Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

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By Colleen Kesterson
Pathfinder 

From Cross Cut Saws to Mechanized

Logging Stories

 
Series: Logging Stories | Story 3

Photo provided.

Young high school student Neil Meyer (right) drove this 1949 Chevy Log Truck. He transported logs to small mills in the Bigfork area and to the large mill in Columbia Falls. Logs positioned behind on the truck's side were used to hoist the logs onto the truck.

SWAN VALLEY - Neil Meyer, longtime Salmon Prairie resident, said that making a living as a logger in the early days was hard work in the Swan Valley. He shared stories about how logging was flourishing and was unhindered by regulations and big business as it is now. He said the pace was slower, many residents had their own small sawmills and the tools of the trade were less expensive and complicated.

Meyer grew up in Ferndale, Mont. He worked with his father farming and cutting firewood with cross-cut saws and skidding logs with horses. Meyer told the story of Sam the horse that, according to Meyer, was "automatic." Sam needed no driver. Hooked to logs in the woods, he would take them to the landing, where the logs are limbed and cut to length. Meyer said, "If the guy on the landing didn't unhook him at noon or quitting time, Sam would take the logs to the barn with him. He was a neat old horse."

Meyer's father bought a cat and they skidded logs to small local sawmills They would use a two-man chain saw but if they ever shut it off or it ran out of gas, it wouldn't start again.

"Dad and I went back to the cross-cut while [the chain saw] cooled off," said Meyer.

When he was in high school, Meyer drove logging trucks to local mills and took logs from Crane Mountain near Bigfork, Mont. to the mill in Columbia Falls, Mont.

"[Nowadays] you don't see young guys in high school driving logging trucks," said Meyer.

In the spring of 1955, he went to work for Carl Tykson who had a small mill in the Ferndale area. Meyer piled brush in the Swan Valley at Cold Creek for Tykson who had a contract with the Forest Service.

That fall he went to work for Bob Thomas who logged for the Wineglass Mill located on the Gordon Ranch in the Swan. Through the winter he stayed at the camp for employees on the Wineglass Mill grounds.

Meyer remembered his first meal at the camp kitchen. He spotted an empty chair and sat down. He noticed that the men were looking at him and at the same time he noticed a man standing behind him, glaring. He understood that glare in an instant. Meyer was quoted in the book "Voices of the Swan" saying, "Everybody had their own place at the table. Seniority over time determined where you sat."

Meyer said he would go home to Ferndale on weekends because of a lack of entertainment, very few televisions at the time. So people would have get-togethers in local community halls, some lasting far into the night.

Meyer met Dixie Clothier at one of these socials held at the Swan Lake Community Hall. "We were married in December 1956, the day after she turned 18, because her parents wanted her to wait until she was 18." The Meyers bought land from a relative on Salmon Prairie Road where they have resided ever since.

In the years following his marriage, Meyer drove logging trucks and worked at Fenby's mill located on what is now named Old Mill Road near mile marker 55. He then bought a scragg, portable mill from the Fenby Brothers of Swan Lake. He cut lumber at various locations in the woods and sold it to a planer mill in Kalispell, Mont. in the 1960s.

According to Meyer the small mills, located on every road in the Swan Valley, went out of business because they couldn't compete with the larger mills that could pay more for the timber and offer more services. Stumpage, the price for the trees, went up drastically and cost more than what the small mills would get for the lumber.

Meyer and his younger brother Jim worked for Forest Products that had a mill located west of Kalispell.

"Some of the buildings are still there but the mill has been gone for many years," said Meyer. They also had a contract to log for Pyramid Mountain Lumber Company (Pyramid) of Seeley Lake.

In 1971, Jim moved on to other endeavors and Meyer started working exclusively for Pyramid until he retired in 1995. For nearly nine years, his daughter Gerri drove the skidder to bring in the logs to the landing in the mid 80s. His son Les also helped during his school summer vacations.

In 1985, Meyer said he became "mechanized." The first machine Meyer owned was a Rotne feller buncher that measured and cut logs into lengths and decked them into piles. Other machinery he acquired included a delimber that would fell a tree, limb it, bunch multiple trees and put them in decks; and a grapple skidder that picked up logs instead of the operator having to attach chokers to each one. A 22 B log loader sat on tracks and would spin around to the direction of the logs so the logs could be attached to cables with chokers.

Meyer said as a result of the mechanization, he usually had two jobs going at once because the machines could finish the job faster. Meyer said that even today jobs that are located on steep ground require loggers who know how to use chainsaws and how to fell a tree and line skid with chokers.

The 1980s brought new problems for the logging industry. Meyer's logging operations encountered protestors from environmental groups. At a job at Lindberg Lake he had tree sitters who would stay in a tree to prevent it from being felled.

"We had several units to work so we just moved to another unit that didn't have tree sitters. There were vehicles there from all over the United States supporting them [tree sitters]," said Meyer. Meyer also had sand put in his gas tanks while on a job in Lincoln, Mont.

Meyer recognized the need for the two groups to discuss their points of view and became an advocate for people working together to sustain the land of the Swan Valley and its resources. In late 1990s he and the late Swan Valley resident Rod Ash formed the informal Swan Citizens, an ad hoc committee that emphasized the collaborative process between the declining logging industry and those with environmental concerns. Later the committee became the non-profit organization called the Swan Ecosystem Center in April 1997. It was headquartered in the Condon Work Center.

Colleen Kesterson, Pathfinder

Today Meyer continues to educate others about the way things used to be in logging and in natural resources and instills an awareness of the natural resources in the Swan Valley.

After retirement from logging, Meyer has continued to educate the younger generation about the way things used to be and instill awareness of the natural resources in the Swan Valley. Meyer and his wife Dixie have invited school children from several schools in the area from Seeley Lake to Bigfork to their home where Meyer demonstrated his sawmill and showed the students tools of the logging trade. So that the students could gain knowledge of the environment Meyer and state and forest service foresters took students on tours on his property to identify trees and discuss the importance to manage them.

For many years he has demonstrated his handmade portable mill at the Fourth of July celebration at Swan Valley Community Hall and took it as far as Fairfield, Mont., where his son lives, to demonstrate the mill to the shop class there.

Meyer has donated another handmade sawmill with parts that date back to the 1920s to the Upper Swan Valley museum and many of his artifacts connected to logging are on display there.

"We get a lot from trees. We need to take care of them," said Meyer.

 

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