On sinks and silence

"Dishes to the sink!" It is the lumbercamp rule. In the old cookshacks of the days of King Spruce the hundred-odd men of a chopping crew might get some table service, but not much. The cookees brought new bowls of tinned peaches when called for, and they always punched the two east and west holes in the cans of milk. After a slobber of dark molasses in the cleaned-up plate, to be wiped with a last slice of new bread, each chopper brought his dishes together, climbed over the long bench, and carried them to the sink -- or to "the back hall." Same thing. Silver went in one big pan, plates in another, and cups in the third. The cookees would launder the dishes, but it was each man's own job to bring them to the sink. If a stranger, possibly a city-feller camp inspector from the company office down-state, had supper with the crew and didn't know of this rule, he wouldn't get far from the table afterward but a cookee would bawl at him "Dishes to the sink!"

Lumber-camp meals were always taken in silence. That, too, was a rule. Conversation led to differences of opinions, differences led to disputes, disputes led to fights, and cookshacks were not designed for brawls. A man could ask to have the milk passed, but it was more polite to point at it and hope somebody saw and understood. The boss cook was in command of the cookshack , and was as total as any captain on a ship at sea. There is one good story I shall tell now about that, and another to come later about carrying the dishes to the sink.

Along in the early century, and into the '30s, a now legendary figure in the Maine lumbering business was "King" Lacroix. He was an entrepreneur de boism without peer, and outdid the fabled Paul Bunyan in every way. Lacroix had the backing of Canadian bankers, all the know-how in the world, and his biggest job was lumbering off the Allagash in the Eagle Lake country. Everything he did was huge and vast, and among other things he built the logging railway from Eagle Lake over the mountain, across Chamberlain Lake, and on into Penobscot River waters -- so the harvested pulpwood could float down to the Millinocket mill. The Allagash River flows northward, toward Canada, and that was the wrong direction: hence the railroad.

So as this big operation was being set up, Lacroix moved about the region, seeing how things went at this camp and at that, and one noontime he came into the camp at Nine Mile to take dinner with the crew. While eating, he talked with his camp boss about progress, and while every man there knew this was violating the cookshack rule, Lacroix was the owner of the place, and what could one do? Well, the cook could do it. First, he called out, "Dis place is for h'eat; if you wannat talk, you go on de bedroom!"

Lacroix, manipulating millions to give this cook a job, continued to talk. So the cook picked Lacroix up by the back of his neck and hove him out the door into a snowbank. "Dis my cookshack!" he shouted into the hole in the snowbank. "You don't know dat when you come, you know it now." There are several versions of the next scene in that act, but they all have the same general style: Lacroix meekly returned, finished his dinner, shook the cook's hand, and told him everything was cooked to perfection.

When the railroad tracks for this operation were laid, Lacroix went down to Philadelphia. He had had some correspondence with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and he could buy locomotives and rolling stock from its retired inventory. The two locomotives that he bought are still in the Maine woods at a place called The Tramway on Eagle Lake. They were steamers, and came by their own power by way of Canadian Pacific to the Maine boundary. Dismantled, they were brought into Maine by tractor, reassembled, and for several years hauled pulpwood. When that operaation was over, they were abandoned.

Well, when King Lacroix arrived in Philadelphia, he told the taxi driver to take him to the best hotel in town, and that evening the Big Boss of the Maine woods took dinner in the swankiest of Philadelphia cookshacks. Silver and crystal, and china, and all that sort of thing. Two waiters, and King Lacroix had only to wave or point. No talk. No talk at all. Dis place is for h'eat. And after he'd eaten, Lacroix did what he had been told -- he carried his dishes to the sink.

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