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Old-Time Timber Fallers

Timber fallers can be heard less than a mile north and slightly west of here. I walked through their handiwork last evening, a far neater job than I've witnessed on the lands of the predominant neighbor hereabouts, Mendocino Redwood Company. Competent fallers today are just as apt to be from Latino backgrounds as Anglo-European. A century or more ago, any visitor to the redwood country would encounter a vast array of nationalities working in the woods or mills, but almost without exception the most skill intensive jobs, such as timber fallers, were held by Anglos.

Today's fallers are often paid by the hour. When my father and his three brothers fell redwood and fir they were paid by the board foot. The value of bringing down a large tree with as little damage to the potential lumber as possible more or less allowed the fallers to labor under their terms, not the hourly wages dictated by the economy as a whole.

The wind has kicked up a bit around here, so it won't be surprising to hear the fallers knock off early. Wind is the most hazardous of natural conditions in the woods. As spring turns toward summer the fallers will start at dawn and be out of the woods by two p.m. or so. Heat is the silent killer in the woods and in the sawmills. My father used to tell of a summer (might have been 1953) when he was falling east of Comptche. He said it grew so hot that summer that the fallers all headed home before noon each day for a couple of weeks in a row. He liked to say that the weather grew so hot and still the blue jays sat panting on tree limbs with their tongues hanging out.

The class system, as well as a racial and ethnic job classification system, in the mills and the woods remained the rule with extremely few exceptions up to the closing of the coastal mills (except Union Lumber Co.) at the end of the 1920s. Up to and including that time to be classified a “white man” in the mills or woods one had to be of certifiable English or Scottish descent. A fellow of Irish ancestry was a “Mick” and this was spoken with a sneer more often than a smile. Each part of Scandinavia received its own derogatory nickname, the most polite I can think of was “squarehead.” Readers, I'm sure, can fill in the disparaging terms for any number of other groups who happened to settle and go to work in the local mills or woods.

After World War II, with most trees suffering no disturbance other than a full human generation of growth, the resurgent boom in the timber industry brought an abundance of mill and woods work. By then it was not uncommon to see second and third generation Portuguese and Italian men performing the falling jobs in the woods along with the sons, nephews and grandsons of Scotsmen who had wielded axes or handsaws to bring down the mighty old growth in the 19th Century. Around 1950 the new-fangled chainsaws were so large and unwieldy, like as not, two man crews were required to run each machine. Newly arrived logging corporations like Masonite were cutting like nobody's business. More fallers were often called for than even the second and third generation locals, of multiple ethnicities, could meet the needs. To fill the labor gap, Masonite sent into the woods, not a new batch of immigrants from other lands, but a recent influx of what might be generally termed “Arkies,” Americans from southeastern states like Arkansas, who'd ventured cross country a generation after the “Okies” of the Dust Bowl.

In the spring of 1950, along one square mile between the old dam on the South Fork of the Albion and Norton Gulch, Masonite employed 22 sets (44 men) of fallers. Many were newcomers from the southeastern states who came to work in ragged pants or shorts; their footwear resembled worn and torn tennis shoes. These men had never seen anything like a good sized second growth redwood let alone an old growth tree. Some of them went about their work unaware that an undercut was needed in the successful felling of the big trees. Many quit after one day on the job. Somewhat miraculously, none of the newcomers were killed. By the end of a week the 22 teams were down to eight or ten, mostly those second and third generation fallers like my Macdonald forebears joined by second or third generation locals who'd grown up in and around the woods, who just happened to have surnames like Vieira or Silva.

One Comment

  1. John McCray July 12, 2019

    Who gives a dam about their names and how they smell,talk,dress,look and eat. Can they fall timber. John! 50 years falling old growth on the west cost of North America. Just like my Dad did. Coos Bay boys talking here. John

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