After thirty-four years of wanting to, I finally went to Woodsmen’s Day at the Fryeburg Fair. It’s always been on a Monday and I always had to teach at my old school about half-a-mile away. If I skipped and went to the fair I’d see dozens of people who knew me, knew where I was supposed to be, and who could see I wasn’t sick, so I put it off until after retirement. Weather wasn’t the greatest though. Rain was forecast. It didn’t come, but the day was mostly cloudy, damp, and raw, and that added to a certain sadness I felt.
Why sadness? There was a kind of “John Henry” feeling about it. Older readers may remember hearing someone like Johnny Cash sing a version of the old “Steel-Driving Man” ballad. As the legend goes, John Henry was a big, strong man who drove steel spikes into wooden ties to hold down the rails. His job was threatened by a steam-driven machine that would replace human labor and he challenged that machine to a contest. John Henry won, but it wore him down so much that he died of exhaustion in the way a horse will run itself to death.
Woodsmen’s Day had lots of ax-wielding events - though axes are a tool you’re not likely to see at a logging site anymore. There were buck-saw and two-person crosscut saw events too. All these old tools were replaced by chainsaws, of course, and there there were also competitions for those. Guys with whining souped-up saws cut through a 10X10 pine beam three times - down, up, and down again - in less than four seconds. If you blinked, you missed it.
Lately, even chainsaws are being replaced in the woods. Giant machines called feller-bunchers with big steel arms grapple onto trees while a huge steel circular saw cuts them off at the stump, then lays down a bunch of them for newer grapple skidders to muckle onto and drag to the landing where another giant machine grabs them and feeds them into a chipper. They’re getting more common than chain saws and old-style steel-cable skidders. Feller-bunchers were on display for sale in an area adjacent to the Woodsmen’s Day events. You’ll probably still see a chainsaw on a logging site today but it’s seldom used. Somebody may pick one up to cut a little tree out of the way or, ironically, to drop a tree too big for the huge machines to handle. As far as I know, there are no competitions planned at Fryeburg Fair for feller-bunchers, and Paul Bunyan isn’t around to challenge one of those machines the way John Henry did in the twilight of his profession back in the 19th century.
Read the rest here.