Road Trip Through History: Local History Museums, Logging Trivia, and the Lumberjack Sister

My Own True Love and I make a point of stopping in local history museums when we’re on the road. On our recent road trip along the northern leg of the Great River Road, we visited three local and/or county historical museums.(1) There were several others that we failed to visit because they were closed for the season,(2) closed on the day we were in their town, or their hours didn’t accommodate our schedule in some way. (Or perhaps our schedule didn’t accommodate their hours.)

The museums that we visited were different in fundamental ways, but they shared one common thread: the changing role of natural resources in the development of their communities. We saw discussions of the interaction between waterways, prairies and wetlands and how the arrival of European-American settlers changed the balance between them. (I, for one, had never heard of the oak savanna, a transition area between prairie and hardwood forest.) We saw exhibits on the fur trade, agriculture, logging, and granite quarries, and the support industries that grew up around them. (Wheat farms, for instance, led to the establishment of flour mills, horse markets and wagon makers in country towns. So obvious once you think about it.) And exhibits that demonstrated the impact of the rise and fall those industries on specific towns.

Several bits of historical detail from the logging industry particularly caught my imagination:

• In the early days of logging in the north woods, the loggers used oxen to pull logs to the rivers and lakes. Once the logs reached the water, they were transported to timber mills in the form of rough rafts by river drivers, known as “river pigs.”(3)

• In the winter, loggers made ices roads to allow them to pull loads of logs on sleighs. They cleared and leveled the road in the fall. Once the weather was cold enough, they used a water tank wagon to flood the road bed with enough water to create about a foot of solid ice. Then a “rut cutter” made ruts for the sleigh runners. Throughout the hauling season, night crews worked to maintain the quality of the ice roads.

• In 1887, the sisters of Saint Benedict built a hospital in Duluth and then created a primitive form of health insurance for loggers. They sold logging companies and individual loggers “hospital tickets”. At an annual cost that ranged from one to nine dollars, a hospital ticket entitled its holder to care at one of the Benedictine hospitals in the region, assuming the lumberjack’s injury was not due to drinking or fighting. One member of the order, Sister Amata Mackett, became known as the Lumberjack Sister. Possibly because she was almost six feet tall and weighed two hundred pounds. For thirty years she went from camp to camp, traveling by train when possible and by foot or snowshoe if necessary. Men eagerly awaited her annual visits. She not only sold lumbermen hospital tickets, she also darned socks, baked pies, listened to lonesome lumberjacks, and provided onsite medical care.

Who knew?

(1) Four if we count the Crow Wing County Museum, which we arrived at fifteen minutes before it closed: just long enough to use the washrooms, whip through a single gallery, have a meaningful conversation with a museum staff member, and curse the fact that we didn’t have more time.
(2) Unlike places further south, where October 12th has become the official end of the tourist season, Minnesota takes a conservative view and begins to shut down tourist draws at the end of September.
(3)This pinged memories for me of a book I read as child in which a young girl escaping from something bad floated down the river on a timber raft (probably disguised as a boy).   She also cut and stacked cords of wood for sale. Anyone?


  1. Judy on October 11, 2018 at 10:27 pm

    Fascinating! If anyone comes through with that book title, please post! It’s ringing a bell for me, but no luck finding it.

    • pamela on October 12, 2018 at 2:16 am

      Will do. And if it comes to you in the middle of the night, let me know.

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