Loggers, life and Key Peninsula history

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The Key Peninsula Historical Society invited a handful of loggers to share their experience working the woods.

On a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, a small group gathered inside the Key Peninsula History Museum in Vaughn, Wash., to talk about their logging past.

Colleen Slater’s smiling face greeted everyone with a warm welcome at the front door of the building next to the Key Peninsula Civic Center. The walls of the dark but warm room is filled with pictures of loggers and their equipment harvesting the giant timber that was once the Key Peninsula’s bread and butter. Past a stack of books and next to logging camp artifacts sat two containers of cookies.

The handful of men and women present were here to remember, talk and record their recollections of the hearty profession of logging. This was an opportunity for the men around the table to share their memories of life in the woods. This was a chance for the women of the Key Peninsula Historical Society to record for posterity their recollections.

“We’re here today to talk about logging,” said Judy Mills, president of the historical society, as she welcomed the handful of loggers in the room.

“Do we have to stick to the truth?,” her husband and former logger Don Mills asks.

“We’ll have to embellish a little,” said Frank Slater, who paid for college working as a logger.

With howls of laughter the loggers roundtable was underway. A rather appropriate kickoff for “Tall Trees, Tall Men, Tall Tales: 100 years of Logging in the Key Peninsula.” According to Colleen Slater, an author of books on Key Peninsula history, this was the first of many events they hope will celebrate logging on the peninsula.

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Don Mills tells a story about life as a logger in Alaska.

“My dad and grandpa logged here well before my time,” said Dave Johnson. “Yes, I do some (logging) on the Key Peninsula, right out here.”

You did not have to be a logger to be in this group. You just had to love all things logging or have family working the woods. Take Paul Michaels for instance: “I never was a logger. But I was always interested in it,” Michaels said.

“I collect logging artifacts. My wife calls me a rust collector,” he adds to laughter. “But my grandfather was a logger in the 1940s.”

And that is the business they were all here to talk about. The men shared everything from life in the camps, lessons learned in their jobs and what they were paid for their labor.

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Frank Slater points to a display case in the museum containing a piece of equipment his father used in the woods.

“The first day on the job my foreman says to me: ‘You do what you’re told. That is what you’re paid to do,’ ” Slater said. “On the second day (the big boss) tells me ‘you’re being paid to think.’ “

“So what’d you do Frank,” asks Michaels.

“Whatever the foreman said I should do,” Slater said. ” I pretty much did it.”

This was in the 1950s near Quinault on the Olympic Peninsula when Slater first learned his way around chokers and chainsaws. He took the job so he could “finance my schooling.” Slater was studying to be a teacher at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash..

“He put himself through college by logging,” his wife, Colleen, said. It was not such an odd business for Frank to get into. His father was also a logger. I guess logging just ran in the family.

“The demand for timber was very good,” he said. “In the three years I worked up there we didn’t lose a single day’s work.”

A logger often goes where the work is. That is the life. For Mills it was the backcountry of Alaska, just north of Ketchikan.

“I went up there and we built an entire camp,” Mills said. As a common laborer “wielding a shovel and doing stuff” he made $2.35 an hour, he said.

“My dad made $2 a day in the 1930s,” Slater chimed in. “He thought he was in fat city.”

Not everyone started out working for a company. Dave Johnson said he and his brother were self employed. Asked what his first paycheck was like, he responds: “The more money we made, the more money we got paid.”

Logging truly is a family business. Slater remembers his mother telling him of life in logging camp.

“One of her jobs besides cooking was to sweep out,” Slater said. “She would tell me she never needed a dust pan. She would just push the dust down the knot holes on the floor.”

As for remembering the conditions they worked in, to a man, they all said “wet”. Not surprising for working in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Johnson did say “we really didn’t work in the snow. But the rain didn’t bother us though.”

Although logging is dangerous work, no one in the group had much to talk about except for a few nicks and scratches. Mills holds up his hands and said “we still got all our fingers.”

But lessons in safety was learned early and often. Loggers, Slater explained, wore “tin pants,” trousers cut at the shins, so a logger “wouldn’t get hung up in the branches.” And these trousers were made of material that was also water repellant.

“And if you’re going to fall in the woods,” he adds, “fall toward the work.”

It takes a lot less time to get back to work when you fall closer to where you are working than when you fall away from it, he explains.

“It is more efficient that way,” he adds.

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Colleen Slater, of the Key Peninsula Historical Society, said this is the first of what she hopes will be many more conversations with loggers sharing their experiences.

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