Idaho

Life as blister rust control worker

Editor’s note: The U.S. Forest Service is 100 years old this year, and to help celebrate its centennial, you’ll find in the Handle Extra throughout 2005 a series of reminiscences by men who joined the agency in its youth and served it and the people of the United States through its early years.

The reminiscences were compiled by correspondent Carl Gidlund, a retired Forest Service employee whose 32-year career with the agency included stints as a smokejumper and public affairs officer for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

Today’s reminiscence is by Warren Benedict, who spent his entire career in the white pine blister rust control program and other pest-control work, beginning in 1924 and retiring from the Forest Service in 1966. This narrative is from a pamphlet he authored, “History of White Pine Blister Rust Control – A Personal Account,” published in 1981 by the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C.

By Warren V. Benedict

In those days, (June 1925) leaving from BRC (Blister Rust Control) headquarters at Spokane, you traveled by train for about 2 hours to the booming lumbering town of Priest River, where you transferred to a freight truck and rode some 25 miles over a dusty road to the southern shore of Priest Lake.

Tucked away in the mountains there in the edge of that beautiful lake was the attractive little summer resort town of Coolin, your last contact with civilization for at least 3 months.

From Coolin, the next leg of the journey was by boat – a small freighter. You chugged slowly north, up the length of the big lake. through a “thoroughfare” that connected the big lake with a smaller one, and on across the small lake. There you debarked at a makeshift camp and pack animal staging area about 30 miles north of Coolin. If you got off to an early start it was nearly dusk when you left the boat. Following a meal at the pack-camp mess, you bedded down for the night under the stars on fir boughs hastily gathered.

The packer, mounted on a saddle horse, led the string on a winding path through the forest. At a pace of about 2 miles per hour they carried 1,500 pounds of provisions and equipment to the BRC camps 16 miles to the north.

As soon as you had downed a hasty breakfast of ham and eggs, you loaded your gear in a packsack, strapped it on your back, and began the last lap of your journey.

Around noon, you arrived at the lower camp, the place that was to be home for the next 3 months. It was what was known as a “rag camp,” that is, a camp of tents instead of wooden structures. In 1924-25, camps on Upper Priest River were representative of all forest camps in the West of that time: they were simple and offered a minimum of human comforts.

A 16- by 16-foot Army squad tent served as the cookhouse. A large canvas tarpaulin (or “fly” … placed across a ridgepole cut from a sapling and fastened along each side by ropes and pegs formed the dining hall. Wooden tables and benches hewn from nearby trees made up the dining furniture.

Each was responsible for making his own sleeping and living quarters. Usually, two men teamed up to build a two-person lean-to or “wikiup,” with a frame of small tree saplings, open in front, and covered by a small canvas fly.

Since lanterns were not available, the men made their own lamps by placing a candle in a can as a reflector. These lamps were called “palousers.” Beds were made of boughs cut from the closest trees. Bedding consisted of three Government-issue woolen army blankets. Personal effects were stored in empty wood packing boxes.

But there was one more item – the “Chic Sale,” a shelter in the trees a short distance behind the sleeping area. A canvas fly covered a framework … on which was laid … a peeled sapling about 10 feet long and about 6 inches in diameter. This pole, known as the “slippery elm,” was centered above a trench 6 feet deep. And the canvas fly that kept out rain and sun was by no means the only “fly” in the area. Populations were kept low by liberal use of lye. Nonetheless, flies and, worse yet, yellow jackets, were a common nuisance.

By evening of the first day, I was in business and ready for my first meal. Dinner that night was typical for those days, almost entirely canned. Canned salmon, dubbed “goldfish,” was the main entree. Sometimes this dish was served plain, other times it was laced with eggs and spinach and covered with a cream sauce. Side dishes included baked beans (known locally as “Idaho strawberries,” boiled potatoes or “murfs,” and spinach. Variety depended upon the types of canned foods on hand and the ingenuity and capability of the cook.

Breakfasts consisted of ham or bacon and eggs, farina mush, fried potatoes, hotcakes with syrup and butter (butter put up in brine came in cans), canned fruit and coffee. Lunches were made by the workers and usually consisted of sandwiches made from pancakes (bread was scarce) with canned meat, cheese or jam. Each man carried his lunch in a sack fastened to his belt so he could eat in the field.

Two 30-man camps operated in Upper Priest River during 1924 and 1925. Each camp had a camp boss, cook, flunky, four crew leaders, four five-man crews and three scouts. The labor force consisted of forestry school students seeking woods experience and the chance to earn some money to continue their education. Saving these earnings was easy. Aside from an occasional poker game for small stakes, there was no way to let summer wages slip through the fingers.

As in the East, most ribes could be pulled by hand. Since there were no roads, working boundaries were often ridge tops and stream bottoms tied into section lines of the public land survey system. Work units were divided into forest types, or associations of trees, where ribes species grew.

Ribes varied in size and number within the different forest types. They were smaller and fewer in the dense tree types than in the open forest types and along streams. Streams posed special problems, particularly in the southern portions of the white pine belt, and special methods for dealing with the ribes along such streams had to be developed.

During the two seasons of work in the Upper Priest River drainage area, crews removed an average of 86 ribes plants per acre at an average cost of $3.50 per acre. Checks made on work quality showed that about 16 ribes per acre were being missed. This was considered not good enough to provide adequate protection.

Smaller crews with workers spaced closer together were tested. After several seasons of experimentation, crews were able to meet a goal of only three or four small bushes missed per acre.

It was on the Upper Priest River project that BRC crews got their “baptism by fire.” An agreement between the supervisor of the Kaniksu National Forest and Spokane BRC office stated that blister rust crews would take initial action on all fires within and adjoining the drainage where they were working.

Firefighting tools were placed in the camps, and men were trained in their use. Many lightning fires hit the area in 1925, and BRC crews spent over half the summer fighting fire. They acquitted themselves well, drew strong praise from the forest supervisor, and set the stage for the major role they were to play as an integral part of the Forest Service firefighting organization.

In 1926 experimental ribes eradication in Idaho shifted to more accessible pine forest types in the Binarch and Lamb Creek drainage areas on the west side of Priest Lake, extending slightly into Washington state. Devastating forest fires swept the area, destroying much of the pine in the control unit, and BRC personnel again spent most of the summer fighting fires.

A project designed to improve methods of eradicating ribes and lowering costs was soon under way in all BRC camps. Various crew sizes, spacing between men, and layouts for covering the work area. … Small crews were found to be more efficient, and the three-man crew came into use.

A crew under Henry Putnam began reconnaissance work to map boundaries of white pine forest types and record white pines by sizes; also to record ribes numbers by species and note the density of undergrowth, brush, and other factors affecting ribes eradication work. They ran strips one rod wide by compass and by pacing at quarter-mile intervals, at right angles to watersheds. Costs of this work averaged a bit over 1 cent per acre.



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