Lumbering Era History is Important to the Tri-Cities

By Kevin Geary, Curator of Education
Tri-Cities Historical Museum

The Lumbering Era in our state covered about six decades, from approximately 1840-1900.  Michigan was sparsely populated until the 1840s when vast tracts of timber were discovered here. White Pine was in great demand in the East, and men began to come to Michigan by train in droves to work in the lumber camps. Lumbering became an important early industry of this area.

The lumbermen, also known as lumberjacks, led a hard and unglamorous life, beginning their workday before dawn and often going to bed before eight o’clock.  In the early days of Michigan lumbering, most of the work was done in the cold weather months of the year.  There were several reasons for this.  First, the deciduous trees lost their leaves in cold weather, thereby making progress through the woods easier.  Second, cold weather made hauling logs out of the forests easier.  Huge wagons on runners, which were pulled by teams of horses, could glide on iced tracks, which made hauling the logs easier.  Lastly, the labor force available during cold weather increased when farmers were available to work since there were fewer chores to be completed on a farm.

In order to keep the hardworking lumberjacks loyal to the lumber company they worked for, the men were well-fed.  Competition to retain good cooks was fierce between lumber camps.  Good food, and plenty of it, kept the men working at their topmost capacity.  A typical breakfast consisted of oatmeal, prunes, pork and beans on toast, cheese, bread and butter, and raisin pie.  This would be washed down with enormous quantities of strong coffee or tea.  Lumberjacks packed their own lunches from food laid out by the cooks during breakfast.  For dinner, there was always plenty of fresh meat served as pigs, chickens, and cattle were raised and butchered at the camps.

Lumberjacks held a variety of jobs in the lumber camps, ranging from choppers, who cut trees with axes and saws, to skidders who hauled the logs out of the forest, to the teamsters, who used teams of horses to haul large loads of logs to the river’s edge.  The most dangerous job, however, belonged to the “river rats,” whose responsibility it was to drive the logs downriver in the spring and to keep them from jamming.  If the logs did jam, the river rats used several tools to try to pull or push them apart. Iif all failed, they would use a stick of dynamite to loosen the jam.  Once the logs reached the river’s end, they were sorted in an area known as the boom and sent to local sawmills.


The Tri-Cities played an important role in the state’s lumbering history.  Locally, the first sawmill was Butts & Hathaway, built in 1836 at the foot of Columbus St.  Between 1860 and 1891, there were 26 sawmills altogether, mainly around Mill Point (today’s Spring Lake).

Nelson Howlett was born in Grandville but lived most of his life in Grand Haven. Like his father, Captain Robert Howlett, he was involved in the lumbering business. He was a principal officer for Munroe, Boyce & Co., a local sawmill located in Spring Lake. He owned a great deal of timber here and in northern Michigan.

Hunter Savidge came to Spring Lake, formerly known as Mill Point, in 1855 from Pennsylvania. In 1860, he partnered with Dwight Cutler and began a milling business. They bought the old Hopkins Mill and within 20 years, the Cutler & Savidge Lumber Co. of Mill Point included three large sawmills and one planning mill. It was said that Mr. Savidge worked 18 hours a day to make sure his businesses were successful.

In 1850, Tri-Cities sawmills put out 49,320,000 board feet of lumber. By 1881, after the Chicago fire, the Tri-Cities produced 191,000,000 board feet. The logging industry in the state was expected to last 500 years, but new innovations in the industry, like the circular saw , steam-powered mills, and the expansion of the railroad, led to an industry that lasted just over 60 years. By 1890, the output for the Tri-Cities was a mere 4,751,326 board feet. The logging industry had grown too large and too soon to sustain itself for very long.

The Lumbering Era, along with many other periods of our local history, can be studied at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.  As the school year is set to begin, we will be working with hundreds of local students, sharing with them the rich history of our area.  We not only host students at the museum, but we also make local history presentations in classrooms.  We are always happy to work with local teachers to assist them with their history curriculum.  We encourage educators to reach out to us and see what we can offer them.

Please stop in at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum, not only to see our Lumber Era exhibit, but all the great things the museum has to offer to the community.

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