Although little remains of the logging industry in Anoka, it was once a booming business in the river town.

In spring, “the Mississippi would be filled with logs clear up to St. Cloud,” says Mike Knight, a member of the Anoka County Historical Society and the Andover City Council. The logging industry gave rise to others that spurred settlement in the area. Loggers, for their part, were sort of the “cowboys of the north woods,” says Sara Given, volunteer coordinator at the society.

Logging’s local history will be the topic when Given presents “A Logger’s Life” at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 10, at the Northtown Library in Blaine. It’s one of a handful of free presentations that the Historical Society has planned for the coming months, touching on everything from the art and music of the Civil War to the old State Hospital in Anoka.

Given got a taste of people’s interest in logging when she led a children’s activity about lumberjacks. Numerous adults showed up to hear about the historical aspects, so she decided to put together a more in-depth program.

At the Jan. 10 event, she will draw from such materials as a firsthand account about living conditions at a logging camp, historic photos and relics such as a cant hook, a tool that the loggers used to maneuver the large-cut trees.

Maine was an early logging hotbed, but by 1840, loggers from that state arrived in Minnesota and Wisconsin, as their timber supply was depleted. “They shifted west, to where the trees were,” Given said.

At first in Anoka, logs were sent down the Mississippi via the Rum River, bound for Minneapolis. After a dam was built on the Rum River in 1853, it made way for sawmills, woodworking plants and cooper’s shops (barrel makers), the Historical Society says.

Logging also was a catalyst for other industries that sprang up in the area. “Without this search for timber and lumber, the city of Anoka may not have been settled when it was,” Given said.

Early on, or between the 1850s and 1860s, some “trees would have been cut closer to the area of Anoka and processed.” When the area’s supply ran out, people kept pushing northward to cut down trees and send them downriver to be processed in Anoka or Minneapolis, Given said.

Anoka’s George Atwood, who served as the president of the Historical Society at one point, chronicled his experience at a logging camp in Itasca County in 1913.

He wrote: “One had to be strong and rugged to withstand the rigour of the life of a lumberjack, of hard work, long hours out in the cold air,” which often dropped down to subzero temperatures.

In fact, if the men didn’t eat their lunch fast enough, the food would freeze in place on their plates, Given said.

Floating highways

Knight, of the Historical Society, is well versed on the topic, as his dad and grandpa were lumberjacks in Grand Rapids.

From northern Minnesota, the rivers became “floating highways,” he said. In the springtime, the Rum River, like the Mississippi, would be filled with logs.

“Logs would jam up because of the current and mud and ice,” Knight said.

They’d get so jammed that it would block everything for miles. “It was a huge job, floating them down the river and separating them,” he said.

In her program, Given plans to discuss the “river pigs,” or the workers whose job it was to keep things moving. They “would be up there on the river with poles, with spikes on the end of them, like soccer cleats,” Given explained. “They’d balance on the logs and break up the logjams and get the logs moving down the river,” she added.

Other jobs also arose. Through the years, logging naturally led to the development of sawmills — at one point four sawmills lined the Rum River — along with lumberyards, transportation companies, furniture stores and other businesses — “a web of interconnected jobs,” Given said.

By the 1920s, as timber dwindled, Anoka had a flour mill and starch, shoe and milk factories, “so businesses were still expanding and growing” beyond the logging industry, she said.

Today, the sawmills are gone, but some of the manufacturers or their buildings are still around in some form. For example, the building that once housed the Old Milk Bottle Factory in downtown Anoka is now occupied by the Hope 4 Youth drop-in center and a number of businesses, Given said.

The River City Saloon fills the old Thurston Brothers furniture store, which Edwin and Fred Thurston opened around 1890.

Lyle Bradley of Anoka, a retired biology teacher and former vice chair of the Historical Society’s board, said evidence of logging in the area could also be seen in what is no more. “Some old trees that were cut down have left spots … you can find areas where the trees were located, in the spring and summer,” he said.

However, the white pines that were replenished are finally starting to grow back, he said.

 

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.