Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

During the early days of lumbering in Pennsylvania, small water-powered, up-and­-down sawmills were located wherever the best trees stood in the stream valleys. Only the best, most accessible trees were cut and hauled to the mill by oxen or horses or occasionally floated on the stream which powered the mill. The saw­ed boards were then carried out of the woods on wagons or sleds to villages where they were sold or floated downriver on rafts to growing markets in growing cities. The hewn-stone foun­dations of many of these old mills still exist, their age attested to by the size of the trees growing from the sites.

Early lumbermen firmly believed that the forests would never be completely cut and often established small farms (some of the clearings exist to this day) so that their sons could live near their work. A glimpse of what the forest was like and an insight into the monumental tasks that faced those who first attemp­ted to harvest the timber can be obtained by a visit to Heart’s Content in southern Warren County. This 120-acre tract, conveyed to the National Forestry Ser­vice by the Wheeler family, contains an untouched stand of virgin white pine and hemlock interspersed with huge maples and beeches.

The coming of the railroad, however, greatly altered the harvesting of the timber and signaled the end of the virgin forests. Though often eclipsed by the mining and steel industries, the boom period of lumbering in Penn­sylvania (roughly 1885 to 1930) was a period of great prosperity in the big woods. Several hundred lumbering com­panies operated permanently located sawmills that utilized logging railroads to haul the timber from the woods to the mills. Many of these railroads were small operations with only a few miles of rickety track and worn out, third- or fourth-hand equipment. Some, however, maintained extensive perma­nent trackage of forty to fifty miles or more, with temporary spur tracks of a mile or so laid up the tributary stream valleys or hollows in order to reach the timber. Once the lumber was harvested, these temporary spurs would then be taken up and laid elsewhere.

Representative of the best of these operations was the Wheeler and Dusenberry Lumber Company, which flourished in Forest County and southern Warren County for over 100 years (1837-1939) but reached its apex in the boom years of the early 1900s. Dur­ing this period, the “Company” as it was called in that region (and still is by old-timers), operated two large mills at Endeavor, a smaller mill at Newtown (now a ghost town), four farms and several lumber camps. The entire opera­tion was linked together and serviced by approximately fifty miles of railroads utilized primarily for transporting logs but which also hauled supplies from the farms to the camps and also provided passenger service.

Hunters, hikers and fishermen often find material evidence of this and other logging railroads. Many of the grades exist with the indentations of ties still visible. Railroad spikes, pieces of rail, Shay or Heisler brake shoes or other parts are easily found along with fragments of other equipment, saws, axes, chains and horseshoes. Especially horseshoes, for the horses and the men who drove them, the teamsters, provid­ed a vital link in moving the logs from where they had been felled to the railroad.

Depending on the topography, the size of the timber stand and availability of access, whenever possible the railroad spurs would be laid up the tributary valleys close to the timber. The logs would then be dragged or “skidded” downhill to a “landing” or loading area beside the track. Skidding logs was hard work both for the team of horses and the teamster. Gradually a skidway or skid road would be worn into the hillside as log after log, sometimes three or more fastened together by short chains and grabs (hooks driven into the logs), would be pulled downhill to the landing. Such skidways are easily seen on north­western Pennsylvania hills, especially when a light snowfall helps make outlines more visible. At the landing the logs would be rolled up small timbers by loaders who used cant hooks or peaveys and muscle, then chained them in place on the cars. Later, steam-powered cranes lifted the logs to the cars.

Sometimes when the company owned a tract of timber and could not feasibly build a railroad to it, the logs were haul­ed in the winter using sleds. Occasionally wagons were used, but the bobsled could safely carry a much heavier load without the danger of breakdown. Such hauls covered from a mile to three or four miles, in contrast to the shorter skid hauls of several hundred yards at most.

The number of logs on a load was determined by the size of the logs. Often three made a load: two on the bottom and one on top. With smaller logs, as many as twelve or eighteen (especially dry pine) were hauled.

Old timers, talking about the various lumber camps and jobs that they had held in the camp, give some insights into the relative merits of the duties performed. All of them had cut logs, some had been swampers (they cleared skid trails, moved brush aside, provided access to the logs), some were loaders, some worked on the railroads, some were saw filers, some peeled bark (removed hemlock. bark in the spring and summer for the tanneries), some were cooks and helpers in the camps, but a certain note or ring of pride would sound in the voice when one said, “I drove team on that job.”

Dewey Kiffer, who started driving team in 1914 when he was sixteen years old, describes it this way:

Anyone, well almost anyone, could pull on the end of a cross-cut saw; almost anyone could learn to swing an axe; anyone could peel potatoes or wash dishes or fasten chains or drive grabs; but not everyone could drive team – that is, really get along with the horses and get them to work for him. You had to take care of the horses, too, both out in the woods and in the barn.

When asked about the types of horses used in the woods, Dewey’s response was, “Size was what mattered; you tried to match big heavy horses with heavy jobs and lighter teams with lighter jobs. A big heavy team could hold back more going downhill, too.”

Most teamsters, though they rarely owned horses, took a real pride in the appearance of the team and spent con­siderable money and more time keeping the team looking good. Even though the horses and harnesses were owned by the company or by a subcontractor or “job­ber,” the teamster soon made his mark on the team by braiding ribbons into manes and tails and by fastening his per­sonal sets of white celluloid rings onto the harness and bridles. The custom of decorating harness with straps of in­terlocking celluloid rings was so widespread that when the boss wanted to fire a teamster or otherwise indicate to him that the job was finished, he said, “You better take your rings off that harness.” Likewise, a teamster who decided to quit a job didn’t say a word; instead, he just started unbuckling his straps of rings.

John Kiffer recalls one such incident while he was driving team for Robert MacMillen, a jobber who operated several lumber camps and subcontracted for Wheeler and Dusenberry:

It was around 1904. I had gone down to gel a load of hay for the camp and had to weigh it on the Company scales at Endeavor. Someone drove a wagon in front of my team so I had to back up before turning to the side and driving off the scales. I was backing the team and cramping the wheels when the drag bit into the wooden platform of the scales and over she went. I jumped clear and wasn’t hurt but there was the wagon on its side and hay everywhere. Just then old Bob came around the bend in his buggy and saw what had happened. He didn’t let me explain, just came over to where I was and said, “Start taking your rings off.” I knew what he meant so not another word was said. He sent me my time on Friday.

The drag mentioned by John was a device to help a teamster and the wagon on a steep hill. Nothing more than a short heavy plank tipped with an iron edge and hinged or pinned to the wagon undercarriage, the drag bounced or dragged along the dirt road under the wagon. When the teamster stopped to rest the horses on a long climb, the drag bit into the ground and held the wagon – something the brakes couldn’t be trusted to do. Going downhill, the brakes and the team could usually hold the wagon back; but the teamster going downhill on a sled in the winter had to have some help.

Sometimes drastic measures were call­ed for. Dewey tells of one such situation:

My first job was hauling pulpwood down Long Hollow to the Wheeler and Dusenberry railroad that ran along Queen Creek. I drove a little pair of bay horses. The pulpwood was from some old chestnut trees that had died when the blight first struck. The other men loaded the sled; it was a big bobsled with wooden shod runners, not even iron run­ners, and I drove the loads to the siding. There was one real steep pitch on the road and they fastened a long chain to the back of the sled, took a wrap around a tree, and payed out the chain to let me down the steep hill.

Anyone walking up an old logging road hill will observe holes or depres­sions of varying sizes beside the road­ways. Some of these are quite good­-sized, especially on a road that was used for several years. These holes or depres­sions show where the “road monkeys” had dug dirt and gravel to spread in the sled runner tracks to slow the sleds. A heavy load of logs running on iron run­ners in an icy track was most difficult to control and teamsters often relied on the “road monkeys.” The dirt and gravel really helped.

In response to the question, “Was driving team dangerous?” Dewey remembered one close call:

I was bringing a big sled load of logs down Lick Run early one morning. The day before had been warm and the deep snow had softened enough that the sled runners had made deep grooved tracks in the snow and then that night they had frozen into ice. The road monkey, an old man named Solomon Mealy, had not gravelled the tracks on a long gentle hill. Pretty soon that sled was going so fast that the horses were galloping to stay ahead of it. When I saw that the team couldn’t stay ahead any longer, I took the horse blankets l was sitting on, climbed down in front of the sled onto the double tree and flipped a horse blanket in front of each runner. That slowed the sled enough that I was able to get it under control on a long level stretch.

In response to a comment that he was lucky to have the blankets along, Dewey observed that he always had them. Whenever he stopped for any length of time, he put the blankets over the horses, and he folded them and sat on them on the top log of the load.

Wheeler and Dusenberry had two tracts of timber – one at the head of Beaver Creek and one at the head of the Culbertson Branch of Fork Run­ – that were sledded out to the Company railroad. John Kiffer drove team one winter hauling logs from the head of Beaver to the landing or siding at Mac­Donald’s farm, about a four-mile haul. The plank and corduroy road was a busy highway with thirty-four teams hauling, many of them farm teams driven by farmers who could drive horses on a farm but “didn’t know a thing about hauling logs.” Sometimes sleds got crosswise in the ruts, especially when the drivers were trying to pull into the “turnouts” to pass each other. Then, traffic jammed up and all hands pitched in to get the errant one on the way again. John Kiffer still gets upset after seventy­-eight years remembering the ineptitude of some “drivers.” Not everyone could be a woods teamster.

On this same job, John hauled the biggest single stick of white pine to come out of those woods in that era. He recalls: “It was a dead pine still standing and dry. They cut it by riding it down in­to some living trees so that it didn’t break when it hit the ground. It scaled 5,800 board feet and was just fifty feet long. They put a bobsled under either end, cleared all the other teams off the road and I brought it down with Dad’s little pair of blacks.” Dewey was in grade school in the little Beaver Valley school and remembers that school was dismissed so that the children could see the big log go by. “I’ll never forget that sight. John sitting up there on the butt end of that log, higher than the horses. I wish we had a picture of it.”

Later on, when be had finished the eighth grade and gone to work in the woods, Dewey also had an experience with a long stick of timber.

Some of the longest and best timber was used to construct barges that were built at the Hickory barge yards and then floated down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh. The timber was located way up in the head of Bobb’s creek. Some regular saw logs up to twenty-six feet long had been taken out and a good, but steep road went down to the railroad. We got an order for some “bill stock” [the name given to any special timber order] and Ote Rudolph, the wood’s boss. asked me to haul it. The first log was sixty feet long and tapered from about three feet at the butt to twenty inches at the top. They loaded the butt end onto a two-wheeled cart and the top trailed on the ground. I had about a mile to go to the railroad and about half way there, there was a steep dip or gulley that the road went down in­to and then up out of. I was walking beside the cart, driving the team, it was too dangerous to ride. When we got to where the trail broke over the drop, the log touched the ground. The horses kept pulling down the slope and the log kept coming until the cart and the log were up in the air and coming right out over the horses. I was afraid the log would fall on the horses, so I yelled, “Git!,” threw the lines at them, and jumped to the side. They broke into a gallop, pulled everything across the gulley and stopped. They were a good team.

Between winter logging jobs, Dewey drove team on the Economy Farm (nam­ed for the Harmonist Society at Economy, which once had owned the land), one of the four farms operated by Wheeler and Dusenberry. Here he was made acutely aware of a serious fault of horses – gluttony.

I had a beautiful team at the Economy Farm, kept their tails braided with rib­bons and had lots of rings on the harness. One was a big mare named Belle. One night she got out of her box stall, I don’t know how, and got to the oats bin. When I went to the barn next morning to harness them, Belle was dead. She had died from overeating. Few other animals would do anything like that.

Though a teamster came to know his horses, their likes, dislikes and capabilities, sometimes a teamster had trouble with a strange team. John vividly remembers one such situation:

Right after Bob MacMillen fired me, a small jobber named Herb Taft hired me to haul some bark from a big hill above Endeavor to the tannery at West Hickory. It was an awful steep place and he needed a good teamster, so I told him I’d bring the bark down for him. I stayed with them that night, and the first morning I harnessed the team and drove them around in front of the house to get my dinner bucket. See, the wagon was up on the hill, loaded with bark, so I had to take the team up empty. I always rode the near horse [the one on the right], so I hung my dinner bucket strap over the homes ball and climbed on. That crazy horse started bucking and when the lid came off the dinner bucket and the hot coffee splashed on his neck and withers, he really started to buck. I finally got off and got him quieted down. The boss said, “that horse won’t let anyone ride him; either ride the off horse or walk.”

Hauling bark was tricky enough without the added problem of a skittish horse.

As the peelers were paid by the cord. the bark was peeled in four-foot lengths and the slabs were eight to sixteen inches wide. The bark was light enough to shift in the wagon or sled quite easily, and keeping it on the load could be a chore. John continues:

I got some more coffee, and rode up to where the wagon was. I got hitched up, checked the wagon brakes and started down. I was maybe a third of the way down the hill, holding the team in close and riding the brake when the load started to shift. I was up on top, holding the lines tight and trying to keep those slabs of bark from falling off Well, one big piece slid off the front and hit that skittish horse on the hip. He jumped and down the hill we went at a gallop. I tried to stick with it, but on a sharp curve, the wagon went over. I fell clear and wasn’t hurt, but the team galloped down that hill, dragging the wagon, strewing bark all over the hill, banging the wagon into trees and stumps. By the time they hit the bottom of the hill all they had left was the wagon tongue, the rest of it was scattered in bits and pieces all over that sidehill. The horses ran until they got to the barn, and there they stood. I took my rings off and got out of there. I never did find my dinner bucket.

Dewey was never forced to take his rings off, but he did remove them once – right in the middle of a potato field. He was driving team at the Economy Farm of Wheeler and Dusenberry. He had stopped to rest the horses and was up beside them straightening and adjusting straps when on a whim he decided to leave. He started unbuckling his rings. The farm boss asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I’m leaving.” Despite the boss’s protests, he did quit and went to Erie where he worked briefly on the docks unloading lake freighters.

Wheeler and Dusenberry owned a nice tract of timber in the Culbert­son Hollow branch of Fork Run which they had never been able to reach. In 1924, however, they built a logging railroad spur up Fork Run to the Balltown Road. Once completed, Bob MacMillen asked Dewey to come drive team for him hauling the logs from Culbertson Hollow to the railroad in Fork Run, a two to two and one-half mile haul. During the winter of 1924-25 they had excellent sledding and finished off the work, the last big Wheeler and Dusenberry log job.

Dewey remembers it well:

I boarded at MacMillen’s, and a typical day went like this. I’d get up at 5:00 A.M., go to the barn and feed the horses. Then I’d eat breakfast. Around 6:00, I’d harness the team and start with the empty sled up the old Beaver Road, then up Lick Run onto the old Stave Road and over the ridge into Culbertson Hollow. I hauled three to eight logs, depending on size, and all around twen­ty to twenty-six feet long. We had a good road and sometimes I’d haul three, always two, loads a day. At the landing, I’d unhook the chains and roll the logs off. After the last load, I’d drive up Fork Run, cross the ridge, come down Wolf Run to Beaver and back to the barn. I’d take off the harness, put the blankets on the team and fill the manger with hay. After supper, I’d go back to the barn, take off the blankets, rub the team down and brush them. I’d feed them their grain. I’d turn in around 9:00 P.M., gel up in the morning and do the same thing. It was a good job, about the best job I ever had in the woods. Paid $2.40 a day plus room and board.

Shortly after that job ended, Dewey got a job with the Stoneboro and Chautauqua Lake Ice Company branch in Oil City – driving team for the ice company – delivering ice door-to-door. A fellow logging teamster, Tony Black, had recommended him for the job. Al the end of the summer season the de­mand for ice diminished, and Dewey hung up his rings for good.

Of all the occupations available to young men in Pennsylvania during the late nineteenth and early twentieth cen­turies, few were as necessary or as romantic as “drivin’ team.” The teamster, in the woods, on the farm or in the city, occupied a special niche in the community. As Dewey said, “ll was a good job, about the best job l ever had in the woods.”


Theodore E. Kiffer is director of General Education in Humanities and Social Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, where he is also an associate professor of English Linguistics. The material for this article came from remembrances of past con­versations and recent interviews with his Uncle John and his father, Dewey.