Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Granddaddy in the Timber Camps

In the 2nd row (just to the right of the tear) is my great-great grandfather, Charley Burns, who worked the timber camps around the turn of the century.

I grew up hearing about the timber camps ever since I could remember. I heard stories about my Granddaddy Don, who filed saws in the timber camps. I heard stories about Don's father, Charley Burns, who worked in the early timber camps of the region. I heard stories about my Aunt Mid who worked as a cook in the timber camps out in Bemis, WV. So, as you can see, I have heard alot of stories about the timber camps that were set up when the vast forests of the Potomac Highlands were cut.

In the early logging days there were quite a few men who wandered from timber camp to timber camp looking for work. Some of these camps were several miles apart so these men, having no other family or home, would stop at various homesteads between the camps. None were never turned away and they were all given a meal to eat and a place to sleep, but the faces that kept turning up on a regular basis were figured out to be men who weren't necessarily looking for work in the timber camps, but rather just trying to get by without having to go to the camps. You see, up until the time that the timber barons came in and set up these camps, there was no such thing as wage labor in these mountains. People would just barter for goods and services, and they would sell surplus farm goods or animal hides for cash. Hired hands were paid with a place to live and food to eat, so wage labor was an entirely foreign concept for some of these men. That isn't to say they were lazy, not at all, it is just they were brought up in a society where people worked until a job was done, and not when someone in authority told them when to begin work and when to lay off work. Before the coming of the timber camps, these men worked jobs that the seasons and weather necessitated! In addition, many of these men didn't take well to instruction and orders either, but after the timber companies came in and bought up so much of the land, a large contingent of these folks were left without a home, work and a means of support. That is why some of these men would walk the countryside, pitching in here and there and doing whatever needed done in order to stay out of the timber camps.

My granddaddy Burns would talk about how rough these men were in the timber camps, and how dirty some of them would become. Granddaddy told that it was expected of men to bathe only one day a week, and that was after work on Saturday (bathing more frequently than that would reportedly make you sick). Granddaddy said they worked six days a week and 10 hours a day, so you can begin to imagine the smell. Granddaddy said that the bunkhouses where these men lived would make a mans eyes water whenever you would walk in the door.

Granddaddy said there was always laughter and some running jokes going on in the timber camps. He told that one of the best tricks some of the older wood hicks would pull on the new boys just coming into the camps was to pull the humongous gray lice out of their beards and hold them between their fingers and talk to the lice like they were a favorite dog. They'd pet the louse, and talk to the louse, and then reach it out to the "green" boy like they expected him to pet and talk to the louse too! When inevitably the newcomers would shy away from the huge louse, the old wood hick would stick it back in his beards and tell the louse to "not pay any mind to people who didn't know any better." Granddaddy said they pulled that trick every year and it never did get old!

Speaking of the big gray body lice that were common in the timber camps, Granddaddy told of how some of the men would put a big louse under the glass face of their pocket watch just for the novelty of it, and they would keep the louse that like for months. It was a thing of pride to have the biggest louse!

Granddaddy Don said the roughest place that he ever worked was in Davis, WV, for the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company. Granddaddy would tell us that "the fastest way to get to Hell was to go through Davis." He said the men there would just as soon shoot or stab you as to look at you, and the management of the company didn't try to stop the violence because having the workforce constantly in a state of fear kept down wages. Granddaddy said that one time a bunch of them were playing cards while riding the train from Davis to Dry Fork, and that a man who was known to be unruly was playing with them. Granddaddy told us that the game was going fine until the man started losing, and he said to everyone playing in the game that "the next damn man who wins a hand against me is going to bust Hell wide open before they get a dime out of me." Well, the men didn't pay much mind to him because after all, it was a card game with timber men so you kind of expected rudeness and rough talk. It just so happened that Granddaddy Don won the next hand of cards and as he started reaching for the winnings, he saw the man going for the pistol that he had tucked in the belt that held up his britches. Granddaddy said he never was so scared in his life but he done the only thing he could do, he jumped off the train! He said the fall just about killed him because he landed in some cut down tree-tops about 4 miles outside of Dry Fork. Scraped and bruised pretty bad but luckily with no broken bones, Granddaddy walked alongside the tracks into Jenningston on the Dry Fork line where he got on the train headed back to Davis. But he learned his lesson, he never again played cards with that man.

Granddaddy worked in the WV timber camps until the timber was cut out, and then he started his own small timber company and hired some of his friends to work for him. They cut timber for a few years on the old Fredericksburg battlefield in Fredericksburg, Virginia, but Granddaddy lived longer than the timber boom so he went out of business in the early 1940's. He then decided to go to Baltimore, MD, like so many other men who had worked the timber camps of the Potomac Highlands, and he found work in the Glenn L. Martin airplane factory, which was booming because of the War Effort. Granddaddy worked there until he retired in the early 1960's, at which time he returned back home to the old Burns homeplace on North Mountain, where he lived out the rest of his days.


Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for posting another story! I love this one although the louse story is so disgusting!! lol They were a far hardier stock than most of us are now.

Nance said...

I have West Virginia ties. My mother's mother and grandparents (and beyond) were from Wood County, WV. One winter, about 1923, my Granny and her Iowa-born husband worked in a lumber camp somewhere around Camden on Gulley. Sorry if I butchered that but that was how I heard my Mama say it. Granny cooked for the crew. I don't know Grampa's role but they only lasted one season. My mother, as a 3 yr old, had a few good memories. I'm sure my Granny who had to do the cooking, 3 squares, 6 or 7 days a week, had different memories 'cuz they didn't go back!

Matthew Burns said...


I bet your grandmother sure had stories to tell. It was quite odd for women to get a job as a cook in the timber camps because it was just so rough, and the men were so crude. My Aunt Mid worked as a cook in the timber camp in Bemis & Glady, WV, but that was in the later years after the timber was starting to play out and the camps became just a little more civilized. Still, she had to deal with alot.

The location where your Grandmother worked was probably Camden-On-Gauley, WV. It is in Webster County. The town probably hasn't changed much since the time she was there. Here is a link that will give a little background info on the town if you are interested.


Thank you for your comment.


Nance said...

My grandfather was a large, independent, self made man, of German descent. He might have gotten the job and brought my Granny along for the ride. They were there at the camp just one year and my mother, who would have been 3 turning to 4 has a few memories of being doted upon by the rough, male lumberjacks. Thank for the link to Camden-on-Gauley . . . I am always interested in anything West Virgina.

Tipper said...

Loved this post-lice and all! Granny's mother and father worked in a lumber camp when they were first married-they were both cooks.

I love the picture of your Grandfather-makes me feel at home-like I could sit at the table with him.

Janet, said...

Good story Matthew, except for the part about the pet louse.

Jason Burns said...

Tipper - Grandad Don was not someone you could "sit down at the table with" . He'd have probably tried to rent you the chair.