Logging Bee in Pine Grove Township
Old Time Tales of Warren County


Logging Bee in Pine Grove Township

Trees were the cheapest things there were in Warren County seventy years ago. It was a land of great trees, they grew everywhere excepting in those natural open spaces in the forest called "meadows" where red deer nibbled among tall grass. Long before the white man, the Indian, wishing to let the sunlight in on his patch of maize, cut around the trees with his tomahawk so that they died, the sun came down through the bare limbs and ultimately the trees rotted and fell. The early pioneer's problem was one of trees, there were too many of them, they often stood so close together it was impossible to drive an ox team through the woods. The first settler fought the trees much more than he fought Indians or "painters" or bears. Their great roots gripped the soil in which he wanted to raise corn, their spreading branches shut out the sun. The trees ruled the land, they wanted everything, the sunlight, the sod, the very water from the earth. So the early pioneer had first to wage a war against countless regiments of beech and birch, oak, hemlock, basswood, cucumber, elm and the towering pines that darkened the hillsides with their dense green and cast a cathedral gloom among the soft-cushioned aisles their fallen needles carpeted.

The axe was the weapon with which the Warren County pioneer won his battles with the giants of the forest. In the days when the forests were falling the axe was a personal instrument, a man took pride in its temper and keenness. Men would say, "That fellow Anderson,-he's got a wonderful axe." And somebody else would agree, "Yeah, I reckon Anderson's got one of th' best axes on Conewango Creek today."

Half a century after Warren County began to be a settled, civilized region with churches, schools, the law efficiently enforced and trade established, trees still blocked the way to progress for the farmer. So it happened that some of the wealth of the forests was sacrificed for no other reason than to get rid of it,-a tree was something to be cut down and gotten out of the way because the space was needed for corn and potatoes, wheat and rye. Untold thousands of trees were thus sacrificed, cut down, burned where they fell, limbs, logs and all.

The logging bee was a favorite way of clearing space in the forests for the planting of crops. Hundreds of them were held throughout the country. The logging bees were community affairs, typical of the fine, neighborly spirit which dwelt in the land. This wholehearted neighborliness was evident in the barn raisings, apple parings, corn huskings; where men gathered together with a hearty good will and the undeniable slogan that "many hands make light work."

In the spring of 1861, there was a logging bee at the farm of Thomas Martin, in Pine Grove Township. A piece of gently sloping land comprising about five acres was to be cleared of timber. It was heavily forested, much of it with the wonderful pines for which Pine Grove was famous.

Early in the morning work began in the woods. Soon after daylight the men and ox teams began arriving. The oxen drew wagons in which the wives came along to help with the dinner. There were twelve yokes of steers and sixty-five men in all, that came through the forest roads that May morning, to Martin's logging bee.

As the neighbors arrived at the Martin home, oxen were unhooked from the wagons and driven to the woods where the "follow" was to be made. But before any log skidding could begin, the trees must come down, so the steers were allowed to browse in the brush while sturdy axemen, with coats thrown aside, began to chop. There were some lusty axe swingers among the crowd, brawny men who buried the axe to the helve with every stroke and sent the white, aromatic pine chips flying in showers.

"Lining out the follow" was a job for the most expert axemen. Outlines of the proposed clearing were marked by blazing the trees. Beginning with a row along one side, the choppers would cut the trunks a little more than half-way through, with the notched sides all toward the "corner tree". Then the tree at the end of the line would be cut so it fell against it's first notched neighbor and carried it down, while the notched tree in turn carried down another, and it another, and so on down the line, the crashing trees knocking each other over like falling tenpins. It saved a third of the chopping. Some stumps were left with large splinters, some of the trees did not break off clean. But it didn't take long to trim things up with the axes.

Logging bees were often held in the spring, after the trees had leafed out. The logs and limbs would be piled up, left all summer to dry out, then burned, to get rid of them. As soon as a sufficient number of trees had been felled at the Martin logging bee, they were cut up into movable lengths, then the ox teams were brought in and hitched onto the logs with chains. It was usually considered that five men to each team of oxen was about right for a logging bee. The men were divided into crews, and would often race to clear up a certain spot of ground. The spirit of play in work, even work done by older men, is typical of the pioneers. They took a great pride in felling a tree, driving an ox team, making shingles by hand,-there were men who could make a thousand shingles by hand every day, after cutting down the trees of which to make them. Men raced when they dressed hogs, cut grain with a cradle, threshed it with flails on the barn floor.

By noon, scores of trees had been felled at the Martin logging bee. There were few canthooks then, so men rolled logs with iron-wood pike poles, cut in the forest.

As the logs were skidded along to the piles, men with pike poles rolled and pushed them up. There was a trick of hitching two ox-chains together, to reach over the top of the pile, wrapping one chain around a heavy log and rolling it up by pulling the steers on it, with the long chain sawing across the peak of the pile. Chestnut was the prime favorite for fence rails, in Warren County, with straight-grained, easy splitting pine a close second. Chestnut was also used for making puncheon floors.

They were noisy parties, the log rollings of sixty-to-one hundred years ago. The crashing of the falling trees, the shouts of the men, the "whoa-haw Buck-Berry," "Gee Bright, Barney, gee over thar, gee, gee up !" commands to the slow-swaying oxen, the rumble of the logs, as they bumped together.

There were brown gallon jugs of whiskey with corncob stoppers, plenty of whiskey, the men were always tipping up a jug, holding it high on a curved arm and letting it give a gurgle or two, but nobody got drunk, it wouldn't do to drink too much at a logging bee, dangerous work with sharp axes swinging, trees falling and heavy logs rolling.

At eleven o'clock a horn blew at the house and men and oxen went out of the shattered woods for rest and refreshment. It was a real logging bee dinner that day at Martin's, with roast beef a-plenty for all, and boiled potatoes and stewed dried-corn, and pies, cookies, bread, jam and hot tea. The meal was served outdoors, with a continual hurrying of women up and down the stone steps of the kitchen, bringing more dishes of potatoes, more bread, more pie, more everything to satisfy the enormous appetites of the loggers. A "grand-mother's table" was set indoors for half a dozen old ladies who had been brought along to the logging bee, partly because they couldn't very well be left at home, more because they wanted a share in the sociability. Every one of the old ladies at Martin's logging bee, that May day in 1861, had been born across the sea. They sipped their tea, two had their brown clay pipes, and all talked of the past in "the old country."

It was a large slashing that was cut down that day amid the Pine Grove forests. When the tired oxen were hitched to their wagons and started their swaying journey homeward, over the rough roads, a great square hole had been made in the woods. The forest had been slain and left on the battlefield. The pioneer had won a few more acres in which to plant his crops. All summer the logs and limbs would be left lying in the follow to dry, so they could be burned later on.

A Log Burning

The log burning followed the logging bee, some three to five months after the trees were felled. Again the neighbors assembled, bringing their ox teams. The high log piles would be lighted, stray limbs were gathered up, heavy pieces skidded to the piles with the oxen. The fires were lighted and started up with a great roar of burning leaves and twigs, showers of sparks rose over the trees, the whole surrounding woods was fogged with dense blue smoke. Men and oxen worked in clouds of smoke and ashes around the burning piles. Long logs would be dragged across a blazing pine butt and "niggered off." "Niggering off" a log was simply burning it through, which made it easier to handle and keep burning.

Working among the charred logs and heavy smoke the men were as black as negroes, the oxen too were blackened. Some of the trees were three, four even five feet through; it took a long time to burn logs like that down to a pile of ashes. The heaps burned for a week, smouldered for two weeks sometimes. After the first day a few men would stay to keep the fires going. Eventually there was nothing but piles of ashes, splendid fertilizer, but the virgin soil didn't need it. Charred stumps were everywhere in the burned follow. The hardwood stumps would soon decay, those of the resinous pines would last half a century, they would have to be chopped out, pulled with windlasses and oxen. It was a hard fight to win a little land on which to grow corn and rye and potatoes. The clearing was full of roots, that ran everywhere; tough plowing for the pioneer farmer.

But in the soft, black soil where trees and plant life had grown and decayed since the world was young, things would grow like magic. The farmer scattered the wood ashes and leveled the ground with his oxen and a "crotch-drag", and the spike-tooth harrow came in handy.

When another May came around, the little farm in the forest was carpeted with brilliant green wheat, sown the fall before.. And how the rye patch did prosper and what potatoes they raised in those first cleared acres among Warren County's woods.

Next winter there would be wheat to take to Hood's Mill near Sugar Grove, in sacks slung across an ox's back, or hauled on a sled. There would be beans in the low attic of the log house and, buried in a nest of straw would be big smooth skinned potatoes, fine for baking in the hot ashes on the hearth.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 139-146: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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