Emil the Lumberjack

Did you know that Emil Borreson was a lumberjack? Well, in a way. Here’s what his daughter Clara wrote in Homestead (34): “While growing up on the farm [in Fitch Coulee, Emil] spent several winters during his early manhood working as a cook at the Beef Slough Lumber Camp, 20 miles north of Winona, [Minnesota].”

Lumberjack, you say?! A cook isn’t a cruiser or sawyer or scaler or teamster, all out-in-the-woods workers. On the other hand, what’s a lumber camp without a cook -or a cookee, the helper? Try to picture Emil in this early 20th century lumber camp kitchen in northern Wisconsin.

Lumber camp cook - and cookee

Lumberjacks typically lived in a camp consisting of cook shanty, bunkhouse, stable, and a shed for shoeing horses. So, imagine Emil – maybe 20 years old or so, in 1892, let’s say – in his winter domain.

The cook shanty contained the cook and cookee’s bunks, the cookstove, and the long tables and benches used at mealtimes. The tables were made of rough pine boards, sometimes covered with oilcloth. All utensils used at the meals were made of tin, with pint basins for cups. The pies and biscuits were baked in tin bakers, and other food in iron pots and pans. A horn was sounded by the cook to call the men to grub. If they were working too far from camp, the cookee took the dinners to them.

The quality and variety of the food depended upon the size of the camp, the larger camp having less monotonous meals. The jacks enjoyed the wild game shot in the woods. Salt pork made up a large part of the meal supply, but pork roasts, pork and beans, and other pork dishes were also provided. [Guess what’s for dinner today, men?!] Many dried apples and prunes were eaten; some of the larger camps served canned fruits; and gingerbread made of black-strap molasses was a common food. Baking soda was used instead of baking powder; no eggs or milk were included. (Source: “The Pine Lumberjacks in Wisconsin,” by Ruth Stoveken in Vol. 30 of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, pp. 327-328.)

Can you imagine Emil in that wintry camp – and cooking bean-hole beans in a pot buried in the ground for 24 hours, or baking shoepack pie made from vinegar, water, sugar, and cornstarch? Then sitting on a deacon’s bench near his bunk in the evening smoking, singing, and reveling in the stories of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox? Maybe, or not, but that’s how it was in lumber camps, and Emil was there.

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