The Quest for Lumber in Clark County, WI

"From The Book of Years", The Clark County Centennial 1853 - 1953

Transcribed by Janet Schwarze


Largest Load of Logs

The photo above was printed from a very old engraving.  The description, as appearing in connection with it, reads: "The Largest load of logs hauled by four horses for the Standard Lumber Company."

Timber was the first great attraction which brought white men into Clark county. Among the first were the Mormons, seeking material for their temple at Nauvoo. Their attachment was to their own colony on the Mississippi, but after they had supplied their own needs in the early forties, some of them worked for Nathan Myrick, a LaCrosse lumberman who operated in these parts. The name of one of these has been perpetuated in "Cunningham" creek, where a Mormon named Cunningham was drowned.

In the early years many small operators brought in their little mills and began to cut. They were in the class of James O'Neill, with his small upright mill and his normal production of 4,000 feet per day. These brought their equipment upstream in keel boats provided with platforms, one on each side. Upon these platforms walked men with poles, who plunged their poles to the bottom and walked from the prow of the boat to the stern, pushing the boat along as they walked. One of these boats used by Jacob Spaulding was 60 feet long.

No Easy Time

 These small operators had no easy time. Their experience has been described by Mrs. Bella French, who wrote for the American Sketch Book of 1875, as follows:

"In 1846 Hamilton, McClum & Beebe built a saw mill on Cunningham Creek, two miles below Neillsville. In 1847, Jonathan Nichols built a saw mill on what is now called Cawley Creek, three miles above Neillsville. Merrick, Miller and Dibble built a mill on the main river, 11 miles below Neillsville, in 1847, and the next year, I think, Leander Merrill, Ben Merrill and John Lane built another mill, one mile below the I a t t o r place, and John Morrison built still another mill about the same time.

During the same year, Van Dusen & Waterman built a mill 18 miles above Neillsville, on the Black river. All these proved bad speculations, as the expense of getting the lumber to the Mississippi was very great, and the price was low. Of these lumbermen mentioned, it is believed that James O'Neill is the only one remaining in Clark county. Leander and Ben Merrill still live at Merrillan, which is named after t h e m. They have amassed considerable wealth, and are extensively engaged in business at the latter place. Samuel Ferguson, an old settler, a blacksmith by trade, still resides at Neillsville. Nearly all the others named are dead."

Lumber Rafts Broke Up

The evolution of the lumber business is clarified elsewhere by Mrs. French, probably upon information furnished her by James O'Neill, the founder. This s h o w s that the first effort in lumbering was to saw the logs locally and to float the cut lumber down the river in rafts. These rafts frequently met with accidents, being often broken up on the rocks.

Then the old lumbermen tried cants, the logs being cut into six-inch thicknesses. In 1853 whole logs were run the first time. The cants became mixed with the logs, and it was difficult to separate them. So the cants were discontinued, and the log drives became the usual method.

But the unorganized drives resulted in confusion, with uncertainty that e a c h owner would get all his logs. So the more important lumbermen organized the Black River Improvement company, which was chartered by the legislature to control the river. This company built two dams, one at Hemlock and the other at Dell's Dam. Behind these dams logs were accumulated,

Dike At Hemlock

The earthen dike as it appears today at Hemlock.

This is the extension of the old dam to the east, and

held when the dam was carried out by the flood of 1914.

and the water to float them. Then upon orders from the management, the g a t e s were opened and the water and logs poured through. The crest carried the logs over the rocky shallows, which were worst just below the two dams.

Brands and the Log Round-Up

The drives ended at Onalaska and LaCrosse, where the big mills were located. There the owners sorted their logs from the large pool. The sorting was facilitated by the use of brand marks, each log bearing the brand of its owner. For instance, the brand of Leonard B. Stafford was a long line cut across the back, with four smaller lines cut across at an angle, giving the appearance of four letters "X." This brand was known as the "Long Forty," a take-off on the joke that an old-time lumberman would buy forty acres and then keep on cutting, without r e f e r e n c e to boundaries.

Joseph Nesbitt

The Black River Improvement company collected tolls on the logs. It had a separate corporate existence. Its manager was Joseph Nesbitt, whose daughter, Edna Nesbitt Newell, is a resident of Neillsville. The Improvement company built the first telephone line in Clark county, running it along Black river. Its original use was in the management of the business, and especially in giving orders for starting the drives.

The Old Dam at Hemlock Goes Out with the Flood of 1914

The picture above was taken in 1953 of the old site, about four miles north of Greenwood. Most of the large rocks on the far side of Black river were part of the old structure. Virtually intact on both sides of the rivers are the dikes which helped to hold the water back. The main portion of the dam was carried out in 1914, as shown by the preceding picture. In the old days the highway went over the dam, and this was used until a steel bridge was erected just a few hundred feet below the dam site.

Hemlock was once quite a thriving hamlet, with a boarding house, a little store run by Baxter Shaw, two houses and two old shanties. The old-timers say that if Old Man Withee had lived, Hemlock would have been the Greenwood of today.

Now residing at Hemlock is Fred Limprecht, whose father was a millwright. The father was running a Withee mill here when the flood did its work. Mr. Limprecht still has a quarrel with the flood of 1914, because it spoiled his fishing ground. He used to fish in the pond which was backed up by the Hemlock darn, and he caught them. But now, with the water so shallow, luck isn't so good.

Hard by the Limprecht home is the old Theodore Withee place, with buildings which speak for ambition and affluence. But for Theodore Withee difficult times came, and he was unable to hold the place, with its imposing house and large outbuildings. They stand there still, occupied and used for many years by Peter Windom, but they are not quite so spick and span as in the old days.

White Pine Came First

The first quest of lumbermen in Clark county was white pine, which was about one-fourth of the timber of the county. Three-fourths was hardwood. As the years proceeded and the industry became standardized, the wealth from it gradually centered in the large operators who lived in LaCrosse or Onalaska. Among the LaCrosse loggers were C. L. Coleman, G. C. Hixon, C. C. Washburn, Alex McMillan, D. D. McMillan, Ruel Weston, S. L. Nevins, Abner Gile, N. B. Holway, Levi Withee, John Paul, N. H. Withee, W. C. Root, W. C. Bussell, W. W. Crosby and Hiram Goddard.

Among the men of Jackson county who logged in Clark county were H. A. Bright, Jacob Spaulding, E. L. Brockway, William T. Price, L. G. Merrill, D. J. Spaulding, Sawyer & Austin, and W. H. Paulley.

In Clark county the three principal logging operators in the latter 1860s were Hewett, Woods & Co., Leonard R. Stafford and Robert Ross.

Hewett, Wood & Co. were accustomed to cut and bank each winter from 12 to 18 million feet of logs. Stafford and Ross operated on a somewhat smaller scale.

Among the early contractors who put in logs for Hewett, Woods & Co. were Ed. Allen, John Dwyer, Richard Hawks, Charles W. Hyslip, Jones Tompkins and Hiram Palmer.

It is estimated that about 2,500 men were employed at the height of the winter season in getting out the logs. Wages ranged from $28 to $30 per month for teamsters, $30 to $35 for choppers, $15 to $18 for swampers, $40 for blacksmiths, $50 for cooks. The lumbering in the southern two thirds of the county tapered off to a trickle before the twentieth century began. The operation of the Black River Improvement company was discontinued in the 1890's. While the lumbering was coming to an end in the southern part of the county, it was rapidly advancing in the northern part, chiefly through the operations of the John S. Owen Lumber Co.

The old way and new way of hauling logs, at the turn of the century, is shown in the turn of the century photos above.  The 1900 picture to the bottom right shows a bobsled loaded with large logs being pulled by an oxen and one horse, making up a team.  The 1906 photo (taken at Medford, Wis.) records the introduction of the "iron horse," a locomotive, which could pull several bobsleds hauling cut logs.

(Source: Jack Fahey who grew up in the Greenwood Area/Clark Co. Press, 31 Mar. 2004,  pg. 14) 



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