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Monsters of the the Lumber Camps
By Catherine Winter
August 8, 1997

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When lumberjacks first came to northern Minnesota to cut the pines and send them downriver, they had no idea what they would find in the forest. Apparently the bears and porcupines and pileated woodpeckers weren't bizarre or scary enough, because the loggers developed a mythology of their own. They told stories of an animal with lips so big it stepped on them if it tried to graze: a hard-headed splintercat that smashed trees in search of honey, and the dreaded agropelter, which smacked unwary woodsmen on the head if they wandered into its territory. Mainstreet Radio's Catherine Winter reports.

At the Forest History Center, actors in period costumes work in log buildings to recreate the atmosphere of a logging camp of the early 1900s. Sherry Harapat plays Miss Minnie, a cook's assistant. Miss Minnie has to go to the frozen river several times a day to fetch water in buckets. She's never seen the beast known as the Tote Road Shagamaw, but she's sure it exists.

Harapat: I swear, once a week he follows me: By the time I get to the river, I put the axe down, and I take the yoke off of my shoulders so I can take one bucket at a time. I chop the hole in the ice with the axe. And then - so I don't get my mittens wet - I take them off and put them behind me, and I fill up one bucket and set it on the bank, and I fill up the other bucket, put it on the bank, get it attached to the yoke and hoist it back up; I grab the axe and turn for my mittens and they're GONE! I kid you not. He hangs around the tote roads, and he shagamaws the mittens.
The tote road shagamaw has an appetite for wool, but a few of the forest creatures in lumberjack stories were carnivorous. The agropelter killed and ate people, according to some legends. It was an ape-like creature that lived in hollow trees, and - depending on who was telling the story - it would pelt a passerby with pine cones, or smash the victim over the head with a branch. But most of the creatures in the books and stories at the Forest History Center are not so much dangerous as weird. The hugag, for instance - not to be confused with the hodag - had no knee joints and had to lean against trees to sleep. The best way to catch one was to cut a notch in a tree and hope a leaning hugag would fall over and be unable to get up.

Storyteller Will Holnagle tells of a creature that came to be when the lice - known as greybacks to loggers - got lonely for the lumberjacks who had abandoned a camp.

Holnagle: Well, they sought other companionship in the form of wildcats. And they soon engaged in relationships of many kinds with the wildcats. And the offspring of the relationship between a greyback and a wildcat was something quite unusual. Felice Mundis Hairfurrious, the scientific name of this beast. It's about a foot long, and it had long hair covering its body about six inches, with three legs on each side. It crept through the woods looking for the lumberjacks. (Howls) When they spoke, you listened.
Bedcats may have been invented by lumberjacks trying to outdo each other with tall tales. They spent months in camp, and made up stories to pass the time in the bunkhouse. And Forest History Center assistant director Grant Frasier says it was fun for the loggers to try to scare newcomers to camp.
Frasier: Lotta people didn't have any idea what to expect up here. Lotta people that came up here to log were from far away, lot of em were actually from the cities, back east and that, trying to find a way to make a living for awhile. So, yeah, they - you could probably convince people of a lot of things that were up here.
The Forest History Center has a couple books on hand that catalog the beasts that loggers said they saw or heard - or whose strange tracks they followed. Different creatures crop up in different parts of the country where lumberjacks camped. And some still exist today. Locals say the hodag, a rhinocerous-like creature, roams Rhinelander, Wisconsin. But for the most part, like the old logging camps, the bizarre forest creatures are extinct today.