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Paul Bunyan Boys of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Cutting Pulp Wood
How many of you remember the stories of bigger than life people we read about during our school days? There was Pecos Bill, Calamity Jane, and the inimitable Paul Bunyan, king of the lumberjacks. I suppose it is good to have bigger than life heroes but I think for most of us our heroes might not look like the ones we read about while students studying literature or reading about the extraordinary feats.
Paul Bunyan was one of my favorites. According to information on the web Paul Bunyan first made an appearance in print in 1906 originating from folktales and stories told by lumberjacks in the Northeastern United States. Some of the stories are it took 5 storks to deliver the baby Paul and when he was seven months old he sawed the bedposts off his parents bed. Paul had an animal friend, Babe the Blue Ox.
When we were boys growing up here in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina earning extra spending money came hard. Many of our summers were spent working in the fields doing farm labor. Plowing the crops and helping to harvest truck crops such as pole beans and cabbage. We earned little by standards of wages today but we managed to buy school clothes and have a little extra for a rainy day.
We live in an area where there are a lot of Pine trees and as a 16 year old who had just gotten a drivers license more opportunities to earn money became available. Pulp wood was purchased in town at a wood yard near the railroad where it could be loaded onto flat cars and hauled to the paper mill in Canton, NC.Many of the men folk here sawed pulp wood to supplement their income.
My wife's father drove a school bus for 38 years and oftentimes he would cut and haul a load of pulp wood during the day after having driven his bus. He then had to return to school and drive the children children back home from school in the afternoon.The going rate was $16 per cord and even on a pick-up truck a cord could be loaded easily enough and money earned through hard work but in many cases a near necessity. The buyer at the wood yard had a crane and if the truck was loaded correctly, the entire cord of pulpwood could be unloaded easily by attaching a cable and lifting the entire load right onto a flat car on the rail spur.
My Uncle Eddie was a year older than I and when he suggested we cut a load of pulp wood, I was game for the idea. He borrowed his brother's chain saw a small Homelite and the wood could be cut from Grandpa's property. We got started about mid-morning one Saturday and it took us about 2 hours to cut and load our wood. We were young and stout as Paul Bunyan's ox, Babe, in those days full of "piss and vinegar." If you know anything about Pine, when cut, the rosin bleeds and by the time we had finished our load, the both of us had our hands and jeans coated with rosin. Only gasoline will remove the sticky rosin.
We used my dad's old Chevy truck which held our cord of pulp wood. The measurement was 4 feet by 4 feet with 8 foot logs. My Uncle drove the truck to the wood yard and we had to wait in line as others were unloaded who had arrived ahead of us. The yard foreman told us they were going to use dynamite caps to burst a log that had big knots and to stand clear. As we waited a safe distance away I noticed two little Negro boys playing in the yard a couple of streets away, they couldn't have been more than 3 or 4 years old and couldn't have know what was coming.
The yard foreman and those helping set off the dynamite caps and the boom was really loud as you might expect. The two little boys were scared out of their wits and one ran one way and the other another way screaming. At the time it appeared funny to us but in reality there wasn't anything funny about them being scared so badly. I'm sure their mama's must have consoled them and explained what had happened later to alleviate their fears the world was coming to an end.
Here in WNC and in our county, woodsmen have earned a good living over the years. The old wood yard in our town has long been closed and the railroad no longer runs through our town. I miss hearing the train whistles as it climbed the mountains and passed near our village. Some of my best friends are woodsmen. In the early years logs were cut and moved with horses.and loaded by hand onto trucks Then came the iron horse followed by skidders, knuckle boom loaders, and even now machines that can clip a full tree and trim the branches in one operation. Nothing is wasted and logs now are chipped and taken to the paper mill in Canton, NC by eighteen wheel trucks and trailers. Being a woodsmen is a hard job and one that requires many skills including being a mechanic, heavy equipment operator and a businessman.
Me and my dear Uncle Eddie, now in Heaven, certainly were not the Paul Bunyan types and if we ever had any inclination to become woodsmen, our ambition soon abated. The $16 we earned that day came hard and once divided seemed way too little for the effort. I admire those who do work in the woods cutting timber. For many here in the mountains the cutting of pulp wood and cross ties brought income that stayed starvation. My dad hauled cross ties using a wagon pulled by oxen. It was a full day's journey returning home long after sunset.