No.59, 2008 The Lumber Camp Cookhouse by Loreena M. Lee (BC)
Around 1951, my family applied for work with a logging company in Prince George. Mother was hired on as a cook and Father as a “bull-cook”, or flunky, meaning he did all the odd jobs and heavy work required. He was a big man, well over six feet, but he didn’t know anything about working in a sawmill. He kept the cook stove supplied with wood, which he chopped and stacked, and carried the large bags of flour and food needed to run a camp full of hungry men. He helped prepare and serve the meals, doing clean-up and dishes, and drove into town to get supplies. He did other odd jobs around the camp, as well. Mother cooked and baked most of the day, and thoroughly enjoyed having so much food at her disposal. Being without want was one of her versions of a good life.
The men ate steak and eggs for breakfast, followed by pie. They would have a bag lunch prepared for them if they worked in the “bush”, or they would come into the cookhouse for lunch if they worked in the sawmill. After breakfast, Mother would turn out a dozen or so pies of different varieties, mostly from the store of raisins or dried apples and fruit, and her meringue pies were always a favourite. The cookhouse would be redolent with the heady aroma of pastries and freshly-baked bread. At dinner, the men enjoyed heaping platters of meat and vegetables and dessert, and at 9 o’clock, they would be back in the cookhouse again for pie or cake and coffee before bedtime.
The scream of the saws cutting trees into boards echoed up to the cookhouse all day, until the sound became filtered background noise. But when they shut down at the end of the shift, the silence was a relief. The highlight of the day was when a matched team of white Clydesdales, manes tossing and massive hooves kicking up clods of dirt, hauled freshly felled trees along the road past the cookhouse. The smell of freshly cut cedar or lodgepole pine mingling with the steamy scent of the horses’ sweat wafted in the hot summer air. Harnesses jingling, blowing gusty snorts of dust from their nostrils, they shook the earth with the thud of their heavy hooves as they strained to pull the chained logs to the sawmill for processing. It was an awesome sight.
When the ground became frozen in the fall, the camp closed for the winter and all the employees sought to find work elsewhere, or left for warmer climes. In spring, as soon as trucks were able to negotiate the muddy logging roads without sinking up to the axles, the call would go out to anyone who wanted to return. New recruits could be found in the beer parlours or by word of mouth.
The family moved back to the logging camp for the summer once more. Mother’s reputation had preceded her - there was no problem hiring men when they heard she would be providing them with their meals. Mother would arise each morning in the pine-scented pre-dawn darkness to start her day. Father had been up before her, starting the fires in the great wood stove, peeling potatoes and setting the tables for breakfast. Mother would get her children organized, and join him. I cared for and entertained my two younger sisters, one still in diapers. They were my only playmates in the summer; I missed my winter schoolmates. The living quarters, two small rooms, were attached to the cookhouse, so I was never too far from parental assistance.
As soon as breakfast was over, clean-up was done and fresh pies bubbling in the oven, the supplies inventory would be checked. Father would go into town about once a week to replenish stocks and get fresh vegetables. On Friday nights, the loggers cleaned up and found a way to get to town to spend their hard-earned money, some catching a ride on an outgoing logging truck. With the camp deserted, Mother would heat water for bathing and Father would bring in a large galvanized tub and set it in front of the big iron cook stove. Saturday night baths were ordered in range of age, starting with the youngest.
On rainy days in the summer, Father showered by standing in his undershorts under the down pipe from the eaves at the corner of the cookhouse. In the latter part of summer the well would dry up, and he would have to take huge barrels in the back of the truck if it was working, or use a team of horses and a wagon if it wasn’t, and fill the barrels at a creek some distance away. This water wasn’t wasted on bathing, but was for cooking and drinking. The family had to use a washcloth and just enough water to fill a basin. When the creek dried up in late summer, they were forced to buy water from a farmer living near town who had a well, and it would have to be fetched by the same means. This only lasted two or three weeks until autumn approached and rainy days returned.
On Sunday afternoons, the owner or his foreman would round up all the loggers who were too drunk to find their way back to the camp. He and a helper would throw them into the back of the truck if they were unable to walk, and bring them into camp before dark. Grumbling, they would fall into their bunks and sleep off their merrymaking so they could be on the job bright and early Monday morning. And the week would begin again.