Lumberjack: Inside an Era in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan by William S. Crowe

Review by Jon C. Stott

Cover of the book "lumberjack: inside an era in the upper peninsula of michigan" showing a historical sepia-toned photo of lumberjacks working, with text detailing the title, author (william s. crowe), editors, and the 70th-anniversary edition note.In 1948, retired Michigan lumber company owner William S. Crowe, surprised to discover how little members of the Manistique community knew about the later 19th and early 20th-century white pine logging era of the Upper Peninsula, began writing for local newspapers a series of essays recounting the history of that earlier period. The essays were published in book form in 1952; later editions, which contained additional information and photographs appeared in 1977 and 2002. This year the Modern History Press has published a replica edition of the 2002 edition, long out of print.

In the first edition, Crowe wrote that he was presenting events “in which I was either a participant or a first-hand observer,” and described Manistique as it was when, a 17-year-old newly-graduated from a several months business course, he arrived in the Upper Peninsula to take a job as an office boy at one of the large lumber mills.  Much of the book details the progress of getting felled timber to the mills, turning the logs into lumber, and arranging for them to be shipped south to the rapidly expanding areas of the Midwest. There are short biographical sketches of owners and managers, mill operators, and river drivers he came to know, as well as interesting accounts of “grooming” rivers before the spring drives so that the winter’s harvest could be moved to the mills as smoothly, easily, and safely (it was a dangerous process) as possible.

If the rivers carried the raw product to the processing plants, boats of the Great Lakes completed the journey of the finished product to the markets. In an interesting sidelight, Crowe, after describing the loading of the various types of craft, talks about other boats that could be seen in the Manistique harbor: Indian canoes bringing trading goods, excursion boats making trips to Mackinac Island, a tug that had been converted into a gospel boat named “Glad Tidings.”

Throughout the book are wonderful historical photographs depicting different aspects of the logging industry. Two of the most interesting to me were the cover photograph of Stutts Creek, located a couple of miles from my summer camp. I had never realized that the lazy little stream had been a vital cog in one of the water routes that led from the woods to the mills. The other is a 1900 one of the stumps on the Kingston Plains, located halfway between Shingleton and Grand Marais. The area was logged just before the end of the 19th century. About the acres of stumps and slash, Crowe wrote “This land should be reforested.” It still hasn’t been; one of my friends calls it “the graveyard of trees.”

Unfortunately, Crowe didn’t include much about the winter activities in which the trees were felled or the lives of the men who chopped them in the brutal cold and lived in almost squalor in the lumber camps. He stuck mainly to the aspects of the industry in which he was most involved.

The book is a vivid account of UP history in two ways. First, in words and pictures, it gives a graphic picture of many of the aspects of the white pine logging era in the central Upper Peninsula. Second, it presents a picture of the way that the historic era was viewed several decades after it ended. Crowe is a champion of that earlier time, seeing it as an important part of the growth of the nation in the nineteenth century. He is fiercely critical of what he considers inaccurate, sensational portrayals of the people in the industry. The owners were not robber barons; the loggers were not thugs who couldn’t wait to hit town at the end of winter, fighting, womanizing, and drinking to oblivion. Like so many people looking back at earlier times, he almost portrays the era as a golden age, pivotal in transforming the Midwest into the great place it has become.

I’m really glad this book is again available. I learned many new things about an industry and an era and an area I’m very interested in. I wish I’d had it a dozen or so years ago when I was retelling a number of the Paul Bunyan tales. If I’d had the information and pictures it contains, I might have been able to be able to turn the “whoppers” I was spinning into more believable yarns.

Jon C. Stott is the author of Paul Bunyan in Michigan: Yooper Logging, Lore & Legends.

William S. Crowe, Lumberjack: Inside an Era in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, 70th anniversary edition, edited by Lynn McGlothlin Emerick and Ann McGlothlin Weller (Ann Arbor, MI: Modern History Press, 2024).

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