(This was originally published in “The Guide”, December 2014/January 2015. Special thanks to Scott Nunn for permission to reprint it on the North Country History website.)
Christmas is a time to be with loved ones, but for some it’s not always possible. In the nineteenth century, logging was a winter activity and most lumberjacks spent Christmas in the lumber camps away from their friends and family. Unless they lived in nearby towns it was impossible to go home for the holiday.
Camps observed Christmas with a day off of work and a mid-day feast for the men. The rest of the day was spent with the men amusing themselves with music, stories, games, and a “stag dance”. Some read letters from home and wrote to those they missed.
John W. Fitzmaurice gave an account of a Christmas in camp from near the Muskegon River in 1883. Fitzmaurice had been a minister, temperance man, and newspaper editor in East Saginaw but in 1880 was advised by his doctor that for his health, he needed to leave the city and head for the woods. Over the next several years he worked as an agent selling hospital tickets (an early form of health insurance) to lumberjacks and as a drummer (traveling salesman) going from camp to camp selling inexpensive watches and trinkets. He also brought news of the outside world to the men in the isolated camps. In 1888 he published a book on his experiences, The Shanty Boy: Or Life in a Lumber Camp. Fitzmaurice wrote of that Christmas in 1883:
“ I shall never forget the Christmas of 1883, spent in a lumber camp. By some fatality my business had so shaped itself that in place of being comfortably at home with my family, during the holiday season, I was far in the interior of Northern Michigan.
A weary tramp of some sixteen miles brought me to a large lumber camp, in proximity to the Muskegon River. Some seventy-five men constituted as fine a crew of ‘shanty boys’ as I had ever met.
It was Christmas Day, and the men were having a ‘lay off’ in honor of the festive anniversary of peace and good will to men. The cook and his helpers had made an extra effort, in the preparation of a dinner fit for a prince, and for which I had just arrived in time, bringing with me an appetite suited for the occasion. Dear reader, did you ever dine a la ‘shanty boy’ in camp when the cook had just turned himself loose? If not let me give you the menu constituting the big dinner, on that Christmas day.
There was venison, cooked in three different forms; wild turkey; wild duck; partridge pie, big as a bushel basket; cold and hot
corn beef; pork and beans; corn beef hash; cod fish with drawn butter; pig’s feet; potatoes; sauerkraut; boiled cabbage; beets; onions; pickles; apple, mince, lemon pie; apple and currant pudding; tea, with milk and sugar; bread and cookies. Two long tables fairly groaned beneath the weight of the bounties provided, and it was simply refreshing to witness the avidity with which that big crew of hungry men ‘got away’ with the luxuries, and to which final result the writer contributed his best endeavor.
The afternoon was spent in the various methods of amusement, incident to camp. Some reading, others letter writing, one mending his socks, another putting a fore and aft deck in a pair of pants, with a dissected grain bag. Cards and music were in vogue, the latter represented by a violin and two mouth organs, furnishing entertainment for a number engaged in the exhilarating excitement of a ‘stag dance.’
In the far corner the everlasting creaking of the grindstone, kept up an accompaniment to the general hilarity, thus forming the necessary connection between work and play.”
The schedule returned to normal on December 26th with the men heading out for a full day’s work after this brief lay-off. Cutting and hauling of logs would continue until the spring thaw and the
break-up of the rivers. John Fitzmaurice undoubtedly moved on to other camps to sell his wares and bring news from the cities to the isolated camps.