A Hovel Fit For a King

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LATELY the reporters have gaffled onto the word hovel, and they've been using it more and more exactly as it should be - mean and inadequate shelter, particularly for the poor and unfortunate. Deprived people live in hovels. But the word, when thus used properly, tingles on Maine ears, because for generations a hovel has been the stable in a lumber camp, and it scarcely means destitution and poverty. The horses that worked on iced skid roads to bring the timber from stump to brow during the deep Maine winters were important enough to the woodsman that he gave them comfort and luxury.

The most highly trained animal of all was never the famous Austrian stallion or the trickster in a circus - he was the twitchin' horse of the Maine timberlands. 'Twas somewhat eerie to be cruising the woods, perhaps looking for a bird or a bunny, and look up to see a horse going by, a bell on his neck so he wouldn't get shot by some stupid hunter, and his progress purposeful.

Choppers, having felled a tree, would attach a twitchin' horse to the log, and alone without driver the horse would snag the log a couple of miles to a road, landing, and perhaps a mill. Then, the log disengaged, the horse would go all by himself back for another log. A fine twitchin' horse was as good as a license to steal, and his owner always had work and never had to lift a finger.

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Most of Maine's work horses in the woods spoke French. ``Mush-law!'' was good Canadian French any Maine lumber camp horse understood. The hostler in a wilderness operation was a Pelletier, a Beauchamp, a Caron, a Bolduc, or some equally capable expert from Beauce County, Quebec. He kept his hovel tight and clean, his horses able and ready, and he stood a couple of hands taller than the ordinary chopper. Horses were important, but choppers could be hired if needed.

The heroic Edouard Lacroix of St. Georges, Quebec, outdid Paul Bunyan with his accomplishments. With the backing of a consortium of Montreal bankers, he would come to Maine and contract to supply long logs and pulpwood to the mills. When he cut off the vast area on the upper Allagash watershed, he built a railroad from Eagle Lake to Umbazooksis Lake on the West Branch of the Penobscot River - the 13-mile run dumped the harvest on the other side of the height of land so it could float the rest of the way to the Great Northern paper mill at Millinocket.

When the roadbed was finished and tracks were being laid, ``King'' Lacroix excused himself and left his lumber camp at Seven Mile on the St. John River to take the train at Lac Fronti`ere and go down to Philadelphia to see if he could buy a couple of outmoded locomotives from the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Some authorities say that most of the legends about King Lacroix never happened, and it has been researched that he was never in Philadelphia, but why must credibility depend on the truth? The story goes that he descended from the train in Philadelphia, boosted his packbasket to his sturdy shoulders, and sought a taxi. To the cabdriver he said, in his very best English, ``You please tak me to de bes' hov-vell in town?''

The cabbie, looking at his first Kaybecker, thought King Lacroix said ``hotel,'' which is what King Lacroix meant, but not what he said. He delivered King Lacroix to the best hotel in Philadelphia, which, comparably speaking, was no doubt as lavish in that city as a hoss-hovel would be if you needed shelter in the Maine woods. King Lacroix entered to perplex the rooming clerk.

Well, he was wearing his mackinaw, larrigans, and ear-flap hat, and in Philadelphia he looked less like a Canadian millionaire than he did somebody just out of the woods. But he got a room, and after finding a necktie in his ``kennebecker'' and adjusting it, he descended to the dining room for supper.

The headwaiter asked if he were alone, and King Lacroix looked about and said, ``H'I don' see someboddee h'else.'' After the double tenderloin with adequate with-its, King Lacroix laid out money for his check, added a Canadian ten-spot for the waiter, and picked up his dirty dishes and carried them to the kitchen and put them in a sink. (In Maine lumber camps you always take your dishes to the sink.) He told the chef if he ever wanted to make a change he could always find work at Seven Mile.

After buying two locomotives, King Lacroix returned to Maine, and those two engines, long abandoned, may be seen at Eagle Lake today. They're in a shed just behind where the old hovel used to be.

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