic. O'Donnell's narrative is also an up-close-and-personal look at what logging's heyday was like for his family and for the lumberjacks, straw bosses, hired help and others who worked in the camps and lived in the isolated surrounding communities before the days of enforced lumber-harvesting regulations. The book throws new light on a portion of Americana which has had less attention than more highly publicized histories, where good roads and railroads encouraged tourists and campers by the thousands and that may be why the deep lumber woods country still retains the charm it had back in the days of the log drives.

Signed copies of
Life in a North Woods Lumber Camp
Available in Paperback Only

Years after logging camps were abandoned, the derelict buildings that once housed hardworking lumberjacks served as shelters for sportsmen. Courtesy of C.V. Latimer Jr. M.D.

Former lumber camp settlements have their own distinct historic features. Courtesy of Clifford H. Gill from The Memoirs of Clifford D. Gill

To the many 'jacks who once worked during the heyday of lumbering, the former sites are rich in memories.
Courtesy of Clifford H. Gill from The Memoirs of Clifford D. Gill

Life in a North Woods Lumber Camp
Available in Paperback Only

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