Pioneers liked stumping around for pics
by Dick Fallis
We are still gathering information on early fairs in Skagit County, and are pleased to be talking with people who have rich memories of fairs that were eagerly attended in the days when going to the fair was just about the high point of the year. I will be at a booth in the Flower Pavillion at this year’s county fair, and will be pleased to meet today and tomorrow with visitors who might have information to share.
One of the main reasons for me being at the fair, besides the chance to meet with people and maybe learn something from them, is to get some feel of what it is like to be part of a country air, from the inside, in this day when homespun things and local history seem to be coming back into fashion. I will be selling some copies of a classic 1901 LaConner Cook Book that I have reprinted, and I will also be exhibiting a “Stump Collector’s Album,” along with a display of early printing equipment, and some Indian designs and carvings.
It is the Stump Collector’s Album that I want to talk about in today’s column, for it is the fulfillment of something that I threatened to do some time ago, When I had the Old Puget Sound Mail office in LaConner, I had a lot of early pictures on the wall, including many of trees being chopped down, of huge stumps, and with people posing in the undercut, on spring boards, or all over the stump, like the whole logging camp, everybody from the local community or from a Sunday School, maybe with just the mill owners all dressed up in their Sunday best, or of the loggers themselves, pausing in their Herculean task of chopping the giants down to size.
Those of us who grew up in the Puget Sound region have seen many such pictures and may take them pretty much for granted; the trees were here, the people came and chopped them down to clear areas for farms and settlements, and that’s the way it was. However, for visitors coming in from other parts of the world, those pictures of trees and stumps were amazing and incredible. They couldn’t imagine such huge trees – some as much as 76 –feet in circumference – could ever have existed and what in the world were all those people doing on the stumps?
Well, once you start looking at them from that perspective, it does seem rather an amazing record of an era that has passed and is not likely to come again, like the age of dinosaurs, certain species of whale and the once-great runs of salmon. It is possible that if we and all our kind go away in our turn, the earth might mend itself in unmeasured and unhindered time, selection and natural growth until such graceful giants and pure, profuse abundance might again be spawned; but it is only barely possible.
These virgin forests soon came under the axe with the arrival of determined settlers, some who merely wanted to clear land for gardening, and others who discovered there was a ready market for timber, what with the building of wharves and ships and structures at San Francisco with the boom that followed the discovery of gold there, and in other parts of the world.
The Skagit region, because of jams in the river that were not removed until the 1880’s, was the last to be logged, long after timber from much of the rest of Puget Sound was well known and highly respected. Trees that had been locked up here grew as tall as 200-300 feet, and measured up to 50, 60, and 70 feet in circumference at the base, and were thousands of years old. Measure all this in ax-strokes, for you must realize that all of the truly great trees were cut by men using only hand tools, chopping out an undercut to where they could pass a cross-cut saw or “Swedish fiddle,” or “misery whip.”
The first step was to chop out notches through the bark, where they could insert their springboards into the living tissue of the tree, where before they could begin the job of cutting the tree, they needed to get high above the gnarls and tendons that held these giants rooted to the earth.
These springboards were narrow, tapered planks with a cleat on one end to bite in and hold fast to the tree, and serve as the movable platform from which they did the cutting, moving around the tree as they whittled in with axes that were as varied and specialized as a professional golfer’s bag of clubs.
You can see the springboard notches in all the old pictures, in the ring just a few feet below the cut, and you can still find old stumps out in the backfields that have this signature blazed on them. As for the descriptions of the axes, the tools of the trade, and of the men who did the job, these are richly told in such books as Ray Jordan’s “Yarns of the Skagit Country.”
What is not told is how it feels to be standing on these springboards, against a giant fir or cedar, delivering the last stroke that sends the sky-scraper trembling and whistling to the ground, and leaping from the springboard in that same instant, scurrying to find some place of security and protection as the sky itself opens up. I suspect that may be why, when they could get away from the woods, had a reputation for going straight to the nearest bar and drinking themselves into states of silent oblivion.
Some will dispute the mystery of all this saying that it was just another job and that most people wanted to see the forests cleared away of their wild growth so that civilization could take place, but others will agree that loggers, those who brought down the forest giants, may have known and felt something more than it is man’s business or right to know, by their hand bringing about the end of an age of innocence, drastically changing the face of the earth from its “natural” state.
The downed trees left huge stumps where, for the while, a strange phenomenon took place. At first it was the crew from the logging camp, particularly the bosses dressed in their finest, including the cooks and the kitchen hands, any women in the camp and all the kids that could be rounded up, with even the dogs and horses, all clambered up, on and around the stumps and snags to have their picture taken. School children, church organizations, whole communities, and some novel groupings such as fiddlers and sets of square dancers, also gathered on the stumps, looking solemn, and striking poses for posterity.
How much of this was merely a “media event” we may never know; of people who were ushered in to pose because the camera was there, or because the enterprising photographer knew that the more people he had in a picture, the more copies he was likely to sell. Darius Kinsey, greatest of the backwoods photographers, on hand to record this transition is only now beginning to win the recognition that his great talents and hard work so greatly deserve – every bit the leading media man of his day, and as capable as any top television news show to attract an audience to something that they might not otherwise heed.
However, it may really have been an awareness of the event itself that drew people there to pose on the stumps, in a way the people will rush to look on a catastrophe, a major fire, an air crash or a volcano that has erupted; sensing that history is taking place, and wanting to juxtapose their own image or presence onto this moment of history.
There is a strong desire to think of these people as though, like Adam and Eve at the realization of their loss of Innocence, they thought to find cover, to hide from eyes that could see, thus increasing the guilty knowledge that they had not expected to be suddenly burdened with. Of course it cannot now be proven, but it can be argued that one of the reasons all these people came to cover the severed, naked stumps with their own bodies and with the bodies of all the creatures they could talk into getting up there, pretending that these were more convenient platforms on which to gather sociably, carrying on innocent functions, was to hide from the eye of God the glaring fact that they had cut down His trees, and had carried them away for commercial and economic gain.
“Big Trees? We didn’t see any big trees around here. We just gathered in this handy cleared space, on these dandy platforms, to have our picture taken.”
Such was the end of innocence, not just the eating of the fruit, but the chopping down of the trees; and we have since tried various mans of dealing with or trying to avoid our sense of guilt.
Skagit Valley Herald 15 August 1981