Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Grandfather was Paul Bunyan

Nobody asked them about Paul Bunyan, for no one outside of a lumber camp had even heard of the hero until 1910. And the early woodsmen did not write their stories down. They told them, though, and so Paul Bunyan's fame spread far and wide.


Daniel Hoffman, Paul Bunyan, Last of the Frontier Demigods, 1983



Rufus Wilson, top of spar at the Gerber Sawmill, Mineral, California, circa 1925.

"My grandfather was Paul Bunyan" I know is a big claim to make, but from the stories that I heard about him when I was young sure enough made him sound like Paul Bunyan. He was Rufus Wilson, a logger, shake maker, blacksmith, saw sharpener, barber, house carpenter, well digger and I am sure that I am forgetting some of the things that he did. He was one of the last of the old time fallers in northeastern California, one of those men who felled huge ponderosas, Douglas firs and sugar pines with a double bit axe, crosscut saw and a bunch of falling wedges. My great Uncle Frank told me that "Rufe" could buck, by himself, a section of a four foot through sugar pine with a crosscut saw in under fifteen minutes. That when he was young, "Pop", as my mother and her siblings called him, never climbed through a fence, he always jumped them and that he willingly took the extra pay to climb and top spar trees in logging operations. I think I also heard that he was one of those guys who could jump up high enough, flat-footed from the floor, and flip in the air so as to drive the caulks, "corks", of his logging boots into the ceiling.

from left: Bill Glines; Martin Black on horseback; Billy Glines (Bill's son) leaning against horse; May Black Wilson (my grandmother), Rufus Wilson. Lyman Springs, California, circa 1910.

He wasn't a big man, I was told that he was no taller then 5'10". Frank told another story about the two of them deer hunting and my grandfather shot a 150lb blacktail buck way down at the bottom of Battle Creek Canyon. Frank said that they gutted the deer some and that grandpa then proceeded to "Indian" carry the buck the 15 miles back to Lyonsville. Frank said he had a hard time keeping up with him and all he had to do was carry the rifles!

Rufus married my grandmother, May Black, in 1910, she was just as tough as my grandpa, she bore him 11 children and took care of them all. She was a virtuoso on the piano and organ, everyone told me that she was a wonderful singer and that "her voice could raise the roof". Martin, the buckaroo in the photo, was Grandma's older brother. There are stories about him, too, I guess he made money as a bootlegger and ran a speakeasy during Prohibition.


Steam donkey near Lyonsville, California. Ollie Wilson at right of photo, other man is unknown. Date unknown

All the Wilson boys, Jerry, Rufus, Ollie, Tod and John were loggers and at some point in their lives had worked at the New Champion Mill in old Lyonsville. John owned a little sawmill down below Lyman Springs and I think Ollie ran one for awhile too. Ollie was a bootlegger, too, a story I heard was that he had his lumber wagon fixed up with a secret compartment to cache the liquor and once a month drove a load down the Hog's Back road to Red Bluff. About half way down to Red Bluff Ollie would meet the sheriff who would ask for some "lumber". My grandfather was heard to say about his brother Ollie, "You never see a bead of sweat on his brow or a callous on his hand, yet he makes more money in a month then I will in a lifetime." I wish that I had some photos of those boys falling trees. (When you grow up with loggers, the verb "to fell" doesn't get used a whole lot. You "fall" a tree and it "fell" in the right direction. I never heard anyone say, "Well, I'm going to fell that incense cedar today." "Fell", I suspect was too clumsy of a word to say.)

An early drawing of Paul Bunyan. Drawn by W.B. Laughead of the Red River Lumber Company.

Making those froe mallets and using the froes the other day set me to thinking about all the people I knew growing up in northeastern California and then Terry at CT Kelly Furniture had to mention Paul Bunyan to me the other day in an email. I felt that I needed to talk a little bit about the giants in my life and Paul Bunyan, too. I grew up not too far from Westwood, California where Paul Bunyan first took life in folklore writing (I know MacGillivray's poem was first) under W.B. Laughead's hand and I understand that there is a new book out on Paul Bunyan by Michael Edmonds, Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan. It sounds like an interesting read.

For those of you who love the history of logging, sawmills and conservation please check out the blog of the Forest History Society, Peeling Back the Bark. There is a lot of good stuff on there!

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