I will be writing two columns on one of my favorite tree species, the white pine. Part 1 discusses a book published in 2020 by noted Wisconsin author Jerry Apps entitled, ‘When The White Pine Was King’. It is a historical and fascinating account of the history of lumberjacks, log drives, and sawdust cities in Wisconsin nicely illustrated with many interesting historic black and white photos.
In Part 2, I will tell a story of why I think ‘White Pine Is Still King’. This is because the species survived a potentially devastating disease, white pine blister rust, that was introduced in the United States around 1900. At that time, we thought the disease might wipe out white pine as a species.
In the early 1890s the northern two-thirds of Wisconsin comprised the largest and most valuable timber stand in the country. Fifield and surrounding areas played an important role in harvesting countless acres of virgin white pine along with hemlock, spruce, cedar, and hardwoods. At that time, lumber bosses found high quality stands of white pine that sold for $1.25 an acre, the government’s standard price for their huge surplus of timberlands in the Lake States (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan).
According to Apps’ book, white pine was king of the woods because it was plentiful and a favored wood for America’s building boom that was ongoing at the time. The wood was soft but tough enough, with a straight grain, and it was easy to work with a hand saw, drawshave, and wood chisel. It was nearly a perfect wood for rafters and joists, framing, siding, flooring, and shingles. And, most importantly it floats on water, so it was easy to transport massive logs down rivers to sawmills where it could be cut up for lumber and other wood products. The restored Round Lake Logging Dam in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest east of Fifield preserves some of that history.
At the time, it was thought that lumbering everywhere would last indefinitely. No one ever imagined another way of life other than logging and lumbering, but within a lifetime, our greatest heritage was depleted by the early 1900s. Left on the landscape were vast areas of cutover lands, slashings and stumps and brush that fueled forest fires that burned down some of our towns like Phillips on July 27, 1894. Fifield burned down in 1893 started from a woodshed fire in town.
After the lumber barons and lumberjacks were gone, a new way of life emerged from the cutover, fire-scarred lands. Farming held promise for those who settled here including Mary Lou’s grandparents, the Ehmkes, who settled on the land in 1920 to try a make a go of it in Fifield, the land upon which our Nature Education Center now sits. As of 2020, the land will have been in Mary Lou’s family for 100 years!
Before they could pasture dairy cattle and grow crops, the Ehmkes had to clear their fields of thousands of tough rocks and use dynamite to blow out and remove hundreds of stumps left over from the logging days. Many years later, Mary Lou and I recall her grandfather looking out the living room window while we planted some of the open fields and pastures back into trees. He lamented how much hard work it was to remove those tree stumps using dynamite and now “they” were planting those fields with trees!
In 1925, Mary Lou’s grandparents built a barn using rocks plucked from the fields for the barn’s two-foot thick foundation. They used white pine lumber to build the barn whose roof was covered with wooden shingles from a local Fifield mill. An unused bale of shingles still resides in the barn. Interestingly, by about 1870, Wisconsin led the nation in the production of wooden shingles. The Ehmke life was not easy, but they managed with what they raised on the farm and grandpa’s job working on the Soo Line Railroad; they always had enough to eat.
The problems Ehmkes and other settlers faced were poor soil, short growing seasons, long distances to market, cold, snowy winters in houses without insulation, and no running water or electricity. Many settlers didn’t make enough to pay their taxes, so much of the land eventually reverted to the government. In our area, that sparked the creation of the Chequamegon National Forest in 1933. Since then, under the stewardship of the U. S. Forest Service, the lands have been returned to full productivity of wood products and now contain vast second growth forests, abundant wildlife, scenic areas, lakes, and rivers to be enjoyed by all in what the Forest Service calls ‘multiple use’ forests. The formation of county and state forests during that era also provided similar benefits to the logging and tourism industries, residents, and visitors alike.
White pine truly was king in those early days of our local history and author Apps does a fine job of capturing what went on before, during, and after our virgin white pine forests in Wisconsin were logged off. His book will be enjoyed by anyone who loves the Northwoods and logging history. And, the book is so well written and easy to read that it could well serve as a history text book in schools.
The book was published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press and is available at: https://shop.wisconsinhistory.org/when-the-white-pine-was-king.
The private Nature Education Center in Fifield operated by Tom and Mary Lou Nicholls is open seasonally by appointment only. Nicholls can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.