According to thirteen-year-old Ben Ward’s father, lumberjacks look forward to two things: mealtime and springtime. In the winter of 1898, Ben leaves school for a job as a cook’s assistant to his father at the Blackwater Logging Camp. As Ben spends long hours peeling potatoes and frying flapjacks, he dreams of working in the woods with the other men, felling trees, driving a team, and skidding timber.
While enduring a long, cold winter in a camp filled with outlandish characters, as well as an orphan boy named Nevers, Ben comes to understand himself and his family’s past. Peppered throughout with heart and humorand including a glossary and afterword with facts about loggingBlackwater Ben paints a vivid picture of the north woods of Minnesota at the end of the nineteenth century.
About the Author
William Durbin is a former high school and college English teacher and the award-winning author of ten novels, including The Broken Blade, Until the Last Spike, Song of Sampo Lake (Minnesota, 2011), and The Darkest Evening (Minnesota, 2011). He lives on Lake Vermilion at the edge of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Read an Excerpt
Daylight in the Swamp
Blackwater Logging Camp, 1898
"Daylight in the swamp!" Pa yelled. Ben groaned and turned over. Pa's voice had two volumes: loud and louder. Ben squinted in the lantern light. Pa's square shoulders filled the doorway of the bunk room. "Roll out or roll up," he said.
Ben scrambled to pull on his wool pants and socks. Before he had tied his boots, he heard Pa lift the lid of the kitchen range and chuck in a stick of wood. "Hey, cookee, our bread will never rise if we don't get it warmed up in here," Pa called.
Ben buttoned his shirt and looked at his pocket watch. It was quarter past four. His eyes burned from woodsmoke as he stepped from the bunk room into the kitchen. He hurried over and added wood to the potbellied stove. Then he filled a washbasin from the pail of water on top of the range and splashed his hands and face. But when he reached for a towel, Pa said, "Don't forget the soap."
The second cook's helper, Skip, smirked like he always did whenever Pa corrected Ben.
Ben hustled to the counter to help. "About time you got here." Pa didn't look up from the bean pot he was stirring. "Ain't you forgetting something?"
"I washed my hands."
When Ben saw Skip grin again, he remembered that he hadn't put on his apron. "Sorry, Pa," Ben said, reaching for the wooden rack where they hung the towels and aprons.
"Sorry won't cut it if these lumberjacks get sick from a dirty kitchen." Pa wouldn't let Ben or Skip near the food without scrubbing their hands and tying on their aprons, and he insisted that they wear white shirts. "I seen cookees come straight from the barn without washing. We ain't gonna havethat in this camp."
"It wasn't like I was out feeding the horses," Ben said, knowing it was wrong to argue but not being able to stop himself.
"You forgot the rules."
"Everybody in this cookshack follows my rules." Pa set down his spoon. "Am I clear?" Pa had learned his cooking in the army, and he was a stickler for rules. Skip was grinning bigger now.
"Yes, sir," Ben said.
"What are the two questions a jack always asks before he signs on at a logging camp?" Pa asked. Pa was one of the few lumberjacks without a beard, and his clean-shaven jaw was tight. His hair was neatly parted down the middle and slicked back.
"Well?" Pa said.
Skip jumped in. "He asks, 'Who's the cook?'"
"And 'Who's the foreman?'" Ben added.
"Say push, stupid, not foreman," Skip said.
"That's right," Pa said, putting the lid back on the bean pot. "Nobody wants to spend a winter in the woods with a dirty hash slinger or an ornery push. There's only two things these jacks can look forward to: mealtime and springtime."
"And mealtime comes a whole lot sooner," Skip said, finishing one of Pa's favorite sayings.
"Which is what makes our job so important," Pa added, beaming.
No matter how often Pa told Ben to be proud of his cookee's duties, greasing pans, frying flapjacks, cleaning lamp chimneys, and washing dishes were not Ben's idea of important jobs. Last fall when Pa asked Ben to work at the Blackwater Logging Camp, Ben had imagined himself felling giant pines and driving a four-horse team. So far the closest he'd gotten to holding reins was tying his apron strings.
Ben started the oatmeal boiling and opened a gallon-sized can of stewed prunes. The men called prunes logging berries, and they insisted on having them at every meal. Baked beans were also served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ben set four pans of sowbelly in the oven to brown. Then he helped Pa mix up the batter for his sourdough flapjacks, known as sweat pads.
As soon as breakfast was ready, Pa said, "Fetch me the Gabriel horn." Ben took down the five-foot-long tin horn from its hook on the log wall and handed it to Pa. Steam rushed in as Pa stepped through the door and blew into the bugle-style mouthpiece.
Before the third blast had echoed over the clearing, the bunkhouse door swung open and Packy Peloquin stepped out. Tucking in his wool shirt and tying a bright red sash around his middle--the other lumberjacks wore suspenders--Packy trotted toward the cookshack. "Look who's up," Pa said, knowing that Packy was the first in line for every meal. He was barely five feet tall, but he ate so much that Pa teased him about having a hollow leg.
Unlike most of the jacks, Packy was always friendly. "Bon jour, Benjamin," he said, smiling, but the moment he stepped inside the cookshack, he was quiet. The jacks were allowed to wave an empty platter and call for more food, but table talk was forbidden. Anyone who violated Pa's rule missed the next meal.
Skip was scraping the fried spuds onto a platter, and Ben was about to scoop the last batch of doughnuts out of the big cast-iron frying pan when he heard a yell out the back door. "Was that Pa?" Ben asked.
"He just stepped outside to go to the root cellar," Skip said. "I hope he didn't hurt hisself."
Ben was used to Pa's shouting, but the only time he had heard Pa yell that loudly was when he'd plowed over a wasps' nest.
Skip pushed the back door open and ran to the root cellar.
Ben lit a lantern and followed. At the cellar, he heard Skip say, "I'm real sorry, Mr. Ward. I meant to close the syrup spigot, but--"
"But nothing!" Pa roared.
Ben noticed a sweet scent as he walked down the steps. Pa's face was flushed, and amber liquid dripped from his hands. He'd tripped and fallen into an inch-deep puddle of maple syrup.
"I'll teach you a lesson." Pa grabbed at Skip, and the cookee trampled Ben's feet as he ran up the stairs. "Come back here, you laggard pup."
"Don't, Pa," Ben called, but Pa brushed past him. Ben raced up the steps and out of the cellar, but Skip was already scooting into the cookshack with Pa only two strides behind. "Pa," Ben yelled, but he might as well have been shouting at the wall.
Table of Contents
Logging Camp Glossary, or Lumberjack Lingo x
1 Daylight in the Swamp Blackwater Logging Camp, 1898 1
2 Winter Dreams 7
3 Gosintas 16
4 The Bull Cooks Theories 19
5 A Trip to the Dentist 24
6 Needlenose and the Swingdingle 29
7 The Iron Burner 39
8 Dishes and Devil's Cups 48
9 Early Snow 51
10 Under Tar Paper Again 54
11 The Photograph 57
12 Nevers and the Sissy Sticks 64
13 The Hospital Fund 71
14 Highball Logging 77
15 Charlie's Story, or Punting on the Cherwell 83
16 The Deacon's Bench 89
17 The Sky Hook 97
18 The Norwegian Helper and How One Monkey Got Sent Down the Road 102
19 Jiggers Jumps Again 106
20 Christmas and the Good Sisters, or The Nun and the Blue Butts 110
21 To the Races: Graybacks and Jacks 115
22 Boiling Up 123
23 Love and Lemon Pie 126
24 One-Plug Prince and the Tote-Road Shagamaw 133
25 Weather Boy 139
26 Felled by a Blue Butt 146
27 The Coldest Day 151
28 Snow Snakes and Hodags 155
29 A Soggy Outfit 161
30 The Two-Day Blow 167
31 A Sunday Fling 170
32 The Promise of Town 181
Logging History Resources 198
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
My friend junier reads this during SIT SHUTUP AND READ
I loved this book. I liked how much I got to see about how a logging camp works. My favorite person was the dentist. He didn't bathe for years and years.... it was really funny.