Trees: The settlers’ biggest nemesis and asset

log tongs
Large, heavy iron log tongs, crafted by a blacksmith, were used to drag massive logs around the sites where log structures were being constructed. The tongs were hitched by chains or ropes to the harnesses of oxen, horses or mules. (Locher collection)

With two of the three top priorities in their lives now somewhat addressed for the moment — getting some seeds into the root-choked ground and girdling some big trees to make them lose their leaves and admit some daylight to the wilderness site — task number three was looming large.

If the settlers were going to make it through the coming winter, they needed some kind of permanent shelter beyond their primitive lean-to for both them and their animals. And the clock was quickly ticking away precious days.

The shelter that was going to be needed was a log barn that could house both people and animals together, allowing the people to utilize some of the animals’ body heat. The barn would be created from the trunks of some of the gigantic trees that grew thick in the woods all around them. Felling these virgin trees — which had a genetic makeup completely unlike the trees on today’s landscape — was for most men a challenge of incredible proportions. Many of these trees had a stump diameter of more than 4 feet and the lowest branches were often as high as 80 feet in the sky.

To cut down such trees with a simple felling axe was an almost unimaginably gargantuan job — not to mention converting them into usable building material, hauling them to the construction site and creating a sturdy structure from them. Nevertheless, removing the trees would help open to daylight what in the future would be productive fields.

In his 1917 memoirs about early pioneer life in Ohio, Major General David Sloane Stanley wrote, “The amount of labor required to clear an acre for the plow — an acre of ordinary growth — is about 16 days for a good farmhand. This includes [making] the fencing [rails].”

Stanley recounts that even to begin to work with the trunks of such huge felled trees, fires had to be built at intervals along their length to separate them into sections that horses or oxen were capable of hauling.

He said that making the trunks into usable lengths “consisted of piling the limbs of the tree crosswise of its trunk and then firing and keeping up the fire until the trunk was severed.”

After the great trunk was burned into lengths, came the process of squaring or hewing. The hewing process ultimately converted the tree trunks into beams that would be used to build structures.

But for this process, a whole different set of tools was necessary.

Fortunately, as more and more settlers moved into an area, the diversity of tools that were available became ever greater. Neighbors borrowed needed tools back and forth as jobs required.

But before any actual hewing began, the settler let the trunks lie for a while until they started to dry out and their wood shrank away from the bark, leaving it loose. When it loosened, the settler used a tool called a bark spud. This was about 2 1/2 feet long overall, with about a 2-foot- long wooden handle and a rounded iron blade at the end, kept well sharpened. Some examples are made completely of iron.

bark spud
The bark spud, with its sharpened rounded iron blade on the end, was used to strip sheets of bark from fallen trees. Bark could be sold to tanneries for use in softening animal hides and was a source of some cash for a settler. Shown here are two types of bark spuds. One is all iron and made by a blacksmith. (Locher collection)

The rounded iron blade was placed under the loosened bark and the user walked the length of the log peeling up sheets of bark as he went. These large pieces of bark would be allowed to dry further; then the settler would haul them to a tannery.

Tanneries, whose business was to soften and prepare animal hides for future use, were often one of the first businesses to set up shop in a settlement. They used the tree bark, which contains a chemical called tannin, as the key element in leather softening or tanning. The hides to be processed were floated in large pools of water along with the tree bark. The odor produced by this ugly morass was said to be nauseating at best. But for the settler in need of cash, selling the tree bark was one way of getting some.

To hew the now barkless logs, two sections of the giant trunks typically had heavy iron log tongs attached to them and were pulled by horse or oxen so they lay parallel to and right next to one another. They were then — for want of better description — stapled together by large heavy iron staples called log dogs. This prevented the logs from rolling over on the hewer when struck with an axe during the squaring-up process.

log dogs
Two types of wrought iron log dogs used to anchor tree trunks together for the hewing or squaring process. One of the dogs incorporates a hinged point so that it could reach two logs of very different diameters. (Locher collection)

The first step in hewing involved snapping chalk lines the length of the logs, thereby establishing what size they would be converted to. Most logs used for barn structures and cabins were hewn on only two sides, ultimately providing flat surfaces to be seen on the interior and exterior of the structure. The remaining two sides would not be hewn and their rough, uneven surfaces would eventually be covered over and concealed with mud when the log spaces were chinked.

chalk holders
Shown are two early types of chalk line holders employed in the hewing process. One is a solid piece of wood cut so that the line could be easily wound around it. The other has a light, well-crafted bentwood frame which held the line. It was made so that the D-shaped frame easily revolved around a central shaft, making it unnecessary for the user to keep turning the handle of the winder. (Locher collection)

The hewn faces of such logs were usually 8 to 12 inches, but log structures having faces even twice that width are not uncommon. A rule of thumb is that the wider the log, the earlier the structure, although that does not always hold true.

With the logs that were to be hewn now drawn up and anchored together, it was time to get out more axes. This time, however, it would not be the felling axe that took the brunt of the work, but rather a different kind of axe known as a broad axe.

Get our Top Stories in Your Inbox

Next step: Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.



We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.