What Stanley, washday, and log drives share

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When telling me of his career as a "river hog" on Maine logging drives, Stanley Barker said, "I was king-log boy for the Penobscot Boom people for 46 years, and then I got sluiced." He meant he was retired. Probably with the honor of a farewell party at the Exchange Hotel and laudatory remarks from one and all, and a beautiful silver watch with letters, just-s'if Stanley knew how to tell time.

For a fast and quick definition, a sluice is a spillway in a watershed, and in lumbering circles it has many extended meanings and uses.

I'm sure I first heard the word as a boy around the family farmhouse on washday. Laundry day. This was a domestic chore at which Hercules would despair and quit and go home. Would you care to go back and take a fanciful part?

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We'll skip, happily, the process of making soft and hard soap - starting with wood ashes and a leach-board - and mention briefly that there was no kind of plumbing and no such thing as constant hot water. At our farmhouse, the weekly nettoyage was accomplished in the summer kitchen, which was a utility room between our kitchen and the shed, and thus on the way to the barn. Wooden horses were brought in, and then three wooden tubs, the stirrin' paddles, the wringer and the washboard, and a pail of soft soap.

Somewhat at the same time, water would be assembled. We had a pitcher pump at the kitchen sink, and a Columbiana tall pump in the barnyard. Also an open drinking pool for the animals, which was fed from a spring uphill. So enough water was pumped or dipped to do the wash, and that which was meant to be hot was put in pots and pans on the kitchen stove, which was already hot from breakfast.

The tubs could have been coopered as washtubs, but we were frugal and poor, so we had make-do tubs made by sawing a hogshead in two. When a molasses barrel was emptied at the store, it could be had for 25 cents, and besides a little molasses to be dripped from the bung, you got two good tubs. Set up on the saw horses, the tubs were for soakin', cleanin', and rensin'. The wringer attached to the middle of the tub with thumbscrews, and now and then, as I got bigger, I had the honor of turnin' the crank while Grammie fed in wet underwear.

This took all morning, and then came hanging out to dry. Last thing of all was sluicin' down the summer kitchen. The summer-kitchen floor was wide pine planks, sawn "live" for the purpose. Which means the log was not "slabbed" at the mill so the boards were the same width all the way. The boards tapered as the log did, and then were laid for the floor alternately so you came out even. Those boards were sawn long ago, and the summer-kitchen floor had never been painted. Instead, it'd been washed every washday with water from the laundry tubs. The pine aged to a soft chestnut or butternut brown, beautiful and comfortable.

On washdays, water did drip and was splashed, and it was soapy with businesslike detergents long in use before the word "detergent" was heard in the land. First there was mopping up, and then, from one of the tubs, water would be sluiced so a miniature tidal wave would flow over the pine planks and drench everything. Then, with a stout barn broom, excess water was swept out the back door.

Sluicing out the summer kitchen brought washday to its end, and so Stanley was "sluiced" when he retired.

Hauling sawlogs on traverse-sleds by horses over primitive roads gave sluicing another meaning. Through the spillway, or the sluice, of a dam was something of a riotous way for a log on its passage downstream to a sawmill. Push it into the current with a pic-pole and swoosh! the log was gone in a swirl of foam. So they came to "snub" a sled-load of long logs on a downhill grade so it couldn't slide ahead faster than the horses could go.

The early way to do this was by a rope from the rear of the loaded sled to a stump or tree, and as the sled descended a man would "pay out" the line. With a double turn around the stump, the man could "ease" the load down. (Later, a snubbing machine was introduced, a complicated device that handled kinetics automatically.) Now and then, in snubbing, a rope would break and the heavy logs would cause sled, logs, driver, and horses to go rip-snortin' down the icy road in a manner called "sluiced." It was not pleasant. So as Stanley was sluiced after 46 years, his metaphor had the tones of finality.

In the days of sluicing logs, every owner had his own logmark to identify his wood. These predated Western cow brands by many years, and were mostly simple marks made by an ax with slashes struck by a scaler.

Since a river drive had logs from many owners, sorting was done upstream. Men standing on platforms would look for each mark, let a log go through, or push it aside to be boomed up and sent through later. Any log not marked was in the public domain, and folks along the river would spot them and get free firewood.

A "log-watch" went up and down the river to see if people were snitching marked logs. If he found marked logs in your woodpile, he simply sluiced them back in the river, and many times the log-watch was spoken of with less than respect. When he threw back some unmarked wood, as he was known at times to do, it was sometimes said he ought to be sluiced.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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