Wednesday, March 18, 2009

UP NORTH


Yesterday, I mentioned my maternal great-grandfather was from Ireland, and my maternal grandfather from northern Michigan. Fellow blogger, birdwatcher, and Michigander, Shelley, left a comment about the stories my granddad would have had from his working days as “barn boss” in the lumber camps. It started me thinking of some of the stories I’m heard from my mother about those times, so I thought I’d reminisce a little more today.

The UP (as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is called) at the turn of the previous century was rich in resources – iron, copper, and white pine. As a barn boss in the early 1900s, my grandfather was in charge of the horse teams that the men took out to the camps, to haul the felled trees. I’m not completely clear on where they hauled them too. It might have been to a river; it may have been directly to town for processing, or both. The town, called Nahma, was/is a small one, with only about 1,000 people in its heyday, but it had a mill and a tall mysterious tower – the bark burner – that I loved as a kid spending summer there on the shores of Bay de Noc. Wherever they took the trees, the lumbermen would have spent a lot of time out in the woods, and the horses with them.

My grandfather was also what passed for a vet in those days. There were no veterinary degrees back then, no formal schooling of any kind up north. There was just hand-me-down horse-handler’s wisdom that probably went back to the very shores of Ireland. My grandfather kept a notebook; I looked through it when I was young. It contained all his cures and recipes for horse ointments and restoratives – treatments for all manner of horse ailments. The names of the ingredients were as strange and exotic as the colloquial names of the diseases. And all were written in the popular Spencerian script of the day, a surprisingly delicate, almost feminine hand for a rugged man of the woods. Other pages of his book were filled with inventories about hay and other blacksmith sundries.

I still have a recipe for a hearty pea soup, handed down from my grandmother. The story goes that they would make up big vat of this soup, and then they’d let it freeze in blocks that were taken out to the winter camps. When it came time to eat, the lumberjacks would simply saw off a chunk, throw it in a pot with a little water, and make themselves a hot meal. After my grandmother died, my grandfather came to live with us. He was up in his 80s then, and I was about 8 or 9, and was not really interested in what he might have had to say, so almost everything a remember comes from my mother. Some mornings she would ask me, “Did you hear grandpa last night, driving the teams in his sleep?” She told me she could hear him calling out “Git-up” or “Haw,” but I never heard him. Sometimes it seems like I did, but I think it was only from her telling me; memories can be like that.



Photo of Nahma bark burner at http://hunts-upguide.com/nahma_peninsula.html

9 comments:

hitch writer said...

as kids maybe we didnt realise... wouldnt it be wonderful to prick your grand pa's ears and hear stories of his days !!...

Shellmo said...

I'm so glad you posted more information about your grandfather! I'm always fascinated to hear about history - especially in Michigan. Did your family keep his notebook? At 8 or 9 years old - I think we are more concerned with getting fed and loved. When we get older - then I think we develop a interest in our family history. I had gotten some of my grandfather's history just a few years before he passed (he was born in Lebanon) - and now I wished I would've asked even more questions.

Lin said...

there's probably town or county histories of that time that will give more details. I would be nice for you to write down this memories with a few photos and capture your grandparents histories.

Indrani said...

Grandpas, they always had stories to tell! Wish I had recorded then... now only a vague memory.

It was interesting reading yours.

Beth P. said...

Dear Deborah--
Thank you for these reminiscences--the stories are everything!

Love the info about your grandfather being a country 'vet'.

Very heart warming!

bobbie said...

this was a great post. I love hearing this sort of thing - now. When I was little, like you, I pretty much tuned it out. My grandparents had all died before I was born, but my mother told me stories, which I half-listened to.
My youngest has told me that there are many things she does not know if she remembers or if she only knows them from my words or from pictures. If only everyone wrote down all the family history. (Or at least made notes on the backs of old photographs.)

Sylvia K said...

Love your looking back at memories. I guess all of us can look back and see places where it would have been fun to ask questions, to learn more. I never knew my grandfather on my mother's side, but I always loved my grandfather on my father's side. He had what was unusual for that time, a college degree! He had a dry wit and lived in a little town, in Texas called Hico. He and my grandmother had a beautiful old home and it's still there, though doesn't belong to the family any longer. I guess what amazed me the most is when I married my kids Dad, who was black -- well, actually he still is -- and that was in the 60s, my grandfather welcomed us into his home so he could meet David. My grandmother had died by then -- she would never have allowed it and a couple of uncles were adamant about not having me, let alone David, in their houses. But over the years my cousins have been very supportive and they love my kids so that's all that matters and all those grumpy old farts are dead now anyway. Hope they had to stand in the same line at the Pearly Gates with the black folks! Don't misunderstand me, I'm not angry or bitter, just think it's rather amusing particularly these days when we have a black president!

Quiet Paths said...

I loved this picturesque essay - complete with pea soup. Having visited the UP once I can envision some of the camps. What wonderful stuff history is; especially one's own linage. I am glad you writing some of this down. Both sets of my grandparents used to haul ice off the river by buggy and store it in the ice house before electricity was delivered to the rural MT communities.

Rose said...

Oh, I loved this post and the one before....love hearing personal history from someone I 'know.' It is so much better than the biography of a famous person.

Oh, thanks for the name of the American Coots...my husband thought it might be them but I just didn't have the inclination to look it up last night. If no one had replied, I probably would have today.