Rust on Franzen, 'The Archaeology of the Logging Industry'

John G. Franzen. The Archaeology of the Logging Industry. The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective Series. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020. Illustrations. 240 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-6658-5

Reviewed by Thomas C. Rust (Montana State University Billings)
Published on H-Environment (August, 2021)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

US history survey textbooks typically juxtapose chapters of nineteenth-century industrialization in eastern factories and steel mills with chapters on the open spaces of westward expansion. However, as John G. Franzen demonstrates, the West had its own industrial activity that was economically and ecologically impactful as well. His book, The Archaeology of the Logging Industry, places high-output commercial logging within the context of both westward expansion and industrialization, demonstrating that there were parallels in methods, experiences, motivations, and impacts between eastern factories and their workers and industrial loggers. Using archaeology’s rich source material and a growing body of available data from across the nation, Franzen provides a rich analysis of the industry, particularly of the lives and experiences of those who worked and lived around logging camps.

From the earliest years of European settlement, the Americas presented colonists and settlers with an abundance of quality wood. Wood helped drive economic development, providing materials for shipbuilding, barrels for transportation, charcoal, pulp, and straight lumber that was often shipped throughout the world. Lumber was also key for expanding transportation networks. Railroads fundamentally required timber for laying and maintaining tracks, which in turn transported raw timber to markets. As Franzen notes, “Never had such an expanding industrial society encountered such an accessible timber-rich environment” (p. 5). The abundance of wood even helped create the great American frontier symbol of the log cabin. With its remarkably inefficient and wasteful use of timber for housing, that particular icon could only be useful in a context with plentiful trees (as it was in Scandinavia where the log cabin actually originated). Those who harvested trees, the lumberjacks, became as iconic to the mythical American frontier as cowboys. These hearty frontiersmen embodied a simple but definitively hegemonic masculinity shaped by the ruggedness of the American wilderness they actively worked to subdue. However, the mythic lumberjack icon hides the true nature of the industry for which they worked, an industry that had much in common with, and was fundamentally tied to, industrial cities. In fact, as Franzen demonstrates, the real lumberjacks were at the mercy of their employers, and some shared experiences with their urban, industrial counterparts.

Franzen aims to put the myths of the logging industry in context, presenting a more “holistic view of the past as it connects to the present,” which “reveals mutually constituted relationships between society, technology, and ecology” without the biases and myths found in popular literature (p. 9). As a former archaeologist for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, he uses the primary source data with which he is most familiar, material culture. Archaeology has a growing body of underutilized data. Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, any project with a federal nexus must consider the impacts it would have on historical and tribal sites, performing mitigation if necessary. These reports are usually contracted to private companies and deposited in State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO) and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPO). Far too often, they remain there and are used only by other archaeologists doing similar work in areas near the documented sites. Since they are professional reports but are not published in academic journals or books, they are referred to as “gray literature.” These works contain a wealth of information that grows every year but typically eludes systematic analysis. Franzen estimates that there are ten thousand documented logging sites awaiting analysis (p. 3). Franzen’s approach provides a systematic study of the logging industry from this “gray literature” (though certainly not all ten thousand sites) and is perhaps his most significant contribution in terms of both content and methodology.

The written record of primary sources is not lost in Franzen’s approach. As true historical archaeologists are wont to do, he juxtaposes the material culture against the written source. In the United States, archaeologists are generally trained in anthropology programs, and Franzen, with a social scientist’s mindset, asserts that material culture, if collected carefully and with an appropriate methodology, can be a much-needed “corrective” to the biases inherent in written sources when the two are juxtaposed (p. 3). This strikes me, someone with graduate training in both historical and archaeological methods, as a bit too intense. Often, archaeologists tend to suggest that archaeology presents history “as it was” since material culture is free of bias. This is rather simplistic and frankly condescending to historians and their methodology. Material culture has its own biases in terms of what survives and why. Fragments of more durable material goods will more likely survive to be excavated than less durable materials. Sites are disturbed or destroyed by humans or nature, and the record altered. This, too, presents a bias. Perhaps the greatest bias is the mind of the excavator. There is no way to view the material record of the past without accounting for the mental biases of the archaeologist in the present, like a historian. Reevaluation of sites is common, and believing that material culture and analysis of it is less biased than traditional history rings hollow. In fact, together, written sources and material culture can act as equal correctives to each other and can create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, despite Franzen’s passing assertation, his work is actually a promising example.

Franzen’s work is well organized and clearly written. In the first chapter, he sets out his goals and introduces the importance of the logging industry. He uses historical and contemporary statistics to place logging in the economic context of the American economy, clearly demonstrating its importance while alluding that it has been understudied. Conscious that logging changed in both time and space in North American (and more specifically US) history, he identifies five major core areas where industrial logging occurred: the Northeast, the South, the Great Lakes region, the West (by which he means the Rocky Mountains), and the Northwest Coast. He strives throughout the book to give illustrative examples of extensive processes and experiences.

In the first chapter, he puts forth the grand social themes, noting that the history of logging “reveals social relations and forms of identity” (p. 9). Personal relations and identity provide the atomized view of the importance of logging. Yet Franzen also attempts to examine the enormous, even global, importance of logging. Perhaps in the most controversial but important academic debate is his claim that by examining the “ruins of capitalism,” we can see how “logging in North America contributed to global environmental changes” (p. 11). Jumping into the debate about whether human use of the environment has altered the world’s environment to such an extent as to create a new geologic epoch called the “Anthropocene,” Franzen suggests that logging was a key element in that process.

Chapter 2 surveys the traditional historical literature of logging to provide context. The summary is well written and informative. The third chapter summarizes federal legislation that led to an explosion of archaeological mitigation at logging sites, presenting the valuable data set he draws on. Chapters 4 through 8 provide the meat of the archaeological content. Chapter 4 examines technology involved in gathering, transporting, and processing timber; chapter 5 discusses the internal organization of logging sites, types of architecture, and special use; chapter 6 explores workers’ conditions; and chapter 7 studies the social life and identity of workers at the isolated, temporary, but company-controlled settlements. Each of these chapters provides a wealth of information from numerous examples, hitting most if not all the five core regions Franzen identifies. They offer a compelling picture of the logging experience. For the non-archaeological specialist, Franzen does not get bogged down in excessive methodological detail, keeping the analysis clear and concise.

Chapter 8 is slightly different as it provides an in-depth case study of two “Camboose shanty” camps in northern Michigan. Cambooses were large open buildings with a single central hearth. Named the Camboose Trespass and Mason’s Purchase sites, they reveal significant detail about everyday life and adaptations of “folk technology” for industrial purposes. While these case studies are interesting examples and provide additional texture to themes introduced in earlier chapters, it is unclear why they and not other types of sites merited this level of analysis when others did not. In fact, given the book’s brevity (194 pages of text), additional case studies would have been enlightening. Franzen concludes his book in chapter 9, where he discusses the environmental implications of logging in North America (but really focuses on the United States). He expands his arguments from chapter 1 about the “Anthropocene” and logging’s place in it. His arguments are compelling, especially for the nonspecialist or someone not entirely familiar with the debate. Undoubtedly, his work will be a point of discussion as the debate continues.

Despite the brevity of the book, Franzen contributes significantly to studying the industrial level of logging. Even though he could have provided more depth on some issues, he touches on enough to raise important questions and encourage further research. Moving beyond industrial logging, one might explore local or vernacular methods and sites. Additional work on identity could explore masculinity and ethnicity in greater detail. Though Franzen talks about the Americas, the focus is the United States. Further research could be done on Canadian logging as well. Hopefully, Franzen’s work will encourage greater use of the “gray literature” as a valuable data set to examine those areas of history as well. The biggest drawback of the book is its price. At eighty-five dollars, the book will be more confined to the shelves of libraries rather than available to individuals.

Citation: Thomas C. Rust. Review of Franzen, John G., The Archaeology of the Logging Industry. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. August, 2021.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.