Monthly Archives: March 2003the_content
Author: Thomas Whittles
Title: The Lumberjack Sky Pilot
Subject: Presbyterian Church — Clergy — Biography
Subject: Higgins, Francis Edmund, 1865-1915
Subject: Church work with loggers — Minnesota
Copyright Status Public domain
Begin of the book:
|I.||The Lumberjacks and the Lumberjack Sky Pilot.||13|
|II.||The Work at Barnum, Minnesota.||33|
|III.||In the Heart of the Logging District.||51|
|IV.||The Lumberjack in the Camps.||71|
|V.||A View of the Camp Services.||95|
|VI.||Itinerating in the Camps.||123|
|VII.||Work in the Lumber Towns.||153|
|IX.||The Field and Its Possibilities.||223|
THOMAS D. WHITTLES
THE WINONA PUBLISHING COMPANY
The Winona Publishing Company
The intent of this little volume is not to glorify a man, but to present the parish of the pines. Imagination has little part in its pages, for the incidents are actual happenings and the descriptions are taken from life. The condition of the foresters is really the theme, although the title draws attention to the missionary. Because the Rev. Frank E. Higgins has given himself devotedly to the men of forest and river, I have chosen his experiences as hooks on which to hang the pictures of pinery life. Mr. Higgins has labored with no thought of fame, but with devotion to God and man; and so I write not to exalt the missionary, but to introduce you to his interesting parishioners.
I have written with love because I know the Sky Pilot. I have written with prayerful longing because I know the lumberjacks. If through my unskilled effort you become interested in the isolated, wayward woodsmen, I shall be fully repaid.
T. D. W.
But nowhere is there prodigal among those careless Jacks
Who will toss the hard won spoil of a year of lusty toil
Like the Prodigals of Pickpole and the Ishmaels of the Ax.”
REV. JOHN E. BUSHNELL, D. D.
It has long been felt by those familiar with the human side of the forest life that its call should be heard, and that the efforts of devoted hearts to minister to the peculiar needs of the men behind the axe and the saw should be made known. This volume is a timely response to that desire. Through a veritable forest of material the author safely arrives with us at the camp-fire and heart-fire of the lumberjack. Most writers must create their own heroes; ours found his awaiting him, for God created Frank E. Higgins, the hero of this book. It is just like God to make such a man when there is such a work to be done. It shows us how busy Providence is in human affairs. The least we can do in return is to know that man and get his message.
The Lure of the Wild has long prevailed to call men forth to kill, or prospect, or sin, but in a lovelier guise it will possess the readers of this book to make them enter the Wild to pity, love, and save. To most of them this narrative will come as a surprise. It may even raise the question of possible exaggeration as to the extent of human suffering and degradation involved in the simple task of felling the forests to meet the needs of a growing nation. To those, however, who have been over the trail, it will appeal as a moderate but faithful picture of scenes of intensest pathos and tragedy which are but commonplace in the parish of the Sky Pilot to the Lumberjacks.
The fierceness with which evil hunts its human prey, and makes strong men of our own day and nation no better than the old galley-slave, toiling to enrich their brutal masters, can be only partially set forth in the limits of these pages. We shall all be made better neighbors to our homeless brothers in the wilderness by following Mr. Whittles’ surprising and fascinating story7 and by walking in the footsteps of the modest missionary of the Cross, of whom he writes, on his round of mercy through camp and brush, for whose zeal the winter’s blast is never too severe, and whose love for souls melts a pathway through drifted snow. We shall be reminded afresh of how rough is the work and how great the human sacrifice by which the wants of civilization are satisfied. We shall also be moved to resolve that the amount of the vicarious suffering of men for this end shall be reduced of all that portion of it that comes through our indifference and the activity of evil. This narrative adds a unique and valuable chapter to the records of our country. It will be read with gratitude by every one, who for whatever cause seeks wider knowledge of his fellowmen. Most of all will it appeal to the Christian hearts of our land to whom these men of the woods will seem as brothers, having more than their share of life’s hardships and temptations and less than their share of its privilege and its opportunity.
It is most earnestly to be hoped that it8 may reach all the homes of our land and cause them to rest a while from the fiction of the hour, that, in the glow of these human realities, stranger than the inventions of fancy, we may learn henceforth to suffer in the afflictions of our exceptional members and relieve the conditions which make them helpless without our aid.
I LOVINGLY DEDICATE
While I waited for a train, a woodsman entered the station. He was dressed in a rough Mackinaw jacket; coarse socks held his trousers close to his legs, and on his hands were heavy woolen mittens. Everything proclaimed him to be a man of the camps.
“Hello, Jack,” I said in greeting, “how were the woods this winter? Anything new in the camps?”
Jack jammed the Peerless into his strong-smelling pipe, struck a match and replied: “Snowed so blank hard that half the gang jumped the job, and us fools that stayed worked up to our necks trying to get out the stuff. This winter was Hades, but not quite so warm—no, not by a jugfull. Why say, neighbor, in our camp the whisky froze up and kept the bunch sober until we got a new supply.”
“You’re a preacher, ain’t you?”
“I am,” I replied.
“Well, then, here’s news you’ll enjoy. We’re all thinking of joining the church—us fellows in the camps. Funny, ain’t it? The gospel sharks are in the tall timber and are getting bags of game that would shame a pot hunter. The cloth has donned overalls and is preaching at us. Savvy, Preacher?—we’ve actually got so civilized that they’re preaching at us God-forsaken lumberjacks. How does that strike you for news?”
He paused to see the effect this intelligence was having on me, then continued:
“The sermons we get are the real thing. No sun-proof paint on them, no ‘by-your-leave,’ but the straight goods, the pure stuff—chips, bark and timber. Everything we get is government sealed, punk proof, top-loaded and headed for the landing—which is us. It all comes our way and we hold our noses and take the medicine. What party do you happen to hitch to?”
“Denomination?” I asked, “I am a Presbyterian.”
“I have known him a long time,” I replied.
“Shake! If you’re a friend of his you’ll do. He’s onto his job, and if this keeps up, the guy that splashes ink on the church roll will be kept busy adding our names. There’s my train.”
He was gone. May the day soon come when the half jesting prophecy of the lumberjack will be fulfilled.
Stately and green is the forest of the North Star State. From Lake Superior the great pineries of Minnesota extend unbroken until the fertile silt of the Red River Valley limits the growth of the pines. Two hundred miles is the width of the forest and the evergreen covers the northern half of the state. This is “the woods” of Minnesota—the center of the logging industry.
About five hundred camps mar this beautiful region with their rude shacks and temporary16shelters, some of them being scores of miles from the permanent settlements. During the winter months twenty thousand men labor in the scattered camps of this vast territory, removing the growth of ages that the farms and cities may have comfort and protection. The primeval forest has been invaded, and on the zero air of the north the ring of the ax, the tearing of saws and the strange oaths of the teamsters mingle with the crash of falling trees.
The workers of the forest are called lumberjacks. In all the country there is scarcely a more interesting group of men—interesting because so wayward and prodigal in life and habit, while their forest home appeals to every leaf-loving soul. They are the nomads of the west—farm hands and railroad constructionists in summer, woodsmen in winter—with no settled abode, no place they call home. A few years ago Michigan claimed them; later their habitat was in the forests of Wisconsin; now the woods of Minnesota is their rendezvous.
The typical lumberjack is a man of large heart and little will. He sins with willing freedom, because he has almost lost the17 power to check his evil desires, and it is so easy to yield to the vultures who make sin convenient and righteousness hard. The saloon and brothel are ever alluringly near, while the church and bethel are slow to approach. The harpies of sin wait at every turn to prey upon the woodsman—though they damn his soul it matters not, if they obtain the cash.
The railroads push their iron arms into the heart of the wooded lands, and the villages follow the railways, desiring to be near the camps for the trade they bring. Almost without exception the first places of business are the saloons, to which are attached the outfits of the gamblers, and conveniently near are the places of shame. One new town in the pineries had between forty and fifty saloons (forty-six I believe is the number), five large brothels, and the gambling hells were many, yet the population of the place was little over two thousand. It was evident to the casual visitor that its chief industry was to separate the campmen from their earnings by preying on their weaknesses. Another village is beautifully situated at the junction of two rivers. All around it is well18 timbered land, and from the nature of the soil the place is destined to be of importance in the coming years, but at the time of this writing the village with its adjacent territory only contains a population of about two hundred. The village has less than a dozen houses, but six saloons do a thriving business and the brothel has appeared. You ask where the places obtain their patronage? From the camps. The foresters are the source of profit; the population of the town would not be able to keep one saloon in business. Nor are these solitary instances. The same conditions are to be found in almost every hamlet and village in the woods. Day and night they ply their sinful trade, and soon the gold, which the lumberjack risked his life to win, jingles in the coffers of the shameless or gleams in the till of the saloon or gambling hell.
Sunday is the harvest day of iniquity. The men are released from labor and pour into the villages to spend the hours of rest. The wheel, whisky and women separate them from their earnings, and like the withered leaves of autumn the strong wielders of the ax and canthook fall easy victims. One19 night “to blow in the stake,” regrets for a moment—then back to the loneliness of the winter woods again. He is said to be a poor lumberjack who can keep his wages over night.
Jack is not always a willing victim. Often by knockout drops he is reduced to insensibility and robbed. He may complain of the treatment, but he is helpless through lack of evidence, and is told to “go up river,” or is hustled unfeelingly out of town. “He’s only a lumberjack and is better off when all in.” This is all the sympathy the Ishmaelite receives. No place is open to him except the one he should avoid. The churches are too weak to meet the large demands, and so no place of refuge opens its doors of hope to the prodigal. The balm of sympathy comes to him limitedly; humanity is as cold as the frozen streams of his winter’s retreat. Civilization is viewed only as a place of unbridled license where the law favors the spoiler. God is dead. Christ is only a word of convenient profanity. The church has forgotten the prodigal while caring for the souls of the saved. Thus he views life. In his wretchedness he labors for the keepers of the gates20 of death and is satisfied, if, by the sweat of his brow, he can win an hour of forgetfulness in the place of riot and shame.
No picture was ever painted so dark as to exclude all light. God made it so. Even in the neglected sons of the lumber-camps is seen a hopeful ray—for their hearts are as rich in charity as their lives are dark with sin. Their sympathies can easily be touched. It is through the open freedom of their generous nature that the reforming power of the gospel can enter. The only remedy for the campmen is the sustaining power of the Man of Nazareth. When they shall learn to know the Christ of God as the Savior of men, the darkened lives of the foresters will be transformed, and the fruits they shall bring forth will be the wished for deeds of righteousness.
When the Rev. Francis Edmund Higgins, the Lumberjack Sky Pilot, began his work among these neglected Ishmaelites, no religious society was making an effort to raise the moral and spiritual condition of the campmen. The Catholic church, then as now, devoted itself to the hospital work in the nearby towns, but no denomination invaded the camps to lead the bunkmen to right living.21 At the time of this writing the Presbyterian church is the only religious organization having special missionaries in the lumbercamps.
Regardless of denominational prejudice, the work of Frank Higgins appeals to the whole Christian church, not only on account of its peculiar type, but also because of the interesting man conducting it. Fitted by nature and training for his work, he is striving with heart and hand in a large and lonely field. He is the pastor of a large and scattered flock which for long and weary years has known no shepherd. Depraved men are being reached, lifted and kept for God through him—men alone are his parishioners.
Seldom is a pastor more beloved by his people. The rough but kindly hearts of the lumberjacks go out to this fearless minister who self-sacrificingly breaks the bread of life to the husk-fed prodigals of the far north country. The lumberjacks will fight for their Sky Pilot; and even the ranks of the enemy—the saloonmen, the gamblers, the brothel keepers—are compelled to admire this earnest Christian minister who is valiantly fighting a hard battle for God and righteousness.
22The Rev. Frank Higgins is a resolute character, full of zeal and undaunted courage. God gave him a strong body and he is using it for the Giver. That rare virtue we call tact, or sanctified common sense, shows itself in all his dealings with men. False dignity is absent from him, but the dignity of sterling purpose and determined endeavor is ever present. He is no slave to custom, but is a man who does things in his own way, and does them well. The title the loggers have conferred upon him is one of affection; he is the Lumberjack Sky Pilot, and if you heard his forest parishioners speak that name, you would realize that his ordination was threefold—ordained of God, by the presbytery and by the lumberjacks.
Frank E. Higgins was born in the Queen City of the West, Toronto, Ontario, on the nineteenth day of August, 1865. He was the seventh child to come into the home, but the only one to survive the vicissitudes of infancy. His parents were both Irish, but his father, Samuel Higgins, was born in the Dominion, and for some years prior to his death kept a hotel in Toronto on the site where the Walker House now stands. In this house23 Frank was born. Ann Higgins, the mother, first saw the sun in the Ulster settlement of Ireland, her parents bringing her to Canada when she was four years old. Samuel Higgins died when Frank was seven years of age.
Two years after the death of Frank’s father, Ann Higgins married John Castle, an Englishman, who shortly afterwards moved the family to Shelburne, Dufferin County, Ontario. Here in the untouched wilderness the settlers began to force an opening for cabin and crops. The country was new. Few white families were near, but on the Higgins homestead were several camps of Sioux Indians. The land was forest covered, the towering cedar and hemlock stretched their graceful fingers heavenward, the spreading maples delighted the eye, and the white robes of the slender birch lent variety to the sylvan scene. With painful effort the sentinels were felled and squared for cabin and sheds, and fields of grain succeeded the fallen forest.
The companions of Frank Higgins were the children of the Sioux Indians, whose tepees were near the homestead. With the children of the Indians he took his lessons in24 woodcraft, learned to draw the bow, or childishly labored at the tasks of the growing braves. One of his early recollections is of secretly carrying a loaf of bread from his home to trade with an Indian youth for bow and arrows. Perhaps the subsequent strapping he received had something to do with the permanency and vividness of the recollection. For three years the Indians were his constant playmates. From the warlike Sioux, fearlessness was imbibed, their love of the forest became his, and an ineffaceable delight in tree and stream was stamped in the character of the growing boy. “I feel it now,” he said to me, but recently when we were in the city together, “I want to get back to the solitudes where the trees have voices and every stream a story. I love the camps rather than the cities. I have never passed from my boyhood love—my first love—the trees, the hills, the brooks. In the pineries I feel as if I were a boy back in the old days again.”
These were days of gold and purple when the child was learning the mysteries of life, days of ceaseless roaming in which nature taught her truths through leaf and twig, through dew and whispering breeze. He was25 nature taught—all that touches “the wild and pillared shades” belongs to his free, frank nature. Unknowingly he was beholding the beauty of his future kingdom and unconsciously equipping himself for the years of zealous toil among the white nomads whose weapons are the ax, the saw and the peavey—a change in equipment and complexion, with the same stage setting.
Few school privileges came to the forest lad. When he should have been at his studies there was no school to attend; when the school came, only brief periods were allowed to him. At twelve he took his place by his stepfather’s side and assisted in supporting the family. Every hand was needed, and the boy’s little counted for much. There was ground to clear of trees and underbrush, there were rails to split and fields to fence, and in the winter logging, claimed his labor for the cash it gave in return.
Dufferin County could offer few advantages in those days. Its sparsely settled condition meant absence of amusements and communal privileges. Most of the new settlers were of English blood, and while they were willing to stint and sacrifice, yet they demanded the presence of the church. A26 church was organized near the Castle home, to which John and Ann Castle gave their united support. Frank’s stepfather was a godly man, in whose life was reflected the spirit of our Master’s teaching. Service and fellowship were the watchwords of the home. Of material wealth the cabin could not boast, but in spiritual gifts its occupants were far from poor. It was largely through these examples of Christian living that Frank Higgins acquired a knowledge and interest in the things of God.
When Frank was eighteen years old a wave of religious awakening swept through the community, and the stepson of John Castle was one of the first to surrender to the Master. Immediately he interested himself in the welfare of his companions, doing personal work among them. The result was that most of his companions joined the company of believers. These young men then organized a semi-weekly prayer meeting in the schoolhouse and Frank Higgins led the first meeting. Nine of those who attended those prayer meetings have since gone forth to preach the everlasting Gospel. There must have been good stuff among the settlers of Dufferin County.
27The ministry always had its charms for Frank Higgins. Long before he united with the church, the desire to preach had possessed him. Many were the sermons he delivered to the cattle, stumps and trees, while going the rounds of his daily labor. On one occasion the stepfather and hired man hid behind the stumps that they might receive edification from the discourses that so often wasted their sweetness on the desert air. Unaware of their presence, Frank worked a while, then, laying aside his ax, mounted a log and began his sermon to the stumps. Vigorously he chided them for their inactivity. Emphatic were the woes he pronounced upon them who were at ease, while the harvest called loudly for workers. Enthusiastically he bade the stumps march forward and with unsheathed sword take possession of the Promised Land. The hidden ones, suppressing mirth that almost injured them, silently thrust their heads above the hiding place and looked with forced solemnity at the big, lonely preacher. So unexpected was their appearance, that he, who a moment before was willing to lead an army of stumps to victory, retreated to the cover of the forest, pursued28 by the convulsing laughter of his friends. Years afterwards, when commenting on the above incident, he said: “You see, it was a sermon to men after all. I had intended it for stumps, but it produced action among men.” He laughed.
Men have always been his auditors. From the time of his stump sermon they have listened to his story of the Cross, and today among the stumps of the pineries he preaches with results that cause the angels to laugh in gladness.
At the age of twenty Frank Higgins returned to Toronto, the city of his birth, where he resided with relatives. He there entered the public schools, taking up the studies which the conditions in Dufferin County prevented him from acquiring in boyhood. It took courage to enter the sixth grade of the city schools, a big brawny man among babes. Unaccustomed to cities and civilization, he felt ill at ease away from his native woods. His hands were better acquainted with the ax than with the pen and pencil, but he stuck to his task while the blush of shame mounted his cheek as he sat among the little children of the grade. His29 teachers did not find him an apt scholar, but they bowed before the originality of his untutored mind.
Three years were spent in the grades and two in the high school, after which he left the Dominion of Canada and came to Minnesota, at the age of twenty-five.
In the fall of 1890 he began lay preaching in the Methodist Episcopal church at Annandale, Minnesota, and for two years labored in that field; doing very successful work. He was fortunate in the companionship of Dr. A. M. Ridgeway, a young physician who had recently begun to practice in the village. This friend did all he could to cover the defects of the frontiersman and to aid him to self-improvement. It was largely through Dr. Ridgeway’s persuasion that Higgins gave up his work at Annandale and went to Hamline University to continue his studies. For two years he applied himself to books, but owing to the scarcity of funds he was compelled to preach on the Sabbaths, and the small salary thus obtained helped to support him in the University. The name of the late Rev. L. M. Merritt, of Onesta M. E. Church, Duluth, Minnesota, is held by30 him in revered memory for the timely encouragement and assistance rendered him at this period.
In 1895 the way opened for him to enter the service of his mother church. The Presbyterian Church at Barnum, Minnesota, was offered to him and the layman found himself in the denomination of his youth. The work at Barnum, Minnesota, changed the whole course of his life.
The new field to which Mr. Higgins went was a lumber town. Barnum, Minnesota, had a population of less than four hundred, but the nearby lumber camps added considerably to its business interests. The Presbyterian Church at that place was weak, and when Presbytery sent the young Canadian there to advance the cause of Christ, it also took him under its care as a student for the ministry, and assigned studies suited to his special case.
At Barnum, Frank Higgins first came into touch with the loggers of Minnesota. On all sides were the camps crowded with men who felled the forests during the winter, and in the spring floated the logs over lake and river to the large sawmills farther south.
Shortly after he changed his residence to the lumber town, he went with several friends across the country to where the river34 drivers were at work on the Kettle River drive. It was spring. The ice-locked lakes and rivers were once more open, and now the accumulated logs that had been placed on the icy lakes and streams were floating with the current to the city mills.
After several hours traveling through a rough and new country, parts of which were cut over lands, scenically uninviting, the party arrived at the point of the river where the men, who, in the parlance of the loggers are called “riverpigs,” were at work. In midstream the men were sacking logs with peavey, or directing with pike pole. From log to log the skillful drivers leaped, now riding on the huge timbers, now wading in the shallows, or following the logs from the shore. It seemed an easy thing to do, to ride the swift moving logs, but only a master can keep his place on the unsteady, rolling steed.
In a bend of the river, below the place where the drivers were working, the large flat-boat called the wannigan, was tied. The wannigan is a floating bunkhouse, cookshed and store combined. In it the men make their home during the drive. The35 supper hour was near when the visitors arrived at Kettle River; the journey had been long, so the disturbing blast of the cookee’s horn was a welcome sound. In response to the call the rivermen hastily made for shore, and headed for the grassy place near the wannigan. The example of the workers was followed by the visitors, who helped themselves to iron knives and forks, tin spoons, cups and dishes. The wet drivers sat around the campfire and ate with a heartiness that comes from a life spent in “God’s own open air.”
The men lounged about the fire after the meal, and the topics of the village and the happenings of the river were discussed. Just as the sun was tossing back his lingering kisses at the sleepy forest and ever wakeful river, the riverpigs requested Mr. Higgins to give them a gospel service. It was a surprising request, coming from such a source, for the river drivers looked and acted as if they cared not for these things. The preacher had heard their fluent profanity as they directed the logs, and when they asked for the gospel he could not veil his surprise. But the request was in harmony with the hour.36 Nature was worshiping. The solemn hush of the evening was upon tree and stream and even the ceaseless babble of the river came only in whispers. Man felt a desire to join in the Creator’s praise, and where is there a better sanctuary than in the cloistered halls of the greenwood, on the banks of a crystal stream?
Taking a log for a platform, unaided by Bible or hymn book, Mr. Higgins began the service. “Nearer My God to Thee” was the hymn, and the men of the pickpole joined heartily in the song, “Jesus Lover of My Soul;” they sang until it seemed that the sunset joined in the praise and the trees of the field clapped their hands in timely melody. Over the running river the tall pines caught up the music and bowed in reverence, while the echoes answered back, “Oh, Receive My Soul at Last.”
With what supreme interest the men about the camp-fire listened to the old, old story of Christ who loves the wanderer! The shades of night fell low upon the darkening earth while the preacher spoke of The Light of The World, and the men sat wrapped in thoughts of things they had forgotten or37 never known. Recollections of the home tree came back to some, and the sweet lullaby of a mother stole into minds long forgetful of home and other days. At the spring of boyhood they drank again, and the counsels of youth came with hallowed sweetness to the men seated in the playing shadows of the dying fire.
Faces long strange to tears were furrowed. Wishes were born that later became realities of good. Like a voice from another world came the benediction to the group about the bright glowing embers. From across the stream the echo floated back, and the “amen” of nature came like a mother’s tender prayer.
On the morrow when the visitors were returning, several of the rivermen went to the preacher and spoke of the pleasure they had derived from the service.
“We’re away out here in the timber and it ain’t often the church comes our way,” said one.
“If some preacher would come here once in a while, he could give us a lift. The Lord knows we need it,” added another.
“Can’t you come and give us a turn?” they asked.
38In response to the extended invitations, Mr. Higgins often went to the drive on Kettle River. An appreciative audience was always waiting—an audience that would gladden the heart of any minister who was anxious to deliver God’s message.
Prior to his visit to Kettle River, Mr. Higgins had never been on the drive. Everything about the work was new to him, but he joined the riverpigs on the stream, and added to their merriment by his unskilled attempts at logdriving. Taking the long pickpole, the preacher mounted the floating log, while every driver looked out of the tail of his eye for the soon-coming moment when “his reverence” would descend to the depths—”so far,” said one of the men, “that he would draw down the log with a suction.” In the midst of their work the drivers shouted advice and encouragement.
But a laugh does not deter a man like Frank Higgins. The love of the forest and river was in his blood, and the strong body and determined will welcomed the difficulties of the river. Even the discomforts of a sudden bath did not cool his zeal. He believed that if these men were to be his hearers he39 must know how to appreciate their labors, and that appreciation could only be acquired by passing through the intricacies of the calling. So skill came with practice, and a knowledge of the drive after many sudden descents into the flowing waters.
This was a part of the equipment for ministering—a strange preparation—but men whose labors demand strength of limb and skill of body are more likely to listen to him who can prove his physical ability. In the estimation of some, manual labor may not preserve the dignity of the cloth, but it adds to the dignity of the man. The lumberjacks and rivermen have no admiration for him who is fearful of hardship, or succumbs before the strenuous labor which they themselves must daily perform. The pineries is no place for weaklings, nor the drive for the fearful. Among these men physical prowess wins where mental powers fail to get a hearing, but the combination of both, backed by a strong desire to serve, is a combination sure of success.