This year marks the centennial of the last long log drives on the Connecticut River. From the late 1800s and early 1900s, logs as big as 30 feet long were floated down the river to sawmills in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Now two Vermonters are keeping the history alive, chronicling the history of the drives.
Bill Gove has worked for both the timber industry and the Department of Forestry, Parks and Recreation. He spent close to 20 years working on his book, Log Drives on the Connecticut River, which is filled with amazing photographs of the drives, including horses floating on rafts and the Connecticut appearing as a seemingly corduroy river full of spruce logs.
“The river would be jammed with logs for four, five miles sometimes,” Gove says.
It could take three months for the logs to float 200 to 300 miles downstream to the sawmills in Northampton and Hartford, where they were turned into boards for building. In small towns on both sides of the river, the log drives were a major event – sometimes because they knocked out bridges. Just the spectacle itself called for letting kids out of school to watch. A young boy named Bob Pike in Waterford, Vermont saw his first log drive in 1909.
“He’d never seen anything like this. Of course, he’s all of about 4 years old,” says Bob Pike’s daughter, Helen. “He and all the other boys and girls and adults would crowd on the river banks or over the iron bridge that connected to Pattonville, New Hampshire and watch these logs coming downstream.”
Bob Pike grew up to document the lore and history of logging in the region. The men who worked on the Connecticut River log drives came from all over New England and Canada. Many of the so-called river men had no family and were illiterate.
Bill Gove, who is now retired and lives in Williamstown, says the trade appealed to a certain type.
“Just something about it that attracted a certain breed of men, and they just loved it,” he says. “They’d be back year after year. In fact, they’d be lined up waiting, waiting for the ice to go out.”
Gove says that celebrating the rugged individualism of the log drivers can romanticize these men, who’ve been called New England’s version of the cowboy.
"There’s something about the logging industry, both the river driving and the woods, that seems to generate a lot of fancy tales. So, I take everything with a little bit of a grain of salt,” he says.
Bob Pike’s books have no doubt added to the myth of the river men. Pike’s family goes back a long ways in Waterford, settling there after the Revolutionary War. As a young man, Pike worked as a surveyor in the woods of New Hampshire, and that’s when he began collecting the loggers’ stories. He continued that work for decades.
“I think what was driving my father was the sense that if no one else was taking these stories down, they would be lost forever,” says Helen Pike.
As a girl, Helen accompanied her father on his research trips to Vermont every August. They visited county poor houses and nursing homes where the old loggers lived.
"They were old, they were in their eighties. Some of them didn’t have teeth. Some of them were losing their eyesight and it would be summertime and they’d be dressed in these dark green wool pants,” she recalls. “My father would come away from there and there’d be tears in his eyes. These men he had made into heroes in his own writing were living out their lives in less than heroic surroundings.”
Bob Pike earned a Ph.D in French at Harvard and also mastered Latin, Greek, Spanish, German, Russian and Italian. He chaired the foreign languages department at a college in New Jersey, but kept returning to Vermont to gather logging stories.
Pike wrote a book titled Spiked Boots, which was named for the loggers’ footwear. It came out in 1956.
“My father decided that he would scrape together enough money and self-publish Spiked Boots, because otherwise the men that were referenced in these books wouldn’t be around any longer to see their stories in print,” Helen Pike says.
Helen Pike was a girl in the late 1950s when her parents drove up to Vermont and went door to door selling Spiked Boots for $3.50.
“It was loaded up in the trunk of the car and I was put in the back seat with all the luggage,” she remembers. “And we drove the 400 miles up here and my father would go to these people’s houses and he would say, ‘Here, you want to buy this book, because you’re in it.’ It was DIY publishing in the 1950s.”
But the book eventually reached a wide audience. When Yankee Magazine’s book division re-printed Spiked Boots in the mid-1980s, people were lined up and down Main Street in Littleton, New Hampshire for a bookstore signing.
Bob Pike was so fond of the book that he asked that it be mentioned on his tombstone.
But Spiked Boots was not Pike’s best-known work. In 1967, W.W. Norton published Tall Trees, Tough Men, which is widely regarded as the definitive history of logging in New England.
“In 2017, it’ll be 50 years in print,” says Helen Pike. “It’s got legs. It’s got amazing legs.”
Helen Pike is following in her father’s footsteps. A professional journalist who has written several books, she decided to move to the Northeast Kingdom a few years ago with cartons of her father’s correspondence and other documents.
She hopes to publish an anthology of short adventure stories written by her father before he finished Spiked Boots and says she’ll likely write a book of her own at some point.
“Try as I might, I can’t walk away from this. I grew up with this. I understand this,” she says. “Many of these men came out of these woods and made an industry possible.