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Wednesday, 20 November 2013 00:00

The perversity of inanimate objects: logging then and now

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Some steam and water-powered sawmills were established in the Smokies region during the 1870s and 1880s. But full-fledged industrialized logging didn’t commence until after the construction of the major railroads was finalized in the 1890s. This opened the region for profitable use by big time interests like Champion Fiber Company, Ritter Lumber Company, and others. These companies hired local men by the hundreds to fell, move, and process timber.

Those like myself who don’t admire the end result of these operations nevertheless have to remember that it wasn’t all negative by any means. The timber industry allowed the standard of living (in regard to material goods) for the average worker in the Smokies region to rise exponentially.  

The local work force took great pride in having a profession that produced comforts for themselves and their families. Unlike those men who had to go off and work in the cotton mills, those who became loggers, for the most part, enjoyed working in the woods and woodlots. It was the sort of outdoor, manly work that made total sense to them. And they were superb woodsmen. 

An aspect of this profession, however, that wasn’t appealing in the least to anyone involved was its inherent dangers. Serious injuries and death were a commonplace of the logging life. 

In almost every photograph one sees from that era, an injury-in-waiting can be discerned. Felling a tree in the right direction will always be problematic.  Dynamiting a rail bed or splash dam could backfire in a heartbeat. One tiny slip while guiding a huge log onto a railroad car or loading platform with a peavey (a cant hook having a sharply-pointed end) meant the loss of a foot, leg, or life. And so on.  

Sound Wormy: Memoir of Andrew Gennett, Lumberman (University of Georgia Press, 2002) is a manuscript housed at Mars Hill College and was edited for publication by Nicole Hayler, at that time development director of the Chattooga Conservancy. “Sound Wormy” manages to be perplexing, exasperating, and illuminating at the same time. If you’re at all interested in life in this region as it was conducted in the first half of the 20th century, this is an essential read.  

Andrew Gennett and his brother, Nat, established the Gennett Lumber Company, which during their era operated in northwest South Carolina, north Georgia, and out of sites in Macon, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, and other counties in Western North Carolina. 

Andrew, a lawyer turned timberman, wrote this memoir so that his children and grandchildren would have some notion of the sort of rough and ready life he had led. Here are a few of his firsthand descriptions of logging deaths in the woods, woodlots, and sawmills of the Smokies region.          

“It was during these years in the lumber business that I became impressed with the perversity of inanimate objects,” is the first sentence of Chapter 20 in Gennett’s memoir. “The lumber industry is exceedingly treacherous … During the course of our experience in this business, we have had four men killed while felling timber. Each fatal accident was unique in its kind.”

In the first of these felling incidents, some small hickory trees sprang back after a big tree had fallen to the ground. In the second, the top of a rotted basswood tree broke off of the lower trunk while falling. In the third, an inexperienced man was apparently standing in the wrong place and had a tree fall on him. In the fourth, a tree slipped off its stump in the wrong direction and “thrust down a small sapling that struck one of the men on the side of the head, killing him.”

In regard to fatal accidents not involving the felling of trees, Gennett describes two incidents. In the first, a man fell 30 feet off a splash dam and struck his head on a log. In the second, a crew was rolling logs down an inclined skidway onto a wagon. The driver was situated near the wagon. He would release one log at a time and let it roll onto the wagon, confident that the other logs above him were held securely in place. As the released log approached the wagon on the skidway, the driver would simply duck his head and then pop back up when it had passed by overhead.  But, alas, the logs above him were not properly secured. Instead, they “came down with full force, and his head was caught between the single log and those coming after. His skull was crushed, and he died immediately.”

Gennett notes that logging accidents “are not always fatal, however, and it frequently happens that they have a humorous side to them.” Several of the “humorous” incidents he describes resulted in the multiple deaths of animals killed by falling trees or rolling logs. 

In my estimation, Andrew Gennett possessed a peculiar sense of humor.  But he does graphically depict in his memoir just how dangerous the logging industry was in its heyday. 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .     

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