March 28th, 2010

Clearing Stumps

When my great grandfather and grandfather were buying their farms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the land had been logged, but not cleared. The loggers left behind brush, stumps, and tall snags.

South loft, pig barn

Although biggest evergreens were gone, the land was still forested with smaller firs, cedars, and hemlocks, and unmerchantable trees like vine maple, big leaf maple, bitter cherry, mountain ash (rowan), cottonwood, and alder flourished where the climax forest had been disturbed.

Judging Farm Land

Dad said that the old settlers judged the quality of land by the trees that grew on it. Land covered with big flourishing cedars and firs was good farm land. Cedars meant that the ground was well watered. Big firs meant the soil was rich and dry enough for early planting. Those were the rules my grandfather used to choose the acreage that became our farm.

The soil underneath the tangle left behind by the loggers was good, but preparing the land for farming was a struggle. Clearing land was hard work. The trees the loggers left behind were cut and hauled to the the mill if the logs could be sold and burned if they could not. The farmers hacked down brush, grubbed out the roots, and burned all the debris.

Daunting Task

Clearing stumps was a daunting task. If you are not from the Pacific Northwest, you may not realize how monumental those stumps were. Stumps big enough to hollow out and drive a car through used to be tourist attractions on the highway, but in the woods, they were not rare. I only watched the stump era end, but the stumps I remember were a dozen feet tall and a good ten feet through at the base. They were all marked by spring board notches that were at least six feet off the ground.

There were different ways of dealing with stumps. A temporary expedient was to plant around them, but that made cultivating and harvesting difficult and wasted good land. Like his neighbors, Grandpa started out as a stump farmer, sowing potatoes and oats between the towering stumps and snags; clearing the farm of stumps was a gradual forty year project. Grandpa bought the farm in about 1909 when my grandparents married and the last field was cleared in the late 1940’s, before I was born. According to Dad, most of the stumps were dug out by hand and pulled with a team of horses into piles for burning. Only the last few acres were cleared by bull dozer. When I was a kid in the fifties and sixties, there were stumps left in the woods and a few left in the semi-cleared margin around the woods.

Blasting

Grandpa blasted some stumps out with dynamite. At first, Grandpa hired an expert, a so-called powder monkey, to set charges and blow the stumps, but he soon learned to blast for himself. When I was a kid, a couple of sticks of dynamite still lurked on a shelf in the tractor shed. In the woods, here and there, powder boxes were still bolted five or six feet above the ground on trees; a large box for dynamite sticks and a smaller box thirty or forty feet away for storing blasting caps, keeping the sticks and caps apart as carefully as fire and gasoline. By the time I was tall enough to look into the boxes, they were all empty and I was never around for a blast.

The havoc after a blast could be more trouble than the stump, so Grandpa only blasted the biggest and most recalcitrant stumps. In his search for a better way, Grandpa invented a tool for burning out stumps. He bought a second-hand vacuum cleaner and fitted it with a set of metal nozzles where the dust bag had been attached, so that he had a blower that he could direct deep in the base of a stump. With forced air, he could start and keep a hot fire burning that would consume a stump in a day or two instead the weeks it would take without air. John Schaefer, my long dead consultant on nearly everything, said Grandpa’s stump burner worked better than anything else, but you had to have a long extension cord.

Effects

Transforming the forests of the Pacific Northwest into farmland released many tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. For decades, there was always a hint of wood smoke in the air and I still treat work that does not carry the scent of wood smoke and sweat as slightly frivolous. Much of the timber that was burned would be used today. Alder, which my grandfather did not even think much of for firewood, is now a premium wood for cabinetry. What is right for one generation, changes for the next.

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