Once more a-Lumbering go: Edenville's Lumberjack picnics.
The mouth-watering menu included roast beef and potatoes, buttered beets, coleslaw, cucumbers, baked beans, hot biscuits, and cherry pie. And the entertainment was even more appealing, with champion birlers, teams of log loaders, the Michigan Lumberjacks Orchestra, and countless cloggers and dancers.
Who could resist this alluring blend of food and fun? Certainly not the crowds who flocked to Frank Wixom's Lumberjack Picnic every August from 1932 through 1940.
Held at Edenville, a tiny community on the Tittabawassee River in Midland County, Lumberjack Picnics drew spectators from nearly every, county in Michigan, from Canada, and from as many as 29 states in one year--and this during the Great Depression.
Edenville was the site of Camp Sixteen--one of the legendary lumber camps in the state--located at the confluence of the Tobacco and Tittabawassee rivers. The picnics celebrated the history of lumberjacks and river drivers who cut and floated pine logs down the rivers during the great days of lumbering in the Saginaw Valley. The fact that it served as a reunion of sorts for old-time jacks was icing on the cake.
Frank Wixom, president of Wolverine Power Company, dipped into his deep pockets to ensure that attendees could truly enjoy themselves without spending a dime of their own. Wixom charged no admission and footed the bill for all the performers who traveled from many states. He built the buildings, ordered the food, set up the program, and promoted the event. Though he was in his 70s at the time, he directed development of the picnic grounds and, before one picnic was over, was already planning a bigger and better celebration for the following year.
The concept of the Lumberjack Picnic was sparked by a unique incident. A little girl in Edenville was listening to a man swearing. Then she asked, "Who is this 'God' anyhow? Who's he?" Shocked by her remark, Wixom did some digging and discovered that while Edenville had a church, it held no Sunday school. Before the week was out, he made sure that one got started.
At that time, Edenville was a poor village, and the congregation of the Methodist Church was unable to fully support a pastor. Wixom soon found himself to be the pastor's main source of income. When Pastor Thomas Pollard suggested a lumbermen's gathering as a fundraiser, the suggestion struck a chord with Wixom. The resulting event, which charged only for meals, was conceived both as a way to fill the coffers of the church and as a means of building community spirit.
The first picnic was held in early August 1932. It featured birling (log rolling) by local river drivers, a swimming contest, a tug of war across the river, a baseball game, and a pageant commemorating early Edenville. Meals were served by the ladies aid society of the church, which received the profits. The picnic was deemed a success, and Wixom was determined to repeat it.
Over the next eight years, Wixom, nearly single handedly, built the picnic into one of the major festivals in the Midwest. With his managerial skills and promotional talent--a throwback to his years as a circus owner (see sidebar)--he skillfully developed both picnic grounds and program into an entertainment experience that drew increasing numbers of spectators each year. From hundreds of attendees the first year, the festival grew to 70,000 excited spectators ready for a show that consistently provided more than it promised.
Even before sunrise on the day of the picnic, residents of nearby Midland noticed traffic increasing as carloads of tourists headed up U.S. 10 and Meridian Road, crossed the narrow bridge over the Tittabawassee, and arrived at the picnic grounds on the west bank of the river. Young and old alike stepped out of cars and began to swarm across the grounds, looking for the new attractions Frank Wixom added each year. The women wore their Sunday dresses and the men sported suits, ties, and hats.
Because the thousands of spectators needed to be fed, Wixom built log dining halls reminiscent of old cook shanties. By 1935, the grounds could seat 1,000 diners at a time; later, the four dining halls would seat 2,500 spectators at a sitting with thousands of others standing in line waiting to sample the hearty fare.
Lunch and supper cost just 50 cents apiece but, in open spaces under the trees, attendees were also allowed to enjoy their own food brought from home. Hamburger stands also provided meal choices.
Fifty cooks and helpers started preparing food two days in advance. For dessert alone, they baked 1,200 cherry pies. They also processed two tons of beef and prepared countless bushels of vegetables. During the dining period, nearly 200 local women served the food. Dish washers stayed busy cleaning non-disposable dinnerware. One year, Wixom spent $52 on drying towels for the kitchen.
The food was tasty and plentiful, but the main draw" was the entertainment. Three major events were featured at most of the festivals: log loading, birling, and musical acts.
Wixom brought in logs and several sleighs for teams of former lumberjacks to carry out loading demonstrations. Using cant hooks and a team of horses, the jacks raised the logs, one by one, onto the growing load and anchored them with heavy chains.
As in the old days, log loading at the picnic was fraught with danger, and several men had close calls when logs swung or gave way beneath them. The last logs, hoisted to the top, sometimes broke loose, thundering down toward the loaders who nimbly dashed aside. Onlookers were amazed as winners raised and anchored logs on the average of one log every minute and 15 seconds.
A second event, more spectacular than log loading, was birling. Sixteen-foot logs were rolled into the Tittabawassee and a pair of expert biders wearing caulked boots stepped out of rowboats onto the logs, spinning them in an effort to force each other into the river. The U.S. champion during the 1930s was William Girard of Gladstone, Michigan. In regular birling, Girard usually had no trouble sending competitors into the water. And few men could equal his amazing performances in 'trick' biding. Appearing in a clown costume, he feigned clumsiness on his log and would manage to tall into the river to the crowd's amusement. Clambering back on the log, he set it spinning and shed his soaked clothing item by item until clad only in his bathing suit. Then his performance began. Girard birled while wearing roller skates. He would stand on a chair balanced on a floating log and climb through a hoop. Girard also birled a 3-foot floating wooden sphere and jumped rope on it.
For several years, female birlers also performed. Two young ladies who stole the show were Marietta Phipps and Arbutus Wilson, both teenagers from Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Wearing satin swimsuits and white spiked boots, these 'lumberjills' sent even the best former lumberjacks flying. In trick birling, they also skipped rope, slipped through hoops, played leapfrog, turned somersaults, and danced on their logs. Even more impressive, one girl would spin the log while the other clung to it, getting a dunking at each revolution. The crowd invariably went wild.
The culmination of the 'rolleo' was a show" put on by professional birlers from nine states simultaneously making their logs spin and throw water.
Music was also a major feature of the entertainment. At many of the celebrations, the highlight of the show was the evening program called "Saturday Night in the Bunkhouse." It featured numerous acts on the big stage, but the headliner was the nationally known, award-winning Michigan Lumberjacks Orchestra from Alma. The 16 musicians, sporting red-and-green sashes and bandannas, played fiddles, banjos, guitars, cello, piano, hammered dulcimer, and other instruments. From the fiddles leaped songs popular in the lumbering days including "The Devil's Dream," "The Flat River Girl," "Miss McLeod's Reel," and "The Death of Jack Haggerty."
For many of the old jacks in the audience, the tunes sparked memories of evenings spent in the bunkhouse many years ago. "Once More A-Lumbering Go" was a Tittabawassee River favorite. The singer recounted the thrill of lumbering but recognized that soon it would be time to settle down, get married, and "no more a-lumbering go."
During the orchestra's performances, two members played euchre, reminiscent of the countless card games played in lumber camps, and one scratched himself as a reminder of the eve>present 'graybacks' (lice) that infested virtually every lumber camp. The orchestra's program was filled with zest, rollicking songs and stories that were enthusiastically received by the audience.
Their ballads of beautiful women expressed the tender sentiments of men isolated at camps in the woods and yearning for female companionship. Among hit songs performed by the orchestra was "The Jam at Gerry's Rock," the heartrending story of the breaking of a log jam on the Muskegon River where six young rivermen were swept to their deaths, including their leader, the betrothed Jack Monroe. Crowds listened enthralled as the unfolding story told of Jack's sweetheart pining away, dying, and being buried on the riverbank next to her beloved.
For the evening shows, 35,000 people packed the grandstands or stood to watch the spectacular program which grew year by year. The bleachers were painted a brilliant "circus blue," recalling Frank Wixom's days as a circus owner.
The festival's growth was attributed not just to word of mouth but to Frank Wixom's promotional talents. Every year, he added new features to the grounds including a museum packed with lumbering artifacts and a zoo featuring macaws, bears, deer, monkeys, and a black-maned African lion. Picnickers who tired of log loading and biding could also take a ride on a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel, and a tilt-a-whirl run by concessionaires. Housing for the performers and a press building rounded out the growing complex. By the last year of the event, Wixom had built 24 structures on the picnic grounds including an example of every building in a typical lumber camp.
Motivated by the crowds the picnics drew, politicians began to frequent the event. Governor William Comstock and his opponent Frank Fitzgerald stumped there during the 1934 election. In 1936, no longer governor, Comstock returned to take the stage. In 1940, Governor Luren Dickinson came by and spoke of the need for a return to morality. He lauded Frank Wixom's festival for being squeaky clean.
Though politicians found the time to attend, the greatest lumberjack of all--Paul Bunyan--could not. From California, he sent his regrets to Wixom: "You bet I hear all about the big shindig, and by the old hallylooyer I wish I could come. If I had it like I did on the Tittabawassee, why I could. But out here in the redwoods it's different. Not a logger I have anymore is over eight feet ten inches, and since Babe died the going is hard." Paul's 10-foot gun, however, could be found on the wall in the museum, and the gigantic ax he sent was mounted in the yard.
Wixom was determined to perpetuate the memories of the lumber days beyond his annual picnic. On the grounds, he erected a cut-stone monument with statues of a jack and a riverman. Present at the monument's dedication in 1937 were the two men who had posed for the statues: former lumberjack William Dundas of Beaverton and veteran riverman Otis Terpening of Ithaca.
Rain or shine--and the festival was rained on several times--Frank Wixom directed his show. Easily identified by his snowy hair, gray suit, cane, and ever-present cigar, he circulated among the crowd and kept a careful eye on the festivities. He countenanced no liquor or 'shakedown' artists. "I want my show so clean," he said, "that any boy or girl no matter how young can come and enjoy it."
Attendees appreciated both Wixom's standards and the obvious enthusiasm he put into his picnics. The Midland Daily News editorialized: "Frank Wixom has built this event up single handed and made it one of national importance. To him the thousands who enjoy it owe their thanks." Remembering when his circus played at lumber camps, Wixom felt indebted, stating, "Lumberjacks made me. As long as I live, I won't forget the lumberjack."
The 1939 festival was the largest attended. That year, the ladies aid society served 11,000 meals. And attendance was estimated at upwards of 70,000.
The following year, the folks attending had no idea it would be the last such event. The afternoon activities were spectacular as expected. A seaplane thundered continuously over the grounds carrying festival passengers. It landed on nearby Wixom Lake, formed by one of the power company's dams. The Lumberjack Orchestra performed, and a variety of dancing and singing acts followed. A veteran circus down, Eddie +Smith, put on a skating and hoop act, and 28 birlers performed individually then together.
As the evening program began, flashing lightning and booming thunder heralded a cloudburst. Wixom served as master of ceremonies and signaled for the show to go on. Then the rain fell in torrents, plastering his shock of white hair to his head and soaking his suit. At that, the crowd broke and ran for shelter. Most took to their cars and departed for home.
A few months later, Frank Wixom's doctor advised him that his health was too fragile to continue the Lumberjack Picnic. Frank Wixom died three years later at the age of 79. leaving a legacy of fabulous festivals that celebrated Michigan's lumbering heritage and made thousands of visitors wish that they too could 'once more a-lumbering go."
Frank Wixom, Showman Extraordinaire
He started with a duck and ended with a $3-million power company. In between, he ran a circus, owned a cigar business, and made money in oil. Near the end of his life, Frank Wixom dipped into his own pocket to sponsor nine Lumberjack Picnics, among the most popular festivals in Michigan in the 1930s.
The venturesome Wixom was born near Howell, Michigan in 1863. By the time of his birth, his once-affluent father had been reduced to poverty. One Christmas, the boy received only crackers wrapped in newspapers. At school, he wouldn't open his lunchbox because it contained only a baked potato.
His father gave young Frank some traps which he promptly traded for a duck. Discovering that a duck needed to be fed, he disposed of the duck and gained a sleight-of-hand kit. After becoming fairly proficient in magic, Wixom scheduled a show but chickened out at the last minute. Encouraged by his father to fulfill his commitment, he performed his act, and a showman was born.
Wixom did not, however, continue in show business. He next sold candy on trains, then worked for two years as a farmhand. Going into the produce business, he sold a million barrels of apples in one year. Finally, he answered the call of entertainment. He traded a mare and colt for a dance platform and tent which he used for dances during the summer. With profits from the dances, he bought several horse-drawn wagons and developed the Augusta Mine Minstrels.
His caravan of entertainers traveled the sand trails of northern Michigan, playing in villages and lumber camps. The show soon expanded from wagons to railroad cars advertising nine cages of animals and 110 performers. Combining his circus with a circus his father had acquired on debt, Frank established the Wixom Brothers Palace Show and Congress of Stars. After a few years, he sold the show in Lansing, where he was handed 25 thousand-dollar bills.
A cigar business was followed by a cement business. Next, he went into oil and later sold his interest in 18 wells in Wyoming. With a sizable nest egg, he came directly to Edenville, Michigan to fulfill a long-standing dream.
He wished to use the Tittabawassee River to produce electrical power. This plan dated back to his circus days when his cavalcade followed the trails along the river to various lumber camps. For 20 years, he worked to make this dream come true, and at last he acquired flowage rights on 30,000 acres in the watershed. With outside investors, he organized the Wolverine Power Company and negotiated a 99-year contract with Consumers Power Company to buy the power his system would produce.
He built four dams with power plants on the Tittabawassee. Not only did the dams produce power, but their lakes became prime tourist attractions as resorts sprang up along their banks. Wixom Lake was named for him.
He was living in Edenville when he established the Lumberjack Picnic as a way of enhancing his community. He furnished the grounds, the buildings, the entertainment, and the publicity. For nine years, the picnics drew amazingly large crowds, a testimony to the talents of this big-hearted showman.
David McMacken lives in St. Louis and is a Oratiot County historian. Tom Schupbach lives in DeWitt and is vice president of Manitou Pontoon Boats. This is their third collaboration for the magazine.
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|Author:||McMacken, David; Schupbach, Tom|
|Publication:||Michigan History Magazine|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2009|
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