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News Article
Branding axes helped get logs to their owners
David McCormick

Just as men branded cattle on the open range in the old west to claim ownership of the cows, loggers began branding their log. Loggers learned that logs floating down a river with no owner’s mark could become anyone’s lumber.

At first loggers used axes to chip lines or geometric shapes in the logs, but since anyone could imitate this, branding axes (also known as branding hammers) came into being.

The branding ax was invented in Bangor, Maine. The face of the device was a steel pattern of the owner’s brand. Several wonderful patterns came about such as derby hats, wine glasses, hearts and flowers, harps and beer kegs.

Maine has a long and rich history of logging. The abundance of pine trees earned the state its moniker as the Pine Tree State. Originally, Maine was included as part of Massachusetts Territory, before gaining its statehood in 1820. The early 17th century brought Maine’s first official sawmill in the small town of South Berwick. Within 50 years, the number of sawmills had grown to 24.

Up until 1820, logging in New England was conducted in one of three ways: independent; family-operated; or through a partnership. But, that year saw the burgeoning of logging cooperatives, and for the next 60 years, the New England logging industry was controlled by lumbermen associations.

The job of a logger was not easy. The bitter cold-winter months were ideal for log cutting, because frozen lakes/rivers provided easy movement of logs. Logs were hauled to the river banks, and stacked there until spring, ready to be pushed into the swollen rivers for the spring-log drives. It was important that the logs be branded, prior to the annual river trek, in order to be sorted, and each lumber company received their due. And, that’s where the scaler came in. Day in and day out, as he recorded the number of board feet in each log, he swung his branding ax or hammer several times into each log.

It has been said that Maine’s booming lumber days ended in the 1880s, when much of the state’s readily accessible pine timber had been harvested. But by then, logging had already moved westward, decades earlier, to the Great Lakes areas of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, in what logging history referred to as the “First Migration.” Some of the loggers had stomped their boots into the frozen woods of New York State and Pennsylvania, but the majority trod onto the Great Lakes Region.

Logging was logging; the locales might change but much remained the same. It was still a job for weather-hardened individuals. Changes did come—some axes gave way to saws, the Spartan bunks became more comfortable, the food improved, and the branding axes and hammer designs increased hundredfold and more. The number of Michigan log-branding designs surpassed those of Maine, the state where the branding ax first sunk into the end of a log.

In Michigan billions of board feet of pine logs were cut in the state’s forests by thousands of loggers; the logs then made their way to hundreds of mills down the water highways—Michigan’s rivers. Just as in Maine, each log was stamped with the icon representing the identity of the lumber company. In 1842 the Michigan legislature passed a law requiring log marks to be registered in the county where the logs would be made into lumber.

But, it wasn’t until 1859 that a law was enacted, requiring the owner of logs floated in the Muskegon, and its tributaries, to carry the owner’s marks on the end of the pine logs. (Minnesota was a year earlier with its legislation). Prior to this, many companies only cut marks into the bark (thus they were called bark marks) that were sometimes, impossible to find on half-submerged logs. The heavy branding ax or hammer, drove the company’s emblem deep into several places, into the end of the soft pine logs, thus allowing for quick identification.

By the turn of the 20th century, the “Second Migration,” was taking place to the Pacific Northwest. In 1905 Washington State production of lumber equaled that of Wisconsin and Minnesota combined

Log marks of the Great Lake region, just as those in Maine and northern tier states, such as Washington and Oregon, carried the independent flavor of the lumberman. Even the simple reversed letter “Z” for instance, was given the grander name of a “Square Snake.” The lumberjacks gave many log-mark symbols their own bawdy pseudonyms. The number of different log marks, and thus branding hammers, numbered in thousands. In Minnesota alone, the records of the state’s surveyor-general of logs and lumber for the year 1945 listed more than 20,000 different marks.

Branding hammers/axes are still used in the logging business.

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