A good supply of firewood is nice to have at this time of the year.

I remember when I became old enough to take a hand in preparing for the winter’s wood-burning needs at this old farmhouse. At about 10 years old, I could throw the sticks of wood through the cellar window as my father and grandfather handled the heavy work on the old saw rig. The one-lunger chugged steadily as the wide leather belt spun the saw blade, and a high-pitched screech accompanied every stick that was sliced off, destined for the big furnace.

Most farms of the area heated with wood. In town, coal had been replaced by oil-burning systems. In the country, families like ours might have a modest woodlot of 20 or 30 acres that produced a growth to cover the homestead’s annual needs.

Farm life in the summer was filled with haying, gardening and care of livestock, but there was no slowdown of activity as winter approached. Labor shifted to the woodlot as soon as autumn arrived. The families’ men, usually assisted by neighbors, spent long cold days with axes and saws. Trees were felled and logs were “yarded” for a year’s seasoning. The previous year’s log pile was loaded on horse-drawn sleds and hauled back to the farm.

That’s as close to deep-woods lumberjack work as my family came.

For many farm families, the men left for months of hard winter work in the woods camps. It was essential employment in the middle of the 1880s, and well into the 1900s.

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I came across an account of a local man who knew that difficult life well. He was not a lumberjack or other camp employee. He was known as “missionary to the woodsmen.”

George H. Bowie, who was born at Danville around 1841, was 57 years old when he recognized a need to bring religion to the rough and rowdy woods crews of Maine. That meant dedication and hardship no less demanding than missionary work undertaken in far-flung countries of the world, and the dangers were just as great.

Bowie told stories of his missionary work in talks at the First Universalist Church about 100 years ago. He had grown up in this area and he recalled building the mills in Lewiston.

But it was his decision to take to the woods at an advanced age that made him an exceptional son of the Androscoggin Valley. He was connected with the Free Baptist Church of this vicinity when he started to preach to woodsmen. After some years, he found more support for his work from the Universalist churches, although he never received money, food or supplies for his work. A Lewiston Evening Journal reporter attending Bowie’s talk said, “His has been a work of privation and love. To it has been attached no salary.”

Bowie would set out for the deep woods camps, sometimes without money or food, depending on faith to sustain him. When necessary, he trekked for miles on snowshoes to visit the camps. At one time he trudged 12 miles in blizzard conditions. He tramped from camp to camp, and if luck favored, he was invited to ride upon a “tote team.” He carried only a small “grip” for personal items, a violin and his snowshoes.

Bowie explained that he always approached the camp boss first, and he was always welcomed. Then he would talk with the camp cook to arrange a meeting place.

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“Very soon, I found they were referring to me as ‘Our Pioneer Missionary,’” he said.

Bowie approached the woodsmen as “a critical audience.” He did not preach a traditional sermon. The men were less educated than a city or town congregation, but they listened with keen interest, and for days afterward they discussed his words. At night, seated upon the “deacon seats” before a roaring fire, they argued his meaning.

The reporter ventured to say that “one of the Rev. Mr. Bowie’s sermons in the woods is longer talked of than any which the greatest preacher of New England utters in a year.”

His greatest impact, according to the reporter, was at the little inland hamlet of Chesuncook on the shores of the lake of that name on the West Branch of the Penobscot River.

“As a result of his efforts, there is a school there today (in 1914) where the children are taught and, thanks to him, the peal of the church bell is heard,” the news story said. “It is a change hard for those who knew ‘Suncook’ in the long ago to believe.”

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]


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