Logging on Joe's Pond

Log Drive on Joe’s Pond

by E. Jane Brown

            The land around Joe’s Pond in the towns of Cabot, Walden and Danville, was farm land in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Villages were formed, often in a valley where there was a brook, and there were stores, mills, a school, and a church or meeting house, but the land was used primarily for farming.  These communities were connected by ribbons of narrow dirt roads that made travel difficult at best and at times impossible, especially during winter storms and of course, mud season each spring.  This was the reason  my grandfather, Aaron Bolton, and some other farmers on Cabot Plain, used Joe’s Pond to get their logs to the mill in the spring instead of hauling them with horses and sleds.

            My grandfather owned the land at the head of Joe’s Pond for many years.  At that time it was a dense soft woods forest that he used as pasture in the summer and selectively logged during some winters.  The work was done with teams of horses, beginning usually in January when the ice on the pond was safe for the teams as they dragged long logs, one or two at a time, onto the ice at the northwest end of the pond.   Occasionally the horses would break through the ice in spots weakened by the many trips across it, but my father, who was a young boy then, told me he never heard of one drowning.  By the time the weather warmed up sometime in March, there would be a mass of logs laid out on the ice, and when the channel leading into the pond began to open, it was time to stay off the ice with the teams.  Then it was time to create a “boom” around the logs.

            First, the ends of each log had to be painted red, the identifying color for Bolton logs, and if neighbors had brought logs onto the pond, they would be contained in the same boom, but were painted a different color so the lumber could be identified after being sawed at the mill. My father said the paint was made of a red powder they bought by the barrel and mixed with skim milk for the logs, and the same powder was mixed with linseed oil to paint the barn.

            Logs were selected carefully for the boom and maneuvered with cant hooks or peavies to the outer edge of the piles of logs.  Holes were drilled in the ends of those logs and large iron pins with rings were used with lengths of chain to connect one log to another in a circle large enough so all the logs could eventually float free within it.  The boom was then secured to the shore and would contain the logs once the ice was gone.  

            When the pond was free of ice and all the logs were floating within the boom, my grandfather kept close watch of the weather, waiting for a good wind from the northwest to get the logs down the pond and through the narrows to Daniels’ mill in West Danville. 

            The day they started the boom down the pond was always exciting.  There would be my grandfather and usually three other men in two boats with one man to row and the other with a spiked pole to move the logs around.  My father used to tell the story of how one year Albert Daniels went to my grandfather with the proposal that instead of waiting for the wind, he would pull the boom of logs to the mill with his motor boat.  Daniels hooked onto the boom and began to pull, revving the motor and tugging on the big boom until he stripped the gears in his motor.  The boom hadn’t moved. 

            Will Somers’ farm was where Mike and Barb Pupino’s house is now, on West Shore Road.  Will knew my grandmother always worried that someone would get hurt during those log drives, so he would keep watch with his binoculars and call my grandmother periodically to report the progress of the men and the boom.  If they got hung up somewhere, Will would let her know to expect them home late, or sometimes he’d call just to reassure her saying they were eating their lunch in the boats, or just that things were going well. 

            The most difficult part of the drive was getting through the narrows.  Sometimes the wind would pick up and create a log jam, or it might change direction and send the logs into the cove by Barre Avenue and if that happened, it could be days before there was a south wind to move the boom out.  There were only a few cottages on the pond in those days, so sometimes the men would be able to move the boom by guiding it with their poles from the shore, but if the logs jammed up, the men had to walk on the logs and pry them free.  My father said nobody ever got hurt, but sometimes they got pretty wet.

            Once through the narrows, it was easy to guide the boom into the first pond where it was secured until the mill was ready to saw them.  That might be a few days or longer, depending on how busy the mill was.  When the boom was opened up, the logs were floated down to the mill just below the bridge into the spillway, or sluice, which took them to the mill where a big “bull-wheel" pulled them, one by one, into position to be rolled into the mill and sawed.

        The picture at the left, taken in the early 1920s, shows a boom of logs secured in the cove of the first pond, in West Danville, where Point Comfort is now.  The logs were held here until the mill was ready for them.  The unpaved road is now Route 2.  The narrow opening, or "narrows," between the middle pond and the big pond is at the upper left of the picture, and the hills in the background are Cabot Plain. 

            Sometimes logs soaked up a lot of water on the way to the mill so they became water logged.   These “sinkers” would be just under the surface of the water and would escape notice, never making it into the sluice, and would finally settle on the bottom, lost forever, buried in the mud and debris.   A few years ago some people came one summer to retrieve sinkers in the first pond.  The wood has a high value, as much as ten times what today’s lumber is worth, because it is old-growth and therefore finer grain.  Being submerged all those years, it is usually perfectly preserved and sometimes has extraordinary coloring.  Getting those logs off the bottom is difficult and takes special equipment.  I don’t expect they found enough “sinkers” in Joe’s Pond to make retrieving them very profitable.

            Much has changed since Grandfather Bolton maneuvered his log booms down the pond in early spring.  Logging trucks go by our house almost every day until the town posts the road prohibiting heavy loads when the weather begins to warm.  Those trucks probably haul out in one day as many logs as my grandfather was able to cut during a whole winter’s work.  Land owners aren’t allowed to clear cut at will any longer, and there are strict rules about protecting our shoreline and the environment.  Even if the saw mill still existed in West Danville, floating a boom of logs down the pond couldn’t happen today.  No permit would ever be granted for that.  I expect the last log drives on Joe’s Pond were in the early to mid 1900’s, and log drives that were commonplace on large rivers of the northeast a few years ago are now outlawed, starting with the Connecticut in 1930 and later others like the Androscoggin in 1963 and Kennebec in 1976.  

            We still have some dirt roads that turn into slippery bogs during mud season each spring, and we still watch eagerly for the ice to go out.  Even now, wind and weather play a major role in the drama because there’s a good bit of money riding on when the Joe’s Pond Ice-Out Contest flag drops signaling the end of a long winter and the start of another summer season at Joe’s Pond.  Then people gradually return, like migrating birds from the south, to fill the shoreline and West Danville with bustling activity.    Grandfather Bolton would be amazed at how the pond has changed.

Note:  This article was first published in the March, 2011 issue of The North Star Monthly, Danville, Vermont.