Lumbering in Minnesota

A lumber camp and crew in Minnesota, around 1890.
A lumber camp and crew in Minnesota, around 1890.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society


As the young United States grew, so too grew the demand for wood. As the great forests of the East were played out, New England lumbermen turned their eyes westward—first to the Ohio valley and Michigan, then to the territory that would become Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In the 1820s, Minnesota held 31.5 million acres of forest, much of it white pine. A light, soft wood, pine was easy to transport and to cut, yet it was also strong and durable—an ideal material for building a new nation.

An 1837 treaty with the Ojibwe opened up east-central Minnesota to logging. Two years later the first lumbermen arrived to harvest the massive pines along the St. Croix River. They built sawmills at Marine on St. Croix and Stillwater. Other mills sprang up all along the river.

In the 1860s, companies erected saw mills at St. Anthony Falls to process lumber from the Mississippi River valley. These soon became the busiest mills in the state. The following decade saw the invention of steam-powered mills, which worked faster and could be built anywhere. The demand for lumber increased.

In the 1880s the forests of Michigan and Wisconsin begin to give out. The nation turned to Minnesota as its major supplier of wood. New mills sprung up around the state, and further technological advances—railroads to carry logs, larger sawmill engines, better saws—increased production again.

1890 to 1910 was the peak era of lumbering in Minnesota. Some 20,000 to 30,000 lumberjacks worked in the forests. A similar number of men toiled in the sawmills, and another 20,000 worked in wood production factories. Each year, the state produced some 2.3 billion board feet of lumber, enough to build 600,000 homes. Minnesota lumber built cities all across the West.

After this, the harvest grew smaller. Sawmills closed or converted to flour mills. Lumber companies moved to the Pacific Northwest. In 1929, the Rainy Lake Lumber Company in Virginia, Minnesota shut down, ending the era of pine logging in the state.

The life of a lumberjack

Two Minnesota fur traders, around 1880.
Two Minnesota fur traders, around 1880.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The earliest lumbermen in Minnesota came from New England, and built what were sometimes called "State of Maine camps." Amenities were minimal—a hovel for the men and a barn for oxen used to haul the lumber. The buildings were made of small logs and covered in tar paper. As demand for lumber increased, later camps grew in size to include an eating house and multiple bunk houses. Over 100 men might bunk in a single house, often sleeping two to a bed.

The day began with breakfast around 4:00 AM. The lumberjacks would then walk a mile-and-a-half in pre-dawn darkness to their trees. Lunch was brought to them at 9:00; the big mid-day dinner was served at 2:00; and then they'd walk back to camp for supper around 7:00. By 9:00, all were back in their bunks, resting for the next day.

Lumberjacks chopped or sawed down the trees, then cut them into logs. They only took the trunks—they cut off limbs and tops and tossed them aside as waste, or slash. (This highly-combustible material would lead to devastating fires.) Logs were loaded onto large sleighs, pulled by oxen down to river. There they were counted and stamped and floated down river to sawmill.

Ordinary laborer in the camps might earn $10 to $18 per month. Teamsters who drove the horses received $35 per month plus board. Camps also employed cooks, and "flunkies" to do chores.

As the demand for lumber increased, sawmills introduced new technology to process more wood. This in turn affected life in the camps. Crews grew larger, camps expanded, and specialized jobs developed. Draft horses replaced slow-moving oxen in the 1850s, and horses in turn were replaced by locomotives starting in the 1880s.