The Fall of Timber Sports?

By Eben Lehman on July 29, 2009

This past weekend saw the Lumberjack World Championships take place in Hayward, Wisconsin.  The annual event of sawing, chopping, climbing, and log rolling contests celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.  While the golden anniversary is cause for celebration, signs of the sport’s decline in popularity seemed to be more evident than ever.  A New York Times article covering the championships addressed this issue, noting the lack of television coverage and the drop in participation levels.  The number of big-time contests held in the U.S. has also dwindled. It’s now virtually impossible to make a living from winnings on the American lumberjack contest circuit.

For decades the Lumberjack World Championships were a featured television event — from ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” in the early years, to ESPN and the Outdoor Life Network more recently.  That all ended this year, when the event was given no national TV coverage.  Some former champions are questioning whether the lumberjack sports themselves are dying.  “The best years are gone,” seemed to be a common refrain.  While the glory years of the sport may in fact be behind us, there are still many talented young lumberjack athletes — such as J.R. Salzman, an Iraq war veteran who lost part of his arm to a roadside bomb in 2006, and returned this year to win his seventh log rolling championship.

With others looking towards the past, though, this is the perfect time to highlight some of the visual documentations of lumberjack competitions from yesteryear found in the FHS Archives.  Below is a small sampling of images documenting the sport’s past, as well as some of the larger-than-life figures.

Paul Searls axe chop

Lumberjack legend Paul Searls (left) with his son Max competing in a tree felling contest.

Paul Searls bucking

Paul Searls competing in his specialty event, log bucking. Searls was a world champion log bucker from 1932 to 1952, as well as a former Guinness World Record holder in the event. On May 28, 1937, Searls also helped dedicate the Golden Gate Bridge by sawing through a 34″ redwood log in record time at the bridge’s opening.

Herron

A three-time International Log Rolling Association Champion and leading competitor from the 1930s through the 1950s, Jim Herron prepares to perform his infamous log rolling striptease as his alter-ego “grandma” character.

axethrow

The axe throw event at the Albany (Oregon) Timber Carnival in July 1958.

Clive McIntosh saw

Clive McIntosh (right), with partner D. Mann, examining their saw after winning the World Championship Doubles Sawing Contest at Sydney, Australia. McIntosh was an Australian lumberjack legend, as well as an influential axe and saw designer.

The selected photos here come from both the FHS Photograph Collection and the American Forest Institute Records.  If interested, also take a look at this 1920-era log rolling film footage from the FHS YouTube Channel, as well as the previously posted Loggers–Rodeos photo subject gallery.

Special thanks to Jeffrey Stine for telling us about the NY Times article that inspired this entry.

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0 responses to “The Fall of Timber Sports?”

  1. Arden Cogar Jr. says:

    I actually spent about 35 minutes with the author of the article published in the New York Times. He persistently tried to pry negative comments out of me during the time we spoke. I, however, did not oblige him. I will remain, and will forever will be, positive about my hobby/sport as I see growth in areas that were not addressed in this article. As you can see, my name appears no where in his article. What does that tell you?

    It is true that Television has not been at the LWC for a few years now. But that’s not to say that it will not return in the future. The LWC is a wonderful event with a rich history and loads of honor.

    Yes, it is true that several large money/purse contests have gone to the wayside. But that trend occurred primarily during the late 1980s and in the Pacific NorthWest – this came as direct result of a down turn in the timber industry. Many of those events have returned, but the prize purses are not as large and, perhaps, many of the top athletes don’t attend those events.

    The only area of the US that a return of the events did not occur was the Midwestern area; that is primarily due to exhibition or demonstration companies performing exhibitions/demostrations instead of the fair festivals hosting lumberjack sporting events. Hosting a lumberjack sporting event is a lot of work and requires a lot of effort from a lot of people. Demonstrations are not competitions and require less effort from those that host the event.

    Now, with that said, the East Coast and in the South, the number of lumberjack sporting events have increased dramatically. True, the events are not large in purses, but they are plentiful and have numerous events. These events offer we hobbiests an opportunity to “get out of the house” and show case our skills on a less than national or international scale. These events are well attended by crowd and competitor alike. They are fun, fast paced, and show case the old time logging heritiage that we competitors strive to celebrate.

    Beyond that, Stihl has put a substantial amount of effort into promoting it’s Stihl Timbersporst Collegiate Challenge. This event has caused an increase in the number of athletes that compete in these events and has brought many young competent competitors into the profressional ranks.

    I write the above, because I disagree with the sentiment of the article written in the New York Times. I truly believe the author went into the project with a idea of what he wanted to prepare or he happened upon one of “the professionals” who performs the sport for a job. For a peson who does the sport for a living, it’s very difficult not to be negative when the larger pursed events are gone when that is what you rely upon for your livlihood. We hobbiests are as excited as ever to continue on with our sport. We will work hard to continue it’s preservation. We are celebrating a hertiage in logging that built the infastructure of what is now the modern day United States.

    All the best,
    Arden Cogar Jr.

  2. Bob Healy says:

    Another “Timber Sport”

    Reading this very interesting article, I was reminded that there is another “timber sport” that seems to be doing quite well in various parts of the U.S. That’s “tossing the caber.” It’s a feature of many “Scottish Highland Games” but it also was done in Ireland (see below for family connection.” The sport obviously involves a large piece of wood, but there is also a logging connection, however distant (see below)

    “The caber toss draws upon the distant past to establish this test of strength and skill as the king of Highland Games Heavy Events. Caber is Gaelic for tree, and lumberjacks are believed to provide the origin by turning small trees end-over-end to cross small rivers. Soon, attacking warriors started landing 20′ tree trunks against castle walls during siege, using them as crude ladders. The Caber Toss is the only event that isn’t measured for height or distance. Instead, judges score the event in a subjective manner. A perfect score occurs when an athlete is able to turn the caber end-over-end, with the caber landing in line with the athlete’s direction of momentum, resulting in a 12:00 score on an imaginary clock face. If the caber turns, but does not land straight in front of the athlete, scores between 9:00 and 3:00 are assigned. If the caber does not turn, the side judge awards a degree score up to 90°. Due to its subjective nature, and the fact that almost every competition provides a different caber, there are no records, only bragging rights.” http://www.vascottishgames.org/VSG%202009%20Athletics%20Competition.html

    I have a family connection with this, recently confirmed by my 94 year old uncle. It seems that my great-grandfather died of a hernia following a caber toss. This would have been in the 1880s. “Was this back in Ireland?” I asked. “No, it was in the Chicago Stockyards,” my uncle replied. I suspect that alcohol was involved in this particular incident!

  3. Stihl MS660 says:

    Who cares!
    Real fans don’t watch it on TV, they go to the event. I personally don’t watch much TV at all because I am outside living life the way it should be.

  4. J.R. Herron III says:

    Very good Article..Love the Picture of my Grandfather Stripping on a Log…

  5. S. McIntosh says:

    I just stumbled upon your article and its associated photos. Just wish to humbly offer a correction to the caption. In the final photo, Clive McIntosh (my Grandfather) is actually the gentleman on the right.

    • Eben Lehman says:

      Thanks for the correction. Caption has now been updated to reflect that Mr. McIntosh is standing to the right. Cheers!

    • Kerry Hughes says:

      Hi S Mcintosh, I stumbled across his site while researching some family history. My grandfather Alfred McIntosh is cousin to Clive Mcintosh’s father.

  6. Mark and Bonnie Romeis says:

    We were there July 3. Would like to see the championships. Will it air on Tv? When and what channel? PLEASE respond. Sam and Charlie Fenton live down the street from us in Waupaca.

  7. mike searls says:

    Thank you for the pictures of my grandpa& dad they really were legends .I was born in 1956 and spent every july 4th at albany oregon at the world championships untill my dad quit competeing.They were real lumberjacks.My grand pa started falling timber with a crosscut while in his late teens.thanks again Mike