For logging companies, hiring the best camp cooks was a smart investment. Keeping lumbermen well fed was serious business.
A century before Hillary Clinton broke through the glass ceiling in her bid for president of the United States, generations of women toiled mightily, and in relative obscurity, in a specialized setting unique to the Pacific Northwest.
These women were assistants in the kitchens and dining halls in the logging camps that dotted the region’s forests in the first half of the 1900s. The women were known as “flunkies,” and bunked together in “flunky shacks.”
It was up to flunkies (the term denotes one who performs small tasks in a subservient role) to help prepare and serve enormous hot meals to hundreds of lumbermen at a time, long before microwaves and other shortcuts used in modern restaurants.
The men who performed the monumental labors of harvesting old-growth forest started their day at dawn. For them, feeding time was a serious business. They feasted somberly in relative silence, fueling up with about 8,000 calories at a time.
For the owners of the logging companies, hiring the best camp cooks was a smart investment. The difference between a skilled cook and an unskilled cook could be the difference between laborers who were contentedly well-fed and laborers who were disgruntled and ready to pull up stakes.
A University of Washington library digital exhibit on camp life documents the daily routine in detail, such as the typical fare served in the 1930s: corned beef, ham, bacon, pork, roast beef, chops, steaks, hamburger, chicken, oysters, cold cuts, potatoes, barley, macaroni, boiled oats, sauerkraut, fresh and canned fruits, berries, jellies and jams, pickles, carrots, turnips, biscuits, breads, pies, cakes, doughnuts, puddings, custards, condensed or fresh milk, coffee and tea.
Flunkies fired the wood stoves, did prep work for the cook, waited tables and handled the cleanup, according to the UW exhibit. The men went off to work in the woods with lunch buckets the cook or flunkies had packed for each of them, usually filled with items such as meat sandwiches, boiled eggs, fresh fruit, and a dessert of pie, cake or doughnuts.
While the lumbermen slept boot-camp style in large communal bunkhouses, flunkies shared sparse rooms in the flunky shacks. A woman might be assigned a narrow bed, thin mattress, a shelf for shoes, a rod for clothes. No one in a logging camp accumulated much materially, since they never knew when the camp would relocate.
Most logging companies opted to build bunkhouses and flunky shacks on skids, so that the entire operation could be loaded onto rail cars and shipped to new work sites as needed.
The lives of American logging camp flunkies in many ways mirrored the lives of the scullery maids and house servants depicted on “Downton Abbey” – minus the Edwardian mansion, of course. Their burdens were beastly, their free time fleeting, the course of their lives transient by necessity.
Many artifacts from the region’s logging camps are preserved as part of Mt. Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum.
Visitors ride the train to the logging camp exhibit in Mineral get a firsthand look at the lives and labors of lumbermen and flunkies of the early 1900s. Riding the Mt. Rainier Railroad to the logging museum also offers vistas of mountain streams, the Upper Nisqually River (a glacial-fed river) and Mineral Creek – features of the Washington landscape that are unchanged since the time the loggers first laid eyes on them.
The buildings in Mineral originally were used at a Rayonier logging camp on Lake Quinault, a St. Regis Paper logging camp near Lake Kapowsin, and a West Fork Timber Co. camp not far from the museum.
Chris Fiala Erlich, curator at Mt. Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum, says railroad logging camps played a significant role in Pacific Northwest history.
“Railroad logging camps were communities, where everyone – male and female, young and old – had a job to do. The exhibits give you a little peek into the daily lives, tools, and technologies at work in these movable villages,” Erlich says.
Mt. Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum is a steam-powered railway in Washington State. The museum is a nonprofit organization operating under the direction of Western Forest Industries Museum. For more information visit MtRainierRailroad.com or call 888-STEAM-11.