MAINE TALES. PROUD MOTHERS. SPRINGHILL, LOISIANNA. Circa 1983.
It all depends on your idea of having fun. For a Mainer, sitting by a warm woodstove and looking out the window at the cold world outside is pretty hard to beat.
Jim was part of a crew of hoedad treeplanters spread out on the logging road across a clearcut in northern Louisiana. “Hoedads” are specialized mattocks swung with one hand while the other hand repeatedly grabs out trees for planting from a shoulder-strapped planting bag.
The weather had turned cold with the onset of the record-busting “Great Freeze of ’83.” After going through a bout of a half-inch of sleet, the area received another three inches of insulating snow. The cold, ice and snow had shut down the crew from hand-planting Loblolly Pine trees. The only thing that could rescue that icy Lousianna world was an above-freezing-thaw and that was not in cards.
Three treeplanters on the crew happened to be friends from northern Florida. Their idea of fun was to scratch the itch, leave camp and discover America up close by braving the roads. That was before the days of cell phones and those three weren’t heard from again until the thaw ten days later.
In the 1970s and 1980s hoedad planting became a way for independent nonconformists to earn money by working hard. Planting season down South occurs during the Winter when rain, cool weather and moist ground conditions increase tree survivability rates. Southern planting is high production planting on ground too rough and ornery to plant by machine. After paying your dues and learning the how-tos of the trade, there was good money if you had a strong back and the drive to work long and hard. Hundred-dollar-days morphed into two-hundred-dollar days and tree planting became a good way to earn big bucks and then sink them into the voracious appetite of a Maine farm getting going.
Most crews of Southern treeplanters were young men and many came down from the North. Forty years ago, in his bachelor days, Jim left the farm and planted for three Winters from November until April. During those three Winters he planted over one million trees in ten southern States from Texas to Florida to Delaware.
Southern tree planters lived in rigs such as hollowed-out Ford and Chevy vans parked right on the very clearcuts they were planting. They were compensated for their repetitive stoop labor with piece-rate pay. Forty years ago tree planting reflected a raw, unbridled capitalist system. Hardcore planters worked every daylight hour. Pay week ran from Sunday through Saturday and by Wednesday morning they would have the week’s first forty hours under their belts.
In those laissez-faire days every week or two they’d relocate to working/living on a new clearcut which needed planting. Hitting the road and moving sites provided the opportunity to descend upon a town and restock their camper vans with nonperishables, canned food and Gerry cans full of water. That way they could lay in for the next siege.
The Great Freeze of ’83 hit hard and fast. Treeplanting across the South screeched to a halt. Our one company had twenty crews of 15-20 treeplanters spread across the South. In the fullness of time, ten days later after our jail birds had returned, we learned local icy roads had been treacherous and impassable. With cars lacking snow tires and trucks devoid of snowplows, officials had elected to place barricades across roads to ‘encourage’ would-be-rubber-neckers to stay home until the sunshine could melt away the mayhem.
Before leaving Maine, Jim had installed a compact icehouse woodstove in his van. Everyday, he would emerge from the toasty van and spend an hour with a hand saw cutting up short chucks of hardwood logging slash, collecting them into his treeplanting bag. Once thawed and dried out inside the van, the limitless firewood provided fine fuel for warmth from the stubborn icy cold North wind.
Earlier that season at a second-hand-store, Jim had scored for twenty-five cents a hardcover copy of the classic livestock farmer’s bible, ‘Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding’ which details every aspect of the myriad of types of livestock farming. During that forced downtime he read that book word-for-word cover to cover.
Reading ‘Feeds and Feeding’ was staycation fun, and Mr. Morrison’s mother should be proud.
Caleb, Jim & Megan