When talking about Gig Harbor’s history most people talk about the farms, the merchants and doctors or the fishermen. But when logging is mentioned, it is most likely revolving about the early settlers clearing their own property. Occasionally, commercial logging comes up, and then just as likely quickly forgotten.
The Gig Harbor Harbor History Museum has an exhibit of early logging equipment on display but it the mural of Adolph Schmel resting in the undercut of a giant fir tree during a logging operation in Rosedale c. 1915 that catch most people’s eye. Schmel’s axe and springboard lay nearby.
|HHM Permanent Gallery-Logging|
But what about the life the men lived who were involved in commercial logging? They spent days, weeks and sometimes month gone from their families.
Gladys Para wrote her “Old Town” feature piece in the September 25, 1985 on one such man, Freeman “Free” Sutherland. The subtitle was “Logger recalls unfair labor practices”. After reading Free’s oral history and Gladys’ article I thought perhaps you too might enjoy hearing a crusty old man’s history of a different place and a different time in Gig Harbor’s history. And, no doubt about it, it was a hard life.
Free Sutherland was born in Clark County, Wisconsin on August 17, 1901. His mother’s brother, Frederick McIntyre had moved west and were living in Rosedale. So Free’s parents Walter and Frona Sutherland packed up the family and came out to Rosedale too sometime around 1908-9. Free was the youngest of 7 children, and once here, started school at age 8 and leaving after he finished the eighth grade. It was not uncommon for people to left school after graduating from the eighth grade. This was especially true in the 19-teens when Europe was being ravaged in WWI, and then following the US joining with their allies ion April 6, 1917, 2 1/2 years after the start of the war.
At age 15 he left home for Hoquiam where he went to work for Polson Logging Company at Camp III. right above Humptulips in Aberdeen. He worked for Polson for 5 years and 2 months. There were 110 men in the camp. He doesn’t mention his superintendent’s name but he says that the superintendent basically acted as his financial adviser handling his paycheck by sending $75 to his mother and father each month, putting the rest in the bank for him, and when Free came home for Christmas the superintendent kept $3 for himself. (Polson Logging Company would eventually become the best established logging barons in the Hoquiam area, owning two sawmills, a shingle mill, two mansions (one for each brother), 12 logging camps and 100 miles of logging railroad.)
|Logs being hoisted onto coney engine in back (HHM Collection)|
|Oxen team pulling logs out of forest (HHM Collection)|
Free’s oral history sates he was in Aberdeen when the Wooblies (IWW) stuck on behalf the Forest and Lumber Workers. But the strike occurred on March 4, 1912 when Free was only 11 years old. However there might have still been so ramifications from the strike 4 years later when he did arrive. I can’t be clear on that.
The IWW locals formed in 1907 in Tacoma, Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Ballard, North Bend, Vancouver and in Portland and Astoria, Oregon. THE AWO (Agricultural Workers Organization) operated in Eastern Washington and the loggers and lumber industries there joined the AWO. They called the loggers “timber beasts” and they wanted to bring about improvements to the way the loggers lived and were treated. As it was explained to a federal commission:
“Now the logger, he walks out in the woods and he looks around at a wilderness of trees. He works hard in there. And what does he get? He gets wages that are below the dead line, I say dead line in wages means below the line necessary to keep him alive…They are being murdered on the installment plan….
“They breathe bad air in the camps. That ruins their lungs. They eat bad food. That ruins their stomachs. The foul conditions shorten their lives and makes their short lives miserable. It rains a great deal and they work in the rain…When they come in from they camps they are wet…They go into a dark barn, not as good as where the horses are, and the only place to dry their clothes is around the hot stove… Those in the top bunk suffer from the heat; those far away, from the cold…Business is business. And so the logger, he finds that he is nothing but a living machine.” (Dubofsky, 128)
The IWW had asked for $2.50 per day rather than what the men were getting before the strike; but they only got a 50 cent increase in wages. Hours were cut from 12 hours a day to 10 hours a day and 8 men to a bunkhouse rather than 20. Most likely you are familiar with the picture of Millville’s ‘loggers row’ showing housing for the loggers. But most loggers didn’t have housing like that; most lived in ramshackled buildings resembling slums, sleeping on the floor, bug infested, unhygienic inside and out. But did the men ever work overtime? According to Free, “Oh, hell yes, yes. … I’d get a big one. I didn’t want to … (cut?) full at that time of night, but I did. …I worked as long as 12 hours - yes.”
|iPhone picture of old newspaper photos|
|Four men with crosscut saws, axes & springboards (HHM Collection-Norman Kimbal collection)|
Free logged solid old growth, at a time when no one would accept a second growth. The old growth covered the forest from McCormick Woods to Point Richmond, went to Sunrise Beach and came and went out to Rosedale. Free talks about the time he and his partner, Lawrence, were logging together on the hills around Gig Harbor. They worked for 13 months “Furnished our own tools, done our own filing. I can do my own filing and so can he. It didn’t cost a lot for the files. $83 - $83 (a) month for 13 months.” (That works out to $2.767 per day or approx. $33/day for a 12 hour hard labor). “One day me and Lawrence got mad and quit.” (Their pay was supposed to be determined by the estimated board feet they fell) They refused their paycheck and Free tells the boss that he was going to have a check scaler come out and check the figures on the scale sheet against their pay. There was an argument naturally which ended when Free and Lawrence agreed to $200 each. The boss had told them to keep quiet about the event, and so the first thing Free did the next morning was to go up to the camp and showed every one of the other guys the check for $200.
He worked for Peninsula Light Company in his later years and then at age 60 the telephone company hired him where he worked until age 68. Free went on to log until he was 72 years old, when he topped his last tree on Vashon Island.
To truly understand Free Sutherland and the other men who worked in logging and the lumber industry you need to stop in the Harbor History Museum and ask to read his oral history, and/or look through some of our books on early logging. Just a few other names you may run across in the early days of logging are Julius Spadoni, Schmel, Kimball, Fenton, Rawls, Heine, Larson, and many others. Yes, there are sections where his words were missed, and people not clearly identified, but to read his story in his own words - it really opens your eyes to the dangers encountered in some people’s everyday life. Those people who helped establish Gig Harbor as the best big little town around.
And, if you get a chance, check out one the the few annual logging show still operating. Buckley, WA still holds a log show as does Deming (near Bellingham) WA. Vaughn used to but I’m not sure they still do. But check them out - it took a lot of athletic skill and strength (and know-how) to be a successful logger.