What I'm Reading #1
A deep dive into New England forestry? You bet
I thought from time to time I would share with my faithful readers what literary topics I’ve turned my attention to. So, here is the inaugural edition of the ever so cleverly titled series, What I’m Reading.
Tall Trees, Tough Men by Robert Pike
I’ve become curious about pre-industrial American history and industrialization’s changes. Who are the people that made America? The people who aren’t in the history books. Well, I have two books to share with you on this topic today. The first is Tall Tree, Tough Men, a history of the logging industry in northern New England from the pre-Revolutionary period through the mid-twentieth century but focusing on the stretch between 1850-1920. The book gives a vivid history of the hardscrabble men who made up this endeavor and their lives, tools, and methods.
The book starts with a chapter about…axes. As pedestrian a topic as this might seem, it is intriguing and captures the book’s spirit. Though early versions of axes can be found as stone tools, there had been only minimal enhancements to them until European settlers came to North America and realized the vastness, density, and diversity of the forests it contained. As the logging process became refined, specified roles were defined because the ax was, more or less, the sole tool of the trade (there were no saws in the early days), and each job required a specific type of ax. Pike goes into great detail, explaining the various axes the loggers used, what they were used for, and the types of men who used them. I never thought I could be so interested in axes, but here we are.
This is what you can expect in this book. Pike goes into all the little nooks and crannies of a seemingly mundane topic and brings them to life. Have you ever considered how you would find a 100 ft pine tree, ensure it isn’t rotten before you take the time and effort to chop it down, cut it down in a way so that it doesn’t break when it falls (because it is going to be used as a ship mast), and bring it out from the middle of backwoods, Maine, to somewhere on the New England coast to ship back to England?
You’ll learn about the demanding and dangerous lives of the men who undertook this profession, how they kept themselves entertained during their months-long isolation from the rest of the world (one way involved finding louses and betting on which would win in a fight to the death). Pike will expose you to all the various jobs that made up one of these crews, such as the rivermen who would ride the logs down rivers to their destination to ensure they didn’t get caught up in anything. No thanks!
After you read this, it’ll become clear that though you we were only thought about people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, it’s the vast numbers of people who undertook this type of dangerous work who literally built America.
You can find the book here.
You had a Job For Life by Jamie Sayen
If we fast forward just a bit from the start of the New England logging era, we begin to see communities throughout America organized around a single large employer, colloquially called “company towns.” Many of these towns were in rural areas, so due to lack of road infrastructure (or lack of cars in the early days), most employees lived in the immediate surrounding area because long commutes were not feasible. And indeed, most of the residents either worked directly for the employer or businesses or institutions supporting it and its workers. Local convenient stores, schools, pharmacies, and all the other institutions that make a town run, were planets to the sun which was the centralizing business. In the early days of company towns, these centralizing businesses were often owned by a person or family who lived within the community. But, what happens to the people and their community when those businesses sell to larger conglomerates and ultimately close? This is the topic Sayen explores in You Had A Job For Life.
The book is an ethnography of Groveton, New Hampshire, and the Groveton Paper Company. Sayen interviews dozens of people who worked at the company, including the third generation (and final) individual owner of the business, Jim Wemyss, Jr. I picked this book up on a whim and wasn’t sure if I would ever get to it, but as it seemed to dovetail so nicely with Tall Tree, Tough Men I decided it would make for a relevant conclusion to that story. After starting it, I almost put it down because I didn’t think the story would resonate with me as I grew up in a nearly unrecognizable world, and the people profiled were not the Napoleans or the Ottomans; so what would I get out of this? As it turns out, a lot. The residents of Groveton are a microcosm of similar events which have replayed themselves all over the US, and reading their first-person accounts about what it was like to live in a company town made for engrossing and (at times) emotional reading.
The mill opened in 1891 and would operate continuously until 2008 (save for short shutdowns due to union strikes or decreases in demand). In that 117-year history, the mill employed not just generations of Groveton residents but generations of family members. We learn about life in the town and at the mill under the Wemyss family’s sole ownership, the merger with a conglomerate (Diamond International), the take over of Diamond by a corporate raider who only wanted the valuable forest assets and his spin-off to another conglomerate (Wausau Paper Mills Company), who would neglect the mill for years and ultimately shut it down, and in turn, destroy the town itself.
By the conclusion, I felt a deep feeling of loss, not just for the residents of Groveton and how their way of life has been scattered into the wind, but for all of us. To my eye, the book’s central theme is community and what it means to be a part of one. To be clear, his book is not a hagiography; all of the warts of the town and company are detailed throughout the book, but it was a community where people looked out for each other and, yes, the business looked out for them. It is a way of life that simply does not exist for the vast majority of us today, no matter how much the social media companies want to claim they are a replacement for it. They are, at best, a Yugo version of community compared to the BMW they had in Groveton. At worst, they are the polar opposite who, rather than creating community, is actually tearing it limb-from-limb.
Up Next - They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer
In the early 1950s, Milton Mayer moved to Germany for a year and struck up friendships with everyday Germans - a school teacher, a baker, a police officer, etc., all of whom had been members of the Nazi party throughout World War 2. Through these friendships, he attempts to unpack how the everyday German was taken in by the odious regime. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for a while, and I am now finally getting to it.
You’ll see my write-up in the next edition of What I’m Reading.
Additionally, here are others on deck for me to get through. I’m always interested in book recommendations. While I am predisposed to history, I’m up for anything interesting, so please leave your thoughts on what I shouldn’t miss in the comments.