Lumber Camp Life

What follows is the W.P.A. Biography of Daniel James Bell, recorded by Minnie M. Cochrane, April 1937.

Daniel James Bell was born on a farm in Ramsey County, Minnesota, May 10, 1876. He is the son of John J. Bell and Lettie Brier Hoffman Bell.

John J. Bell was born in Providence, Rhode Island. His wife was born in St. Paul.

In 1884 the Bell family moved to Wisconsin. Daniel Bell attended the Public School at Mason, Wisconsin.

August 1892, when sixteen years old, Daniel Bell came to Little Falls attracted by the lumbering interests. For the next twenty years until 1912 he worked for the Pine Tree Lumber Company, or its subsidiary companies, in the saw mill, on the river, or in the woods. April 10, 1906, Daniel James Bell married Ida Draxten in Little Falls.

Ida Draxten is the daughter of Beaver and Bertha Reno Draxten. Beaver Draxten came to Minneapolis from Oslo, Norway in 1875. In 1876, Beaver Draxten was married in Minneapolis to Bertha Reno, who came to Minneapolis from Norway before he did. They had known each other in Norway.

Mr. Draxten worked for the Mississippi Rum River Boom Company. After the death of his wife in 1893 he came to Little Falls and continued to work for the Boom Company. He died in February 1922.

After serving his apprenticeship as “cookee”, Dan Bell became a cook and most of his reminiscences of life in the logging camps are told from that angle.

The first winter in the woods, when seventeen years old, he worked for the Cross Lake Lumber Company at Woman’s Lake. “Lots of nice pine them days. We went in and built log camps.” That winter he drove a team for $22.00 a month and board. Worked from October to January 1, when he was “paid off with $1.00 cash and time check for the balance due April 1st. Most wages were paid that way.” He walked thirty-two miles to Brainerd to “save the dollar it would have cost to ride.” The second part of the winter of 1893 and 1894 he drove a loading team for Eber and Will Beattie.

The year of 1906 he cooked for the Wilson Logging Company of Park Rapids at a camp near Itasca Park and tells of his experience as follows:

“I went in the 18th of September. March 24 came down to spring break up at Little Falls. Was married on the 10 of April, and was back cooking for the Wilson Logging Company the 24 of April cooking for crew on Wanagans.”

“We started at Two Inlet Lake, came down chain of Lakes into Fish-hook River, Shell River and Crow Wing River to Mississippi River. The drive ended July 17.”

“In the lumber camps, breakfast was served early enough so the men could walk a mile and a half to their work, and be there by day light. When we served a ‘swamping crew’ dinner was prepared in camp and hauled one and a half miles to central spot of where crew was working. Fire was then built in the open, tea boiled, and food placed around fire on the ground. Men dished this up and ate out in the open no matter how cold it was. When it was 25 to 30 degrees below zero the food would sometimes freeze on the plates before you could eat it.”

“In the woods and on the river no time was taken out for eating, except for the teamsters who had an hour off to rest their horses. ‘No talking allowed at table as it would delay the game too long.’ As soon as a man finished eating he went back to work. Worked until dark then walked back to camp for supper. ‘Sawyers received $26.00 per month, Swampers $22.00, Single Teamsters around $30.00.'”

“Some times there would be sixty to seventy men in the one room. They slept in bunks. With big crews there would be from 125 to 150 in the bunk house. At ten minutes to nine the shanty boos would call out ‘Lights out.’ At nine all must be quiet. If anyone talked, shoes would go sailing their way. Teamsters sometimes came in late. Saturday night was ‘off night.’ Then the men amused themselves with stag dances, games, etc. The camp had no doctor. If a man became very ill or was seriously injured in an accident, he was taken out to the nearest hospital. ‘There was little sickness-the outdoor life, regular hours, and good food, made the men’s resistance high. To illustrate this Mr. Bell told of how a man came into one of the camps from outside and became ill with small pox. He was sick in the general bunk room but not one man caught the small pox from him.”

“There was a ten gallon keg of water with a dipper from which all drank. The cook received $75 to $80 per month but his hours were long. One winter Mr. Bell got up at twenty minutes past two, built the fires and called the ‘cookees’ at 3:20. They were lucky if they finished the day’s work at nine P. M.”

“The cook would make twenty-five to thirty pies a day using 150 pounds of flour for a day’s cooking. On the drives they would have from forty to fifty men. Would serve breakfast at four A. M., lunch at nine, dinner at two-thirty, and supper at eight. For five summers Mr. Bell cooked at the sorting house for the Boom Crew. This house was located two and one half miles north of town. Those summers he lived in town, got up at three-fifteen, rode a bicycle out to the cook house and had breakfast ready for sixty men at five A. M. The Boom crew ate breakfast at five, lunch at nine, dinner at two, supper at seven. Part of the crew went to their homes in town for supper so there were only about forty present. Mr. Bell had a second cook and cookee to help. Was usually through and home by eight o’clock. For breakfast he served oatmeal, with milk, steaks, pancakes, cookies, doughnuts, and coffee.”

“All meals were hot. Except for breakfast they served tea instead of coffee. Pie was served three times a day. Referring to life in the lumber camps Mr. Bell said, ‘Never seen a fight in the woods all the years I was there. If they had a grievance they kept it to themselves until they reached town then they’d break out.’ ‘The real old fashioned Lumber Jack was one of the best of fellows going, good hearted and would give the shirt off his back to someone who needed it. They would do anything for you.’ There was a ‘tobacco wanagan’ or supply house which carried tobacco, patent medicines, and some clothing. These things the men would charge and have it taken out of their wages in the spring. No liquor of any kind was allowed in camp. A man who brought it in would be fired.”

After leaving the Pine Tree Lumber Company, Mr. Bell was employed eight years for Sylvester and Nichols in the candy and ice cream business and three years for the Golden Rule.

October 25, 1925 Mr. Bell bought the Mark Vertin Confectionary store which was located in the Y Block. In 1931 this store was moved to 108 N. E. First St., where Bell’s Cafe and Confectionary Store is now located (April 1937).

From 1915 to 1916 Mr. Bell served as Alderman from the Fourth Ward. Later from 1924 to 1932 he held the same office. Mr. and Mrs. Bell have no children. Mr. Bell purchased the house at 802 4th St. N. E. in 1910 and lived there until 1936 when he sold the property and moved to 107 3rd St. N. E. where Mr. and Mrs. Bell and her sister, Mrs. Hall, now reside.

This WPA biography appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter in 1999.

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