Minnesota Fiddlers

     William O'Brien, the president of the Putnam Lumber Company (born in 1858, died 26 April 1925), was the son of John and Elizabeth O'Brien.  John O'Brien was himself a logger and had lived and worked in the area of Taylors Falls for over forty years.  William O'Brien ended up owning much of the land on the St Croix River Valley which his father had logged.  In 1947, William O'Brien's daughter, Alice, donated 180 acres of that land to the state of Minnesota and the land eventually became William O'Brien State Park.

     In her 1949 book The White Pine Industry in Minnesota, Agnes Larson recounted hearing John Stewart of Port Wing, Wisconsin, then aged 88 years old, sing a nineteenth century logging camp song.  She wrote down the lyrics, but not the melody. However, musician Brian Miller discovered that an old melody, collected by Edith Fowke in Ontario, appears to fit the lyrics.  Many loggers, including John O'Brien came to Minnesota after working in Ontario.  Thanks to the work of Agnes Larson, Edith Fowke and Brian Miller we have the Minnesota logging tune Kettle River.


Click here to access the sheet music of  "Kettle River"

Click here to access the mp3 of "Kettle River"


Another tune which is known to have been played in Minnesota during the logging years is "Loggers Breakdown" - a modified version of this tune was included in Elmo Wick's collection.  This is a different variation from Elmo Wicks.


Click here to access the sheet music of "Loggers Breakdown"

Click here to access the mp3 of "Loggers Breakdown"

     It was the lumber industry which made its first mark on this state when the large forest between Duluth and St Paul was cut down.  The first railroad built in Minnesota (from Stillwater to St Paul) enabled lumber cut in the St Croix river basin to be shipped to St. Paul to fuel the construction of the first major population center.
     However, it was the methods of the lumber industry in Minnesota, of cutting off the un-needed branches and leaving the kindling lay on the ground, which enabled deadly wildfires… such as The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894, the Baudette Fire of 1910, and the Cloquet Fire of 1918.
     But the life of a Minnesota lumberjack was mostly a good time. Trees were cut during the winter and hauled across the snow to the frozen rivers.  When the ice thawed in the springtime the logs were floated down the rivers to the sawmills, where they were cut into lumber and shipped by rail to St Paul.

      Old hand lumberjacks had a reputation of being story tellers, and the rookies on the work crews were usually regaled with many tall tales about a great big lumberjack who cut down all the trees in North Dakota, which is why there are no more trees in that state.

     Or the time that the camp cook could not make food fast enough to feed his crew, so he had a griddle the size of a small pond built special.  To grease the pan, lumberjacks had to skate around the pan with large slabs of bacon tied to their boots.


     Or that one winter it got so cold that words would freeze in the air.  If a teamster swore at his horses, the sound of his voice would freeze before the horses could hear it.  That spring all the swear words thawed out all on the same day and there was a terrible barrage of profanity that exploded in the air. The repercussions broke all the river ice and it caused one of the worst logjams.

    If any state can claim to be the land of Paul Bunyan, it has to be Minnesota… for the following reasons:
    1. This state has more statues of the giant lumberjack than any other state in the union.
    2. It was on Aug 4, 1904, in the Duluth Tribune, that the first story of Paul Bunyan appeared in print.
    3. We Minnesotans still have a predisposition to dress like Paul Bunyan.

Paul Bunyan Country

Taylors Falls, Minnesota - during the logjam of 1886



by Walter Sigtermans