Don’t call ’em lumberjacks, they’re wood hicks

Sitting among his collection of logging artifacts and a model of a West Virginia logging town, Rich Pawling, of Rich Pawling History Alive!, plays mandolin as he sings a Ralph Stanley song during the Cass Logging Days Sunday. Pawling told the history of wood hicks and life in logging towns like the one at the former town of Spruce near Cass. S. Stewart photo
Sitting among his collection of logging artifacts and a model of a West Virginia logging town, Rich Pawling, of Rich Pawling History Alive!, plays mandolin as he sings a Ralph Stanley song during the Cass Logging Days Sunday. Pawling told the history of wood hicks and life in logging towns like the one at the former town of Spruce near Cass. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

The first annual Cass Logging Days may have gotten off to a rocky start this year as weather conditions prevented the Cogar Family from demonstrating timbersports events, but visitors got an earful from Rich Pawling, of Rich Pawling’s History Alive! about the life of a wood hick.

Pawling, a former college professor, was inspired to bring history to life to engage his students in learning.

His first attempt was when he was teaching about the industrial revolution. Dressed as a coal miner, Pawling entered the classroom and treated the students as if they were new recruits at a mine.

“I came into class like this, and I said to these kids ‘ya say you come for work? Well you’re late!’” Pawling said. “‘Get your butt down in this coal mine at six o’clock in the morning. You come in here at ten ever again, I’ll see you never get a job in these parts. You understand me boy?’’’

That performance met with mixed reviews –  some students got it and enjoyed the lesson, others acted as if he had lost his mind. Regardless of the outcome, Pawling found his calling and soon took on the persona of a West Virginia wood hick.

“That’s the way of connecting this,” he said, pointing to his miner’s hat – “material culture with the current, and you build it through present to past. That connection brings understanding, if they want to buy in.”

Pawling finished getting into character by placing a handful of tobacco in his cheek.

“This is going to keep the hunger pains off of you at dinnertime,” he said of the tobacco. “You eat a big breakfast and head up into the woods. A log camp cook described feeding one hundred wood hicks a breakfast – fifteen gallons of oatmeal, five hundred biscuits, three to four big hams, twenty gallons of coffee and three hundred eggs, and don’t forget the cakes, pies, prunes and other things.

“Someone said the other day, eight thousand calories is what they wanted in the morning,” he continued. “When it was time to eat in the dining hall, this is serious business. You don’t sit there and talk about what happened in West Virginia last night. You get in, you get ‘er done, and you get out.”

After a large breakfast, the men had two hours before heading out to the woods to cut timber. The men would either sleep, or sit on the front porch “spinning a yarn.”

This recreation time was also a time for wood hicks to break in the new boys. There was some slight hazing to make sure they were prepared for the task at hand. There wasn’t room for hesitant or soft wood hicks.

“They pounded him down because when we go on that mountain – don’t you sit there and say to the foreman, ‘I don’t want to do that,’” Pawling said. “When that tree is ready to drop, and ‘tim-ber’ is yelled, and he’s standing with his arms crossed, they’ll bury you up in that Cheat Mountain. You better know how to work here boy or your butt’s flying. That’s how they broke them down.

“That’s what created West Virginia mountaineers,” he continued. “Mountain people. There’s nothing wrong with mountain people. I think a whole bunch of people today would be better off knowing what they are, and maybe we wouldn’t have some of this bologna out here.”

Being a wood hick was a dangerous job, using equipment that could easily harm or kill a man, but Pawling said the danger didn’t just rest in the tools of the trade. The men wore cork boots – boots with spikes in the soles which allowed them to get traction on the logs.

“You get intoxicated and the wrong guy knocks your lights out. I heard the story of what is called a wood hick’s tattoo,” Pawling said. “You take the boot and on their back, stomp that sucker.”

As Pawling explains the boots, he continues to call them “cauks” because that was the dialect of wood hicks. Many of the men came to West Virginia from New England and brought their accents with them.

“I pronounce them different than they’re spelled,” he said. “You have to understand, there’s immigration patterns that took place there. Out of Maine came a lot of wood hicks. They spilled into the Adirondacks to New York, dipped down into Pennsylvania, skedaddled down into West Virginia.”

After the men were fed and outfitted with their wood hick attire, they ascended Cheat Mountain and timbered.

As Pawling explained the process, he pulled out tool after tool which were specific to each step.

“What do you got to do out in the woods?,” he said. “Well first thing, you’ve got to do, you’ve got to drop it. The tool of choice for dropping is right here. This is your favorite tool. This is a double head axe. You had to put a notch into the tree. So you notch it and then, we go get a crosscut saw.”

With the crosscut saw, it was important to have a partner you worked well with because the rhythm of the back and forth was important to getting a good solid cut.

Once the tree is down, the next step is to remove the limbs and any debris around the tree.

“We have what is called a knot bumper, and he better have them shoes on with spikes because he’s going down, whacking off the limbs,” Pawling said. “You have others called brush hogs, and they clean out the greenbrier, too. You don’t want – when that things falling and you’re running, that greenbrier is liked barbed wire – it’ll hang you there.”

Next, the tree is sectioned off into 16 foot logs, then the hostler or teamster comes out with two horses that will pull the logs down out of the mountain to the train.

“You have two big horses,” Pawling said. “They can be draft horses – sixteen or seventeen feet tall – or Percherons. They weigh anywhere from fifteen hundred to two thousand pounds. The only way you are going to survive these critters is, you better be the boss. You cannot allow them to take over. So you’ll work them.”

The logs are put on flats, the same cars that are used today as passenger cars on the Cass Scenic Railroad. For each train load taken off the mountain, there is at least one wood hick who goes with the logs to make sure they don’t roll off the car.

“You’ve got corks on, and you better know how to use them because if you don’t have them, you’ll fall,” Pawling said. “You’ve got to do three car loads of logs. You jump from one to the other. Let’s say it’s snowing like crazy. They’re freezing their butt off until they get down here. It’s going to get warm as you come down here, but up there, you’re over four thousand feet. I read accounts of guys whose legs froze.”

The last tool was used to move the logs from stacks or the cars in order to get them to the sawmill.

“This is what is called a peavy,” he said. “This helps you, once it’s rolling, keep it rolling. This can help you when you want to pry up your logs already stacked. This will flip them over. This is an incredible tool. I use it at my home.”

As he spoke of the lives and jobs of wood hicks, Pawling carried himself with great pride because that is what those men had. They worked hard and were proud to say they were wood hicks.

“Out in Michigan, they call themselves a logger or a lumberjack,” he said. “Don’t ever say that to me again boy. You is a hick and that’s a compliment. That’s like saying to a Marine, ‘you’re a jarhead.’ That’s the common term for what you are.”

While “hick” has gained a negative connotation, Pawling said it was a pride thing because it was a step up from being called poor.

Pawling ended his presentation singing a Ralph Stanley song, while accompanying himself on the mandolin.

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