THE FARM SLEIGH

THE CONTRARIAN

Some of you old-timers remember it – a little house called a caboose, mounted on a sleigh and pulled behind the horses to get you to town without freezing, in the days before they bothered with things like snowplows. Inside was a miniature tin stove, with a miniature tin stovepipe, and your dad cut up some miniature little sticks of wood to burn in it.  And if nobody was paying attention, you could feed enough sticks into that little stove to turn it red hot, maybe even melt it but somebody always spotted you before you got that far.  Maybe even made you walk behind for a ways as punishment.  Remember, too, it didn’t take much wood – you could put enough in your pockets to melt that little stove.

When you got a bit bigger, you worked on hauling wood on that same sleigh, with the little house removed. The standard model sleigh for heavy work was quite rugged, with four, steel-shod runners, mounted in pairs in a somewhat flexible fashion on each end of a sturdy bunk.  The front bunk was equipped with a tongue, a long pole which extended up between the two horses which pulled and steered the thing.  Every farm had at least one such sleigh, many purchased like so much of life’s necessities from the Eaton’s catalog.

The sleigh could carry a grain box or hay rack as well as a caboose, and these could also be used on the farm wagon, which was similar but obviously had four iron-clad wheels instead of runners, and which also might have come from Eaton’s catalog.

Wood for the paper mill was generally cut in winter, by woodworkers and by farmers from as far as Saskatchewan who might have needed some winter work and the extra cash that meant, spending the winter in camps scattered around Wabigoon Lake. The time-honoured method was to cut in a ‘strip’, working on a front perhaps one chain wide.  The stumps would be cut extra short down the middle to form a road, and the wood piled by hand in one-cord piles on each side of that road.  The trees along the front would be felled in a criss-cross pattern and bucked with the trusty ‘swede saw’ into 4 foot or 8 foot lengths, depending on the contract.  The idea was to have the tops and branches end up outside those piles, and the bole of the tree as close as possible to those piles to reduce carrying them to the minimum.  The piles were accurately made and were the basis of the workers’ pay.  The end result was a road, or trail, with one cord piles spaced along it.  Teamsters with sleighs would collect these piles and they would be dumped on the lake ice to be towed to the mill in summer.

Also in those days before snowplows, the paper mill would purchase wood from settlers own homesteads, delivered to the mill by those same horse-drawn sleighs. Wood which had been debarked in summer was stockpiled for winter use as the de-barking operation was outside and had to shut down in winter.  The local farm wood would be stockpiled on the river ice and could be debarked and used in spring when the wood stockpiled the previous year was gone, but the debarkers could start up and the lake was still ice-covered so new camp wood could not get to the mill.

So the mill depended on the settlers for wood for the spring season when the outdoor debarkers could work, but the lake was still frozen so they could not bring their own wood down by tugboat. And the settlers depended on the mill for this winter work and ready cash.  In those days the rural population handily outnumbered that in town, and this kind of mutual dependency was helpful in maintaining some sense of community.

The Johnson skidder

Things changed as time went by. We began to plow the rural roads in winter, which made it possible to use trucks for the haul into Dryden, much smaller trucks than we see hauling wood now. Dryden’s own Henry Johnson invented the ‘Johnson Forwarder’, a large clam mounted on the back of a small bulldozer which could go down that bush trail on the strip, back up to those neat one cord piles, and pick each up one at a time and carry it out to the main road or a clearing where it could be loaded on trucks, cutting out the haul on a sleigh.

The advent of the gasoline-powered chainsaw, replacing the hand-operated swede saw, made ‘gypo’ cutting more practical than the strip cutting described above. Both involved felling the tree and trimming the branches and top.  Strip cutting then meant bucking it up into cordwood sticks and building neat one-cord piles, which horses and sleigh (or a Johnson Forwarder) would transport out to a point accessible to a truck.  Gypo meant the trees were limbed and topped but not bucked where they fell, each individual stem (or several together if they were very small) would be dragged by a horse out to a clearing made for the purpose, called a landing, where they could be efficiently bucked with a chainsaw.  The result was bigger piles less easily identified as the work of a particular workman, perhaps that is the origin of the term ‘gypo’  This meant the horses were still at work, skidding out those stems, but the sleigh was no longer needed, and the Johnson Forwarder was obsolete before it really caught on.

Meanwhile things were changing fast on the farm, as tractors replaced horses, and trucks replaced sleighs. I remember our little 1954 Ford tractor was almost as useful as a horse in skidding out trees.  A Quebec farmer mounted two such tractors but with the front axle and wheels removed, in tandem creating an articulated four wheel drive machine; I believe this to be the first rubber-tired mechanical skidder.  Soon a plethora of skidder designs became available; our own company had a hand in these forestry developments; our History Society has a paper prepared by our own Gordon Franklin on this subject.  So the horse followed the sleigh, no longer needed in the bush, replaced by a machine designed to drag the tree to a point where it could be loaded on a truck.

Part of the new mill built in the 50’s was indoor debarkers, and this along with use of trucks meant the mill was no longer dependent on the settlers for their spring wood supply. The settlers had served the mill by boarding its bush horses in summer, and as the horses disappeared from the mill woods operation this tie too was severed.

There had been a rural-urban split on our community since the ‘municipal wars’ – Town of Dryden carved out of the older Municipality of the Township of Van Horne in 1910, townsfolk versus rural dwellers. As the settlers became farmers rather than woodsmen, and the mill no longer needed them as in days of horse, this split deepened, still exists, and is one of the things that hold our district back from its full potential.  Just a Contrarian opinion.

 

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