Friday, March 4, 2011


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Caption: Cedar post piles collected along the banks of Bull River waiting for high water when they could be 'driven' to the Northern Pacific Railroad spur at Smeads, across the Clark's Fork River. Both of these rivers were 'rivers of commerce; before roads and automobiles supplanted the timber drives. Courtesy Ruth Mercer McBee collection.

Early 1920 was a time of economic upheaval in the timber industry again. The editor of the Sanders County Independent Ledger told readers of the February 26, 1920 weekly that Weyerhauser Lumber Company made price reductions that amounted to 10 to 20 percent under present prices,
"as a measure looking towards stabilization of the lumber market."
He provided the company's reasons for the unstable and escalating prices which they claimed had caused their action: the demand for lumber exceeds the supply, railroad car shortages and other transportation difficulties have restricted deliveries, and that
"the price advances have been frequent and irregular and buyers have bidden against each other until the demoralized condition of the lumber market threatens to discourage all construction."
Politicians kept working to change working conditions for men. Better hours and better living conditions might be influenced, but miners still mined underground and timber cutters still work out of doors. Montana weather buffeted them all equally.

Cedar posts were bringing 12-cents apiece, loaded on railroad cars. Logs, posts and poles sold well all through the 1920's.

Early spring brought intermittent doses of sunny days. Mud began drying up.

Swan Swanson the 'cedar post king' began building camps for his crew of post splitters on the east fork of Bull River. Marion Larson hauled the lumber.1.
Two carloads of lumber were used to build Swan's two-mile long flume through which the swift waters of the East Fork were diverted to cascade posts down to Bull River.

Swan's home place was in Whitepine, but he had post camps scattered all over, from Pablo, Montana to Sandpoint, Idaho, and was constantly roving between them. He never stayed at the post making camps more than a few hours.
"Oh, I just came through here, see," he said. "I had a room in the Hotel Montana, one at Sandpoint and one up at Charlo. I had a telephone in my room in the Hotel Montana. I used to have to go out around to beat hell. That's why my wife quit me. I never was home.
"I had a big camp at Sandpoint. Stella Gordon waited table for me there. Her mother, Pauline, was my pastry cook. Every time I turned around I had to go down town and find Stella and take her back to her mother.
"Gordon's had the ranch at Noxon, but Pauline cooked at my camps. She worked out to keep their place going.
"I was never home, either. I come to Bull River ... I'd ride horseback up there see, and then get the hell out. I had a Swede foreman on the camp in the East Fork and Walt Lake, he was my foreman on the river."2.
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Caption: Swan Swanson and his grandson, Billy Hobbs, near Noxon, Montana, 1942. Courtesy Rena Swanson Wagener collection.

Swan's posts were flumed down the steep East Fork draw, stacked, then river driven to Smeads and shipped out from the NPRR spur there. Larson's Store, which supplied the camps, chalked up $600-$700 a month grub bill against the sale, in the barter arrangement which prevailed.

Lux Brothers also bought a fine tract of cedar on Bull River. They expect to cut 200,000 cedar posts and will do the hauling with their new Traffic truck. Their work (which) will cover several years of steady activity began in June. Clyde Scheffler found work in post making on Bull River.3.

All across the Pacific Northwest, industry continued to be troubled. Blame was put on the high cost of living, railroad jams that tied up shipment to markets, high interest rates, the decline of manufacturing, shortage of labor on farms, etc.4.

As industrial leaders and business men struggled to control the situation, ten thousand miners in Butte, Montana walked out on strike. The I. W. W. demanded release of all industrial and political prisoners; six-hour day; minimum wage scale of $7 a day for all miners; abolition of the rustling card; abolition of contract, bonus and efficiency system; two men to work together on all machines and two men to work together in all workings.5.

The I.W.W. were barred from work in Butte mines. The weekly newspaper reported it this way,
"The mining companies are united to weed out trouble breeders and social revolutionists."6.
Quite a number of the striking miners came to the Clark's Fork valley looking for jobs in the woods. Swan Swanson hired a bunch of them, putting them into his camp on the East Fork of Bull River.
"The miners worked there nearly all winter," Swan said, "and the minute the strike was over they all quit and left their tools. I think their tools are all laying in the East Fork yet."7.
Swan had his labor troubles, too. He was struck by local post splitters and dealt with it swiftly and violently.
"Them Doyle brothers they got up a river strike and by God they were going to strike me. I fell a tree, booming the river just downstream from the Bull River Ranger Station. I hung the dam thing up for a year. They were going to strike me but I beat them to it. I just paid them off and let 'em go. The dam posts sunk. Never got them down either. They went under the boom, they were too heavy.
"I lost money on the Clark's Fork River, too. I had a strike here. I had a flume up Bull River, up the East Fork two miles long. There's where I was getting timber."8.
While most of the men were working in cedar, Strawberry and Ethel returned home from Danville, Washington, where he worked for six months in a lumber mill. But instead of working in cedar, Strawberry took a job working forest service trails and Ethel bought Finnigan's closed saloon.9.

Jim Finnegan went to work on the railroad bridge gang this year at Plains and Perma 10 and Earl Engle and Chas. Mercer finished up a winter of trapping together.11.

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Caption: Frank King, logger, carpenter, all around man. Frank is standing on the end of one of the big trees loggers felled using crosscut saws, in the lower Clark's Fork River valley. Circa 1912-1915. Courtesy Clayton Bauer collection.

Frogs croaking on the 21st of March reminded that farming time would soon arrive.12. John Beal was making plans to install a sawmill on north side of river, using a Case tractor to furnish power.13. In April, he moved his saw mill up to the Ellis cedar camp and sawed out some lumber to build a flume down from the head of Rock Creek.14.

The cedars in Rock Creek and Bull River were bell bottomed, making use of a springboard a necessity. Anywhere from four to ten feet above ground, they put cedar sawyers up above the swell of the roots, to fell the tree. Lanky Jamison described them.
"We'd chop a little flat-bottomed notch and put in a 2x6 with a horseshoe and stamp both feet on it. When you want to move it you just raise up and hit it with your heel and it comes around with you. You stand on it, sawing with the crosscut saw. When you want it to move you just step inward and kick the outside with your heel and it starts moving the spring board around, whichever way you go."
Crosscut saws, teams of horses, and post splitter camps continued to make the region the cedar post capitol of the northwest.

C. F. May completed his post drive on the Clark's Fork river, taking the posts out of the river at Weare's Spur late in October.15.

Weyerhauser Lumber Company's 20 percent price reduction earlier in the year hadn't helped the timber market. If anything, 1920 ended with the economic situation worse than it had begun.

Winter snow brought the usual increased logging activities. Frank Harris purchased supplies to start work on his tie contract on Rock Creek; Alex Norman who had a camp on Government Creek, had a good bunch of ties out for the next railroad inspection; Dan Coan was busy all week taking cedar posts out of the river at Weare's boom. It was "rather a disagreeable job for Dan but he's been wallowing around in the water and mud for about thirty years and ought to be used to it."16.

Spring-board cuts in cedar stumps near the Bull River Ranger Station on Cabinet National Forest.
Circa 1906-1908. Courtesy Frank Berray collection.
By the end of March 1921 Swan was reported to be loading out in the neighborhood of 40 carloads of cedar posts at Smeads, ready to ship very soon.17.

E. L. Bowels, representing the Mountain Lumber company of Kingston, Ida., called at the local forest office Saturday, and the newspaper said Bowels is,
"favorably considering logging operations upon what is known as the North Fork of the East Fork of Bull River chance. This chance consists of approximately 20,700,000 feet board measure of saw log timber, running 55 percent Whitepine. If this timber should be sold, it is possible that a saw mill site will be selected near the mouth of Bull River."*18.
Spared by the 1910 fire vast acres of virgin timber drew lumbermen like a magnet to the Bull River valley. Railroad lands were checker-boarded with public forest lands. Buyers and timber harvesting in Bull River prompted efforts to get a railroad line built into the heart of it.
"I surveyed that Bull River country," Swan Swanson said. "I had three sections there on Bull Lake. Sections 12, 14 and 18, one right below Spar Lake. I was going to build a railroad from Bull Lake down to Troy. Kirschbaum lived at the south end of Bull Lake.
"The NPRR surveyed towards Noxon. They wanted to get the trade to come to Noxon.
"I was paying down. I only paid $5,000 on it. So Company sold their posts for four cents. That broke us all. I wasn't the only one. We all went broke.
"We was in ten cents each on the posts and when A. C. White dumped all his holdings for four cents we was through. Oh Christ, he had the biggest mills in the country. They still got them ... them two big mills at Sandpoint. One at Ponderay.
"Yes. I had quite a stake in the cedar business. When the market broke I had two million posts and forty thousand poles. "I paid off and I liquidated everything I had and quit. But I forgot them goddamned posts in Bull River. And there was another pile I had up at Charlo it was the same damned thing. Yeah, but I didn't have any education and that's what broke me. If I'd had any education I'd of come out of it. "I liquidated in the '20's."*19.
The great cedar bubble of prosperity had burst. Throughout the valley timber men were cutting their losses, laying off crews and wondering what came next.

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Caption: Julia 'Jude' and Art LeGault logging camp on Bull River, with their children, circa early 1920s. The woman in the white dress and the young lad are not identified. Courtesy Ben F. Saint collection.
Swan continued,
"Then in 1922 I come along on Bull River and I had a bunch of posts that I'd forgot there. I had about 5,000 posts there at the end of the flume and here was a fella loading them. "I said to him, 'You've got a nice bunch of posts there.'
"'Yes,' he said. Swan asked, "Where you selling them?"
"I'm taking them down to Henry Larson."
"I never said a word," Swan said, "and I come down to Henry's.
"You're getting some damn nice posts," I said to him.
"Jesus Christ, Swan, them yours?", he said.
"'Sure them's mine.' "That fella came in with the load so I got paid for the posts. He only got paid for hauling them. Piliks, they got the flume. There was two carload of lumber in that flume I had up the East Fork. I think that all of Bull River built houses from that. They used it and that was fine."*20.
Bob Larson said Swan was still owing on a grocery bill so he just credited the bill for Swan.*21.


1. Sanders County Independent Ledger, May 6, 1920.
2. Swan Swanson, tape recorded oral history, January 15, 1970.
3. Sanders County Independent Ledger, June 3, 1920.
4. Sanders County Independent Ledger, June 3, 1920.
5. Sanders County Independent Ledger, April 22, 1920.
6. Sanders County Independent Ledger, May 13, 1920.
7. Swan Swanson, tape-recorded oral history, January 15, 1970.
8. Swan Swanson, tape-recorded oral history, January 15, 1970.
9. Sanders County Independent Ledger, March 18, 1920.
10. Sanders County Independent Ledger, March 18, 1920.
11. Sanders County Independent Ledger,. March 4, 1920.
12. Sanders County Independent Ledger, April 8, 1920.
13. Sanders County Independent Ledger, January 29, 1920.
14. Sanders County Independent Ledger, April 8, 1920.
15. Sanders County Independent Ledger, October 23, 1920.
16. Sanders County Independent Ledger, December 16, 1920.
17. Sanders County Independent Ledger, March 31, 1921.
18. Sanders County Independent Ledger, April 28, 1921.
19. Swan Swanson, tape-recorded oral history, January 15, 1970.
20. Swan Swanson, tape-recorded oral history, January 15, 1970.
21. Bob Larson, oral history, 1972.

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