Grub in the Woods
I actually had the idea to start this blog when I was rummaging around looking for a copy of an AND Co menu from the early 60’s. It was done up in response to the IWA strike and outlined what grub would be served in the logging camps. Unfortunately I still haven’t found it, but I do remember Vienna sausages being an option on the lunch menu and cold plates being on the supper menu.
When I was very young I asked my grandfather what grub was and he explained to me that grub was food. In the woods conditions were rough and men worked hard so they consumed lots of grub. I have always had a special interest in this matter. One of my great grandfathers was a camp cook on the Rattling Brook Line, his son, my great uncle, cooked in the woods for years as well (and he still has a reputation as a good cook in Point Leamington!). I also did an extensive interview with a camp cook; Mr. Douglas Reccord who cooked in the woods from 1935 up until the 1970’s.
Newfoundlanders in past years were never had the most varied of diets. Salted meats and root vegetables that could survive in the cold climate were staples along with anything dried or picked that could last a long time. Basically most people were limited to what they could grow and what could keep. A diet limited in variety was especially true in the logging camps of the interior, what could be grown, what would keep and add to that what was cheap.
The way in which logging camps were run also impacted on how the men were fed. In the old system with the AND Company the foreman or “Skipper” as he was called ran the camp as a company employee. But he was allotted so much money to run the camp. This money also paid the contractors salary. So the more the contractor could save on food the more he would make at the end of the year. This said most contractors were fair and wouldn’t skimp on the food budget to save them money. If a contractor got a reputation for being stingy with the grub loggers would be reluctant to work in their camps. It should be noted that loggers paid a daily amount for board which paid for their meals.
The cookhouse was the center of the logging camp. It was where all the eating and much of the socializing took place. It was usually the largest building in the camp since it was needed to seat fifty plus men. For many years between the 1890’s and the 1930’s the cookhouse and bunkhouses were all in one structure with an alleyway between the buildings. Later on the cookhouse was a separate building altogether.
Inside the cookhouse there would be the cooks quarters the main room with the Table and benches and one or more stoves for cooking. The furniture was usually pretty rough especially in the early days, one old logger working for the Exploit’s Lumber Company in the 1890’s reported that instead of washing down the table, every Sunday they would plane off the top layer of wood! Some of the early benches were most likely just halved logs.
The stoves were wood burning until the 1950’and 60’s when oil ranges were introduced in the camps. The most common type used over the years was the “Adam Hall” ”Portable” Stove. The Adam Hall was specifically developed for use in logging camps and was portable inasmuch as iron rings attached to the frame could accommodate poles so that a team of men could move the several hundred pound cast iron monstrosity.
So what was cooked on and in the old Adam Hall? Well you have heard of the three R’s well I guess up the woods you had the three B’s-Bean’s Bread and Bologna. If you know a little about logging in Newfoundland and if you have heard what life was like in the camps you might wonder if they really did eat that many beans. Some of the old timers were prone to exaggeration but prior to the IWA Strike of 1959 baked beans were the staple in most logging camps for most of the week. Beans were on the table at breakfast, beans were on the lunch grounds at lunch and beans were on the table at supper even if supper consisted of something else. The beans were accompanied by unlimited amounts of freshly baked white bread. A man’s abilities as a lumber camp cook were measured in how well he could make bread and beans-along with how far he could stretch the food out for the contractor. The cooks bread making ability could make or break how good a camp would be-inexperienced cooks and drafty cookhouses led to a lot of sour bread in many camps.
Though beans were the staple, at various times there was a little more variety at the supper table. This consisted of boiled dinner when vegetables were available as well as boiled duff usually on Tuesdays. Friday’s evening meal usually consisted of fish and brewis, Saturdays was pea soup and on Sunday there might be cooked dinner with, if you were very lucky, fresh meat. By the 1940’s this fresh meat was beef, but often over the years it was caribou. When the A.N.D Company first started logging operations it was not uncommon for contractors to shoot a number of caribou to feed the men in the camps. Back then the animals were plentiful and the government allotted so many of them for the camps. Even by mid-century it was not uncommon for a contractor to shoot a moose or caribou to feed his crew.
Wild game and fish accounted for a noticeable percentage of the fresh meat eaten by loggers for fifty years. As camps moved to a new area it might turn out that this virgin territory was full of moose, caribou, rabbits or partridge. The camp might even be located near a brook or lake that was teaming with trout. All of which would be exploited to break the monotony of camp food. After a conversation with my great uncle many years ago I was struck with how common firearms were in logging camps. The Foreman or skipper always had a rifle-this was to deal with bears or for moose and caribou. Loggers were known to bring their own guns into the camps-after all if you were stuck in the woods you might as well do some hunting. This invariably led to Sunday hunting illegal but ill enforced in pre-confederation Newfoundland.
Whatever could be caught or killed was kept frozen (in season) to take home or brought to the cook. The camp cook was one of the hardest working men in the woods. Thought he was not pushing a bucksaw his hours could sometimes last from four in the morning until nine in the night. As soon as he got up he would have to get the beans and the bread ready. Bread in most camps was done in batches of twenty five loaves at a time and mixed in a massive half barrel.
Most of the grub was washed down with tea served in large “slut” kettles and sweetened with molasses. Sugar wasn’t as easy to get or to transport. So if it was available it was reserved for pies and cookies. I would be many years before there would be sugar on the cookhouse tables. Though the food was generally rough desserts were common up in the woods a good cook could whip together dried apple pies, lassy buns or ginger snaps. During the Second World War sugar was especially coveted by cooks since it was rationed often a very small amount of sugar had to do the entire camp.
The Second War War brought shortages and rationing everywhere and if things were bad for the ordinary civilian they were even worse for the woodsmen. Old correspondence with the Newfoundland Lumbermens Association from the times reveal men being fed substandard food like salted mutton that had gone “rusty” and pickled herring gone “smatchy.”The War also brought about a shortage in a lumber woods staple. During the war years there was a shortage of Bologna! Men in a number of camps complained to the union on how rarely it was available. When you were lousy, working ten hours a day and sleeping on boughs around a converted oil barrel stove grub was one of the few comforts.
Food slowly started to get a little better after World War Two. A little more fresh meat began to get into the camps, canned food became a little more common and even some fresh fish and fresh salmon was available in some areas. It is interesting to note that canned food was preferred by many men. And canned food was what was eaten when loggers were fighting forest fires so many saw that as being the benefit of firefighting duty.
But food had not improved enough after confederation to keep pace with the rest of the island. One of the main issues during the IWA Strike of 1959 was food and conditions. Mainly the men wanted bacon and eggs for breakfast once and a while! After the strike the A.N.D Co was forced to improve the food. Oil ranges and refrigeration gradually found their way into the camps-aided by an improved network of truck roads. Cooks also now received training in how to prepare and serve food. The way that food was served also changed. Generally it was served cafeteria style rather than bowls of beans and plates of bread being placed on the tables. Lunches also changed and often came to include a tin of Vienna sausages, tinned sardines or some other canned goods.
Gradually as food improved the number of men eating in logging camps started to decline, improved roads, increased vehicle ownership coupled with mechanization and a decrease in the number of loggers meant a drastic reduction in the number of camps. During the 1920-1950’s period it was not uncommon for there to be dozens and dozens of camps in a division. By the 1970’s this had decreased and by the time the last meal was served in an A.N.D/Abitibi camp in 2009 there was just one camp in the old Badger Division, Holletts Camp near Black Duck Brook.
I found the menu I was talking about at the beginning of the article! I think beans are only there once a week for breakfast (though tinned beans are there a few times for lunch)and eggs are on the menu for breakfast 5 days a week.
Kitchen, John By the Sweat of My Brow.