His four kids are grown now. But when they were in grade school, John Rolle would take their science classes out to the woods where his crew was felling trees, cleaning off limbs and getting the timber ready to haul to mills in International Falls, Bemidji and Cloquet.
“We’d cook hot dogs and show ’em stuff.”
Contrast that with the image some people have of loggers, wreaking havoc on Minnesota’s beloved forests.
“We’re kind of stereotyped as these big monsters, and we’re not,” he said. “I don’t know why we’re so misunderstood down there in the Twin Cities area because I believe we’re the true stewards of the land.”
They harvest aging timber, clean out acres of storm blowdown “so the woods are pristine again” and plant more than they cut.
He says trees are like people.
“When you get to 80, you become more susceptible to diseases, you’re on the downward slide and you die. Same thing with wood.”
Last fall, Rolle was invited to a meeting at a logging industry seminar in Tower. Unlike previous years, the Forest Resources Association didn’t tip off the winner of its Outstanding Logger from the region. When they announced his name, he turned to Mike Anderson, who’s been his so-called delimber for 25 years.
“I just said, ‘Jeez, that’s us.’ ”
Unlike many modern loggers who descend from generations of lumberjacks, Rolle was the first in his family to make a living in the woods. His mom’s Yugoslavian father ran a bar in Chisholm. His dad’s Italian father got killed in a mining accident on the Iron Range.
His father, Dario, mixed concrete by hand in the back of a pickup truck after serving in World War II. The oldest of five kids, Rolle graduated from Chisholm High School in 1972 and tried Hibbing Community College.
“I did OK in school but just loved being out in the woods,” he said.
Working construction in the 1970s, he started logging in the winters. Next thing he knew, he bought a couple of cable skidders. Thirty years later, John Rolle Logging has 10 employees.
Winters are busiest, working six days a week from Thanksgiving until April when the frozen ground makes it easier to get to the aspen, pine, spruce, balsam and hardwoods.
With 70 days below zero in Chisholm this winter, and diesel prices “so outrageous we were looking at $20,000 a week,” Rolle said logging isn’t as fun as it once was and the margins have shrunk. When the housing market crashed in 2007, three board plants shuttered in Cook, Grand Rapids and Bemidji.
“Like any business,” he said, “when you’re the owner, it pretty much consumes you.”