Taylor Johnson | Hayward, WI
Some of my family are what people call Travellers. They were Scottish, Irish, and Welsh traveling people who went to Kentucky. My family ended up there because my great-great-grandfather was good with horses and there was money to be made in Kentucky for horsemen back in the mid-1800s.
They came up to Wisconsin for the first time in the early 1900s. The logging industry started in Wisconsin in the mid 1800s, and a lot of people were employed as lumberjacks and at sawmills. The loggers that worked in the Great Lakes area traveled from job to job. At that time, my family traveled through Wisconsin into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan then traveled back to Kentucky, working all points in between.
In the 1930s they ended up in Crandon, Wisconsin. The sawmill in Kentucky bought land in northern Michigan, and that is why they settled here. My grandpa on my mother’s side was born on the roadside when they were on their way to a logging camp. They dug out a bank, put up a pole tent to create a place to stay, and that’s where he was born. Back in those days, lumber camps were makeshift little towns that they built up, and that’s where they lived. It was the Depression, but my grandpa told me that they always had plenty to eat because they hunted and trapped and grew and picked things. He knew everything to eat in the woods that was decent. He told me that he never knew it was the Depression. It wasn’t that they had a lot of things; they were just resourceful. Sometimes there would be hobos across the road, near tracks, and he said they always shared food with people that didn’t have any because they had plenty.
My great-grandma, who I named my daughter after, told me stories of living in these tents. She told me she could sometimes see Lake Superior from the tent and how loudly the wind blew. When I was little, she would whistle to mimic that wind blowing to put me to sleep.
When my grandpa was fifteen he started working full time in the camp. His sawing partner was a large Swedish kid. My great grandfather told me that the guys at the camp made fun of them because they were the last two out from breakfast since they ate so much. But they made up for it since they were young and could just keep going and going. Each logging town had a blacksmith shop that built the tools they needed. Some blacksmiths built and repaired sleighs, they were called butchers because they were rough sawing wood and building whatever they needed with rough wood. They used draw shaves to shape the wood by removing shavings, hewing axes, and other simple tools to do this. When I was a kid, my grandpa still made dray sleds (a low horse-drawn cart) and taught me how to make them. The people I teach now through my business, Skinner Horse Logging, come out to see how I make them and how I still use them.
Before World War II, Wisconsin relied heavily on human and animal power for farming and logging. After the war, the tractor companies did a good job of marketing, and the guys coming back didn’t want to keep doing the same thing that their fathers were doing. That’s when tractors kind of took over the logging industry. I think that horses are still more efficient at small acreage and smaller jobs. You’re not going to outdo large equipment on big jobs, but for small jobs, it’s hard to beat horses.
I am the fifth generation in my family to log with horses. Some things are different today from when my family first started logging, but some things are the same. I know horsemen from all over the world and we make the same noises. My grandfather made a noise to get his horses to react, to tell them to get ready to do something hard. I make the same noise. Every animal I have pays attention when I make that sound. People can be standing ten feet from me and they don’t even know it is happening. I don’t have to yell, I can be quiet, but my horses know there is something heavy back there and we need to fire up and pull hard. When I went to Scotland to meet distant relatives, the Travellers I met made the same exact noise. In Poland and some of the Eastern Bloc countries they make clicks with their mouth to do the same thing, give commands without saying words. I love working with animals, and I want to keep the tradition of horse logging going.
He said, ‘Taylor, you can use this hatchet to chop the wood, but be careful because it’s sharp. If you cut your leg or your hand, your grandma is going to kill me.’ I started cutting the wood and I missed, hit a rock, and it made a spark. It just amazed me. So, I kept hitting that rock to make these sparks, not even thinking about what I was doing to this hatchet. My great uncle came out of the woods and asked me what I was doing. I knew I was in trouble. I set the hatchet on the stump and I just sat there. My grandpa came out and said, ‘Taylor, buddy, what are you doing?’ I fessed up, ‘I had grass piled up here and I was trying to spark into that grass to build a campfire.’ He shook his head, laughed and said, ‘Well, I guess that’s your hatchet now. I don’t have to worry about you cutting your leg with it because it is dull now.’ So that was my first hatchet.
At first I would wait on the landing, where the logs were decked, while they worked. I learned how to hook chains around logs and set up landings. I was always around these logs. The summer in between third and fourth grade I had my first job in the woods. I measured logs for one of my dad’s cutters up on the Wisconsin/Michigan border. I put the measuring stick on the log and laid it out so he could cut links off the log. I did that all summer long and eventually went to work with my dad full time.
When I was a kid, my dad ran his business with horses. Then he went mechanized for years. It wasn’t that horses weren’t efficient; it just faded out because fewer and fewer people knew how to drive them. In 1996 we started talking about just using horses again. The equipment was so expensive, and it felt more like factory work to us. We hated it. Most mechanized crews need volume, but we don’t need volume with horse logging. And a horse can get into a small space where a machine can’t. It was not just for nostalgia that my dad and I wanted to return to horses — it makes sense to do it this way for us to fill the needs of our customers.
My family has always worked together. On a job I could be working with my dad, my grandpa, my great-grandpa, uncles, and great uncles. And this isn’t counting all my cousins. As the logging camps dwindled, we went door to door to find work. If we were driving in southern Wisconsin and saw something we wanted to cut, we’d pull over and say, ‘Hey, have you thought about logging this?’ Between my dad and mom’s side of the family, he could pull together a fifteen-man crew within a week.
Now we are all independent with our own businesses. My dad has his business, my uncle has his business, and as soon as I was old enough, I had mine. My business is Skinner Horse Logging. We help each other with our jobs. The equipment we use is very basic; for most tasks you can simply use one horse and a chain with a simple harness. When I started full-time, that’s all I had.
One of the strengths of using horses is you can customize what you’re doing. Nowadays, with the large machinery most loggers use, they have to cut a minimum of twenty semi-truck loads of wood in order to pay to move their equipment there. There is just so much cost with machinery. I can come in and cut just one truckload of trees. When I started pushing to go full-time horses again, I knew there was a market for low-impact logging. I did my research first—to make sure I wasn’t selling myself on horses being better because that is what I wanted to do. I told myself, ‘If there is equipment that can do the job better, I will find it and do that instead.’ It made me happy to learn that horses were the best tool for low-impact logging. A horse is something special. You know that expression, ‘healthy as a horse?’ The more you use a horse, if you take care of them right, the better and healthier they are. From the early 2000s until now, there were maybe three day’s worth of time that I had horses that could not work because they had something wrong with them, and it was only for a day or two.
One thing that has changed over the years is that people are so far removed from nature and don’t understand that nature is not uniform. They tell me they want the landing here, and they want me to start there. I tell them that their idea is not efficient. A tree grows a certain way. If it is leaning in a certain direction, we may have to take it down in another direction to save some young hardwoods. When I was younger, my grandpa and dad taught me to pay attention to where the sun is coming up and how the trees are leaning to decide where to start logging. There is a lot of physics and looking at angles in this work. Horse logging is definitely a thinking man’s sport.
I had one more cousin that worked horses; he hasn’t worked them now in probably seventeen years because he lost his arm. He had a tree hit his arm and destroy it while he was working for another guy. He had to cut it off. I’m pretty much the last guy in my family doing it now. My son works with me some, but he’s really interested in becoming a plumber. Today I own five horses. Depending on the job, I sometimes use a single horse and that’s what’s fastest. For other jobs I’ve teamed up with horse loggers from other parts of the country. For one job we met down on the Iowa/Minnesota border and worked in the river bottoms pulling walnut, which is a real high-value wood. But most of the time it’s just me.
Part of my business is to teach people how to drive horses. I like educating people about logging with animals, and there is a lot of interest in it. People come out to work with me and they see the tools I work with, similar to the rough-sawed wood that my grandpa worked with. Since the wood was not planed to a finish, it will still have bark on it. They laugh because everything they are used to working with is very polished and finished, made in a factory. But if I break a tool, I’ll find a dead oak tree, cut it down to make what I need out of it, and within half an hour I’m back up and running. This is something I am able to do because of what was taught to me. Back in the old camp days of my great grandparents, the town might be forty or fifty miles away. If something broke you had to fix it yourself because it could take two days to get anything to the camp.
Many of the people I teach are young foresters and smokejumpers, specially trained wildland firefighters. My best student so far was a smokejumper from Colorado. She worked for the Forestry Department in Colorado and they have to clear out the pine trees in case a fire starts. They were spending so much money on ATVs that she wanted to see how horses compared to ATVs for working in remote areas. She was going to spend just a few days with us. The first morning, as I’m harnessing horses, I said, ‘This team of horses will out-pull a four-wheel-drive truck.’ She just laughed at me. I think she thought I was kidding. We got out in the woods, and I was clearing an area for an organic blueberry farm. I had to clear all the aspen off this hillside. I hooked up two aspen trees at a time that were roughly as big as a steering wheel on a truck and about 70 feet long. This team I had, these horses weighed almost a ton apiece. They pulled out the trees like it was nothing. She watched me from 7:30 in the morning until 10:00. And didn’t say a lot. When I stopped and we took a break, I said, ‘How do you think horses are compared to ATVs?’ She laughed and said, ‘There’s no comparison.’ She stayed a month and a half at our house, and now they are using horses in forestry programs out there.
There’s a small college out East where students can do an internship with me and get credit toward their forestry degree. I am able to give them some basics such as how do you hook a log, how to cut a tree, how to get that tree on the ground as safely as possible, and where you should be standing. There are so many small, integral things that I do that it’s really hard to verbalize. I don’t know I’m doing them until someone asks me, ‘Why do you do that all the time?’ I always say, ‘Come and work for a week and you’re going to learn more than if you come for the day. I can teach you about the very basic techniques in one or two days. But if you stay a week, you’re going to know more than you learned in two or three years working by yourself.’
I am forty-seven. I have been in the woods with my family since I was four years old, on a mostly daily basis. We have been horse logging for generations, and I don’t know how to pinpoint when I learned what I learned. But I know there is no more efficient power than horses for the effort of what you put into it. I do low-impact logging. Everything I get is locally grown. My fuel comes from a guy six miles down the road in the form of hay. My oats and corn are a little bit farther. I don’t try to compete with machines. It’s just me and my horses going through the woods.
Taylor is featured in this Land of 10,000 Stories clip showing why a professional logger uses horses instead of machines.
Skinner Horse Logging is one of the long-standing Wisconsin family businesses featured in For Love and Money, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The print edition is out of print but you can find it through your library, and the book remains available as an ebook.
Want to learn more about Wisconsin’s logging history? Jerry Apps, Wisconsin’s rural historian, brings Wisconsin’s logging and lumbering heritage to life. When The White Pine Was King is published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.