Stirring up memories
Shanty-boys, river-hogs and cookees
February 23, 2005
Tall tales, and fairy tales, legends and myths—Michigan is a
storytellers’ land. No wonder, not
only did Native Americans share their stories with the newcomers from the old
world, but these folks brought their own along. It’s not surprising that in those dark
you can hear stories of flying Dutchmen, Russian witches, Irish leprechauns, and
even a Scandinavian troll or two.
It’s enough to keep you up all night!
But the favorite Michigan tale, the favorite North Woods tale,
will always be Paul Bunyon and Babe.
The stories abound with Paul as the hero. My favorite, though, is an early one
wherein Paul gets rather confused.
In early, early spring, just as the river began to thaw, Paul got on a raft heavily loaded with
fresh-cut logs he’d hewn. He was
headed for the mill. Down the river
he went! Down the river he
went. Seemed like he should have
gotten to the mill long before.
Then suddenly, Paul noticed he was seeing the same scenery over and
over! He’d picked out a river that
went in a circle! Poor Paul! I’ve had days like that.
As much fun as the Paul and Babe lumberjack stories are, the true
lumbering stories of Michigan are just as amazing.
In the 1800s as Americans pushed westward, folks needed lumber,
particularly the white pine of Michigan, to build their homes and
businesses. In 1869, Michigan produced more
lumber than any other state.
Doing it wasn’t easy.
Most lumbering took place in the dead of winter so that the cut logs
could be hauled by sled over the deep snow to the rivers. After the spring thaw, those logs headed
downstream for the lumber mills—unless it was Paul’s circular river.
This meant that the workers headed into to the cold, snowy woods at the
end of autumn, and there they stayed working long lonely days in the lumber
camps. While we may call Paul
Bunyon a lumberjack, in the Michigan woods, he would have been known as a
shanty boy—that’s lumberjack in Michiganese. It’s for the shanties where the men
stayed on the long winter nights.
But just because the sun came up late, didn’t mean the shanty boys got to
sleep in. Not at all. They were up around 4 a.m. getting ready
to start the long, long day chopping down, trimming and hauling those huge
Is it any wonder the biggest meal of the day was breakfast? These fellows, after wrapping up good,
waited to hear the welcome sound of the gabriel—the long tin horn that the
cookee (Michiganese for cook) used to call them to the cook shanty for a
more-than-ample breakfast of fried potatoes, sowbelly, lots and lots of beans
and naturally flapjacks, served up with molasses or gravy. Breakfast was mighty good, but
also mighty silent. The rule in the
lumber camp was “No talking at meals.”
It held fighting down to a minimum!
After breakfast, Cookee packed up the leftovers and handed each
shanty-boy his flaggins—lunch to be eaten it the woods.
Many of these lumbering men were from Scandinavia, and on special occasions (or when he got hold
of some milk and butter) Cookee might have prepared this special Finnish treat
called kropsua or pannaukakku. Or, baked pancake!
Cookee’s baked pancake
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
1 stick butter, melted
Beat eggs until
thick and lemon colored. Add sugar and beat until sugar is dissolved. Stir salt
into flour and add to egg mixture alternately with milk, stirring until well
blended. Add 1/4 cup of melted butter and blend. Pour remaining 1/4 cup melted
butter into 9-x-13-inch pan. Pour batter over butter. Bake in preheated 375
degree oven for 35 minutes. It’s good served with jam or fresh fruit. But on an icy morning, molasses does
In spring, when
the thaw finally came, the shanty-boys loaded the logs onto rafts. Now it was the river-hogs (some times
the same fellows) who took over to guide these rafts over the perilous waters to
the downstream mill. River-hogs
earned more than shanty-boys because the work was so dangerous.
Cookee? He went right along. They’d build a wanigan—a floating cook
shanty--right onto one of the rafts and it was dinner as usual.
was the big meal, everyone looked forward to supper. More beans, more sowbelly, more potatoes
and lots of coffee, but nearly always there was pie. When supplies were scarce,
those resourceful cooks weren’t discouraged. They used what they had on hand.
North Woods Vinegar Pie
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1/3 cup vinegar
1/3 cup cornstarch
Dash of nutmeg
1 tablespoon butter
Baked 8" or 9" pie shell
and beat the three egg yolks together. Stir the first five ingredients together
and cook until clear and thick. Stir half the mixture into three beaten egg
yolks; add mixture to remaining mix in saucepan and stir until combined; then take it off the burner and let it
rest for one minute. Stir in a tablespoon of butter until melted. Pour into a
baked pie shell.
But when times
were better—remember, Michigan is the state famous for its
apples. When they are dried,
they’re a year ‘round treat.
Dried Michigan Apple Pie Recipe
prepared double-crust pie shell
3/4 pound dried apples
4 cups apple cider
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoon cold unsalted butter, cut
1 tablespoon cold milk
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Preheat oven to
In large pot,
combine apples and cider (add water if necessary to cover apples). Bring to a
boil and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, 20-30 minutes or
until apples are softened. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup of cider. Allow apples to
1/4 cup sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and nutmeg into mixing bowl, then add cooled
apples and toss. Add reserved cider and toss gently until mixture is
Spoon the apple mixture into the pie
shell. Dot with butter. Place top pastry over filling and crimp edges. Brush
pastry lightly with milk. Sprinkle with remaining sugar, and cut slashes into
the top for ventilation.
Bake on baking sheet in lower third
of oven for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 400 degrees and bake another 30
minutes. Five minutes before baking is done, drizzle heavy cream into vents on
top of pie and return to oven. Serve warm.
It’s good without that last dollop of cream, but oh, so good when you add
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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network