Eating with the last of the logging camp cooks

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OFF THE GOLDEN ROAD, Maine — One can read the history of Maine’s North Woods in a pot of beans.

Lumber barons have come and gone, their vast tracts of land bought, sold and sold again. Actual horse power has been replaced by motors, and handsaws have bowed to chain saws, skidders and mechanized harvesters more expensive than most houses.

This means fewer workers in the Maine woods these days, but there’s still one thing all the money, mechanization and modernity hasn’t yet replaced. Latter day loggers are still hungry at the workday’s end, and for those lucky enough to work with one of Maine’s last camp cooks, a cauldron of baked beans awaits them, the recipe as tasty now as it was 100 years ago.

Stirring the pot today is Melanie Morrell, the latest — and among the very last — in the near-royal lineage of camp cooks who fed the lumber industry of the North Woods.

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Morrell, 40, has been cook at the Comstock Logging Camp some 80 miles out on the Golden Road for the past six years. Every Monday through Wednesday during the 10-month season, she fixes three square meals for up to 30 loggers. On Thursdays, they get breakfast and lunch before ending the workweek.

She has four propane-powered ovens. On three, she cranks out breads, roasts, casseroles, stews, soups and pies. The fourth — of course — is reserved for baked beans only.

“The guys know there will always be beans and bread,” Morrell says, while prepping a midweek supper. “They know if they don’t like what I’m making that night, there is always that.”

But it’s rare that “the guys” don’t like Morrell’s menu, which is varied and vast, a departure from camp cooks of old serving plates of beans and salted pork. Plus, where once every logging camp had a resident cook — and an assistant known as the “cookee” — today Morrell is one of reportedly only two full-time cooks still working in the Maine woods.

More than the menu has evolved under this camp cook. “I don’t only feed these guys, I’m the unofficial camp doctor, psychiatrist [and] counselor,” she says. “You name it, I do it.”

Working day in and day out with the crew, Morrell says she can tell by just the expression on a face, or tone of a voice, who’s having a bad day, tough times at home or who’s not feeling well.

And much like a saw through wood, this sentiment cuts both ways.

“They know if I’m pissed off when they walk into this kitchen,” Morrell says, plainly. “They also know my word is law in this kitchen.”

Cooks ruled supreme

Historians point to the late 1800s to early 1900s as the “gilded age” of the state’s lumber industry, according to Jamie Rice, director of library services at The Maine Historical Society.

At its peak, thousands of men worked in remote lumber camps scattered throughout northern and western Maine. According to records at the Patten Lumber Museum, in that area alone in 1880 there were 4,050 men and 100 horses working the woods.

With numbers like that, camp cooks ruled supreme. Logging camp bosses were well aware an unhappy cook could make life miserable for the crew, and a camp with a bad cook — or no cook at all — was not going to survive long. Good cooks could earn up to $4 a day in 1919, making them the highest-paid workers in the camp. Blacksmiths and saw filers would earn perhaps $3.65 a day, while cutters and wagon drivers earned between $2.30 and $2.60.

The situation today is much different. According to the Maine Department of Labor, fewer than 2,500 people are employed in lumbering operations in Maine, and most camps have gone cookless — which the industry calls “bachelor camps.”

The Comstock Logging Camp, owned by H.O. Bouchard Inc. of Hampden, is 77 miles west of Millinocket on the famed Golden Road, 96 miles of dirt and gravel from Millinocket west to St. Zacharie, Quebec, on the Canadian border.

At times, the Golden Road stretches arrow-straight into the horizon, bordered by towering spruce and fir and Mount Katahdin looming to the north. Other times, hairpin corners force wise drivers to hug the turns, in case a logging truck is rumbling toward them from the other side.

At mile 77, then about a mile down a side road, is the Comstock camp, basically a large, wide spot in the woods where the rumblings of trucks and machinery are omnipresent as workers come and go throughout the day.

Individual trailer homes serve as the private workweek residences for Morrell, the camp’s manager and visiting foresters. Several other trailers are connected by a series of mazelike halls that house the workers’ sleeping quarters, bathrooms, common areas, workspace and the kitchen-dining area.

Like the Golden Road itself, the camps were originally built by Great Northern Paper Co. When Comstock was founded in 1980, it employed 50 men and three cooks. Now Morrell stands alone.

When the weather is fair, groceries for the week are trucked in. When foul, Morrell and her shopping list hit the grocery stores around Greenville, near where she lives.

“I have a lot of freedom when it comes to shopping for food,” she said. “It’s really left to my discretion, and I like to get what the guys like to eat.”

During the workweek, which starts fresh on Monday and goes through Thursday afternoon, breakfasts and lunches are prepared in advance for the guys to grab on their way out at the start of the day, which can be as early as 1 a.m.

Then the workers — some of whom have been on their machines for 16 hours — start to trickle back into the camp around 5 p.m.

Each has a small bunk area with a bed and closet. On hot days, Morrell goes through the sleeping area around 4 p.m.and turns on a line of air conditioners so workers can have a comfortable night’s sleep.

She’s also the one who cleans up after them, making sure the floors are swept, trash emptied and bathrooms clean. The workers at Comstock don’t take Morrell for granted.

“I was here before Mel and I can tell you how much she has improved things,” said Warren Morrison, Comstock’s jack-of-all-trades and part-time cookee. “Sure we come back to good food. We also come back to laughter and a really nice atmosphere.”

At the bachelor camps scattered throughout the northern Maine woods, workers who stay the week must prepare and clean up after their day’s-end meals.

Brian Bouchard of H.O. Bouchard says keeping a cook is well worth the expense for retaining employees. “They need to live there Monday through Wednesday night,” he says. “We feel it keeps us attractive in that region.”

Comstock general manager Ralph Ouellette, who has been at the camp for 42 years, agrees.

“It’s easier to hold on to a crew of good men when you have a cook,” Ouellette said. “And, it would be pretty comical if we were cooking for ourselves.”

At Comstock, supper is served cafeteria-style at 6 p.m. sharp. One recent evening, the men helped themselves to grilled steaks, stuffed mushrooms, three kinds of salads, roasted potatoes, peas, broccoli, vegetable soup and — of course — baked beans with homemade bread.

“I worked at a bachelor camp before here,” skidder operator Ken Cummings says, as he dives into his plate of food. “I ate a lot of canned ravioli [and] when I left there I threw that last can out the window and swore I’d never eat any again.”

The rules

Historically, camp cooks were males who prepared simple but ample spreads.

“Menus and food choices were limited in the woods,” according to the Maine Memory Networ k. “The choices were limited: salted meats, salted or canned fish, and, depending on location, some frozen beef — as long as it was eaten before it spoiled due to lack of refrigeration.”

Faye O’Leary Hafford, 90, of Allagash remembers her father-in-law working as a camp cook at the old Pelletier Brook Logging Camp, about 10 miles south of Allagash.

“He’d move the whole family out there for the winter while he worked,” she says. “They had some rugged meals out there.”

Not every worker at a logging camp could bring his family with him. Darlene Kelly of Allagash remembers hearing her mother talk about her father and later her husband being gone for the entire winter cutting season.

“Mama would tell me the men at the camps often ate better than the folks left back at home,” Kelly said. “But times were hard at those camps and she’d tell stories of several men having to share one blanket when they slept.”

For a life that hard, the beans, bread and sweets produced by the camp cook were the lone bright spots on a cold winter’s evening.

At Comstock, Morrell prides herself on never having the same entree twice in the same month. Whereas staples of the past included pork, beans, gingerbread and boiled tea, her selections are gourmet in comparison: baked stuffed haddock, spaghetti, roast pork and chicken.

“I can tell you for any of the guys what they like and what they don’t like,” she says. “Some eat like a bird and some eat like elephants, so I need to learn what they like and keep track of who needs and likes what.”

She stops, laughs and adds, “Yeah, they are spoiled rotten.”

As long as they follow the rules.

Per tradition, cooks at Maine’s logging camps often demanded complete silence while eating, a policy designed to speed up mealtimes.

“I remember hearing about one guy that started talking during a meal and he got punched right in the face,” Hafford says. “They didn’t want you wasting time talking and eating when you could be back out there cutting wood.”

By contrast, suppers at Comstock are raucous affairs, with nonstop bantering and teasing, but Morrell adheres to the iron rules of cooks past by not compromising on two points.

“Anyone coming in here has to wash their hands,” she says, “and there are no hats allowed.”

“Oh, she’ll ping you for wearing a hat,” grader operator Brian “Doc” Mulherin says. “She’ll smack it right off your head.”

Cummings nods in agreement.

Morrell says she learned her work ethic and her love of food from her Canadian grandparents when she summered with them in New Brunswick as a girl.

“I remember once I was putting on my boots so I could go help my grandfather out in the barn and my grammy told me, ‘You come in this kitchen and learn the ways of a woman,’” she says, with a laugh. “I said, ‘No, Grammy, I want to learn the ways of a man.’”

While telling the story, Morrell stopped mixing ingredients for a creamy homemade salad dressing and looked around the Comstock kitchen.

“Now, here I am working in the frigging kitchen and I love it, so I can’t even complain about it,” she says, leaving the dressing and taking the pot of beans out of the oven, setting it down next to a loaf of fresh bread and giving the beans a good stir. “And I love these guys.”

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