by Ian Roantree and Dan McClelland
A weekend celebration at Big Tupper Brewing of Tupper Lake's logging and lumbering heritage and the men and women who worked tirelessly in the woods to earn livings for their families in decades past began Friday evening with some good old fashioned storytelling by Tupper Lake's Bruce LaVoy, a longtime forester here.
Bruce shared two local stories and then a popular Robert Service poem to the delight of several dozen folks assembled around the fire of an outdoor patio fire pit. Despite the cold, everyone stayed for the entire half hour, to laugh with Bruce and enjoy his detailed stories. It was an impressive and near-flawless performance by the local story teller.
“Ladies and gentlemen, skinny and stout, I’ll tell you a story I know nothing about. Admission is free so pay at the door, pull up a chair, sit on the floor.
“One fine day in the middle of the night, two good boys got up to fight. Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other.
“A blind man came to see fair play, a mute man came to shout hooray.
“A deaf policeman heard the noise and came to stop those two dead boys.
“He lived on a corner in the middle of the block, in a two story house on a vacant lot.
“A man with no legs came walking by and kicked that policeman right in the thigh.
“The policeman fell and made no sound, and fell in a dry creek bed and suddenly drowned.
“A big black hearse came to carry him away, but he ran for his life and he’s gone today.
“I watched it all from the corner of a big round table, and I’m the only eye witness to the facts of this fable.
“And if you don’t believe my lies are true, ask the blind man, he saw it too.
“Everybody here knows that Tupper Lake was pretty much founded by French Canadians. French Canadian lumberjacks came to work in the woods, they were cooks in the hunting camps, they were hunters and guides and trappers.
“With that background, I was walking down the street in Tupper Lake one day and I overheard this conversation.
“Went down town ‘der the utter day, met my old friend, Trapper Bill. We sat down to talk as good friends often will. I said, ‘what’s that thing there you got on your back?’ ‘That’s a baby skunk I got in that old sack.’
“‘Bill, you trapped a skunk? And you didn’t kill him yet?
“‘Oh I won’t hurt that little fella, I’m gonna keep him for a pet.
“‘Oh Bill, those baby skunks are awful tender so I’m told. he’ll probably freeze to death some night, that wind is hella cold.”
“‘Well Bill’, he began to scratch his head, ‘that baby skunk won’t freeze to death he’ll sleep with me in bed.’”
“‘Well Bill, your notions awful swell, but tell me, what are you going to do about that awful smell?’”
“‘You think that bother him? Not one little bit That baby skunk’, says trapper Bill, ‘He’ll soon get used to it.’
“You ask me to tell you about loggers and that sort of thing.
“As I sat down one evening, I was in a small cafe, an 80 year old waitress to me these words did say.
“‘I see that you are a logger and not just a common bum. Because no one but a logger stirs his coffee with his thumb.
“‘My lover was a logger, there’s none like him today. If you pour whiskey on it, he’d eat a bale of hay.
“‘He never shaved them whiskers from off his horny hide, he’d just drive them in with a hammer and bite them off inside.
“‘My lover came to see me 'twas one freezing day, he held me in a fond embrace that broke three vertebrae.
“‘He kissed me when we parted so hard that he broke my jaw, I could not speak to tell him that he forgot his mackinaw.
“‘I saw my lover leaving sauntering through the snow, going daily homeward at 48 below.
“‘The weather that tried to freeze him it tried his level best, at a 100 degrees below zero, he buttoned up his vest.
“‘Well it froze clear thorough to china, it froze to the stars above, at a 1000 degrees below zero, it froze my logger love.
“‘The men went out to find him and if you believe me sir, they ground him down for axe blades to chop the spruce and fir.
“And so she lost her lover and to this cafe she comes and here she waits for someone to stir his coffee with his thumb.”
“You know you can’t talk about cold and winter and ice and that sort of thing, without remembering Robert Service. Robert Service was a British guy that came to Alaska during the gold rush in the early 1900s. He wrote down the story that made him famous, really. The Hermit of Shark Tooth Shoal, the Cremation of Sam McGee, the Blasphemous Bill Mackie, and I was going to save the Cremation of Sam McGee for last because that’s my favorite, and since we’re sitting out here in the cold, we kinda oughta talk about Sam McGee.”
Bruce recited the popular poem perfectly, inflecting a little accent where appropriate.
He began, “There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold; the Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold;
“The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, But the queerest they ever did see Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee.
“Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows. Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
“He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell; though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."
“On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail. Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
“If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see; it wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.
“And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow, and the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe.
“He turned to me, and 'Cap,' says he, 'I'll cash in this trip, I guess; and if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request.'
“Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan: "It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
“Yet ain't being dead—it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains; so I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains.
“A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail; and we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
“He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee; and before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.
“There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven, with a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given.
“It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains, but you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains.
“Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code. In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
“In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring, howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.
“And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow; and on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low.
“The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in; and I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.
“Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay; tt was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the 'Alice May.'
“And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum; then 'Here," said I, with a sudden cry, 'is my cre-ma-tor-eum.'
“Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire; some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher.
“The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see; and I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
“Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so; and the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
“It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why; and the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.
“I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear; but the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near.
“I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: 'I'll just take a peep inside. I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked,' then the door I opened wide.
“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar; and he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: 'Please close that door.”
“It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm.'
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold;
“The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.
“The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see, was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee.”
Finishing that long poem, Bruce barely took a breath and then continued on with a local story:
“There used to be a great big building at the end of Wawbeek and they tore it down part of it because, and Ill tell you why, I was working in northern michigan in the upper peninsula, I was running log loader for a timber company, and they were the last people to have logging camps, and we were hanging out one night and a cook started talking and he said, 'you guys all know about Jigger Jones, dontcha?'
“No, I said.
“This Jigger Jones worked in Tupper Lake a little town back in the Adirondacks where they did logging.”
“Well, son of a gun, my ears picked right up, ya know! What’s this going on here? I’ve never heard of Jigger Jones! He said his grandfather told him all about this logger that came to Tupper Lake when the logging was first getting started. His name was Jigger Jones and he was a real character, but everything he did turned to money.
“He came to Tupper lake with one team of horses, and in the next year he had two or three, and the year after that he had a whole bunch of horses and the money kept rolling in. Someone told him that they were going to build a railroad and theres gonna be a bunch of men! So he built a couple of great big cook shacks. This what all that that cook was telling me about, he he hired some cooks, and he started feeding all of these guys working on the railroad. And the money is rolling in! He’s got an awful pocket of money, and he's doing real well. Then the loggers decided, “you know if we build a dam down there where they set the poles, we can flood this whole area and we can float our logs a lot of easier. Well Jigger Jones like the idea of that so he went and got himself on the board! And then they got talking about it, and yeh, they’re going to rise the water level. Well, that big flat area down there where we call the bowling alley now, that was all great big tamarack, full of big tamarack. And they got to talkin’ and they said the water is going to rise and it’s going to kill all of those trees!
“Well Jigger Jones said 'I’ll get those trees outta the way for ya don’t you worry.'
“Well, they got the going on the railroad and he’s making money there, and they got the dam, and he’s makin’ money there. And he goes and tells his boys ‘we’re going to cut all of those trees in that flat area and take that tamarack, haul it up to the sawmill, cut into rail road ties, and we’ll sell em the railroad ties! The loggers said, 'we can cut the trees but we can’t get em outta there. How are we gonna get ‘em outta there?’
“Well they scratched their head and Jigger Jones sent a bunch of men down there and they cut those trees anyways, cut all the branches off them, and all the time, the teamsters are complaining, complaining, complaining. So he went and sent a teleram, and he said 'I’ll give you boys a little longer yet, and the horses were stuck and the horses were breaking legs and we just cant get them outta there.' Well someone came up to Jigger Jones and said 'you got a railroad car full of baggage at the railroad station. He said, 'oh yeah Good!'
“Well I’m gonna take you back to that building, the boat house. And they were tearing it down, and they go way back in the corner of one of the little rooms and there are all these horse harnesses that were rotted and just as rotted as could be! And they're taking 'em out and they're haulin’ em away and some of the guys knew about horses and they were sayin, ‘man these are the funniest harnesses! The leg places aren’t right and the hangs don’t fit right and the belly straps! These aren’t right for horses.'
“And they’re throwing them in the back of the truck, and hauling them away, and they got way to the back of the room and there’s some more of those...
Bruce paused to clear his throat then said “I better have a beer!” Then he continued.
“There’s more of those harnesses hanging there and they pull them out and there’s brass plates on the older ones and on it says ‘Jigger Jones, Logger’. Awhh!! It all falls together now! Because, in that railroad car there were a whole bunch of alligators. And he brought those alligators into that swamp, and he fitted those harnesses to the alligators, and that’s how they pulled those logs out. But, it wasn’t free, it costed him! He was doing great, he had four alligators to a set, and he was pulling them up, pulling them up, and one of the alligators... kachunk... took his arm clean off so that cost him.
“But that fall, there was one helluva big cook-out in Tupper Lake with everyone in town.
“Jigger was very very rich and he didn’t like that arm sleeve swinging so he got a golden arm made and that filled up his sleeve, and he just tied it on there but at least the sleeve was danglin’ there and he was very proud of that golden arm. When he was doing all of this, he bought the farm that was across the boat launch site, up where the big white house is, and said, ‘when I retire, I’ll just farm and take it easy.'
“Well he got older and older, and people in town got talking ‘He made money loggin’, he made money on that railroad, he made money on that dam. Everything he did, turned to money!’ He was rich!
“And again, at that same time, there was a young lady going to the high school here, and she said ‘you know, I could marry that old man and I would be rich!’ So it wasn’t very long, she was seen heading up to the old farm with a cherry pie. And it wasn’t long after that she was up there with an apple pie. But Jigger Jones is no dummy, he knows what’s going on. ‘But you know here I am an old man, and I got all this money and nobody to leave it to. There's nothing wrong with having a young wife.’
“And it wasn’t too long that they got married. And they lived up in there for a couple of years and everything went along great. So he brought his wife around to his barn and he had a great big box full of American Eagle gold; that's how they paid him in the railroad! It was a big box of it! So he showed his young wife this, and then he went into the house and around behind the chimney there was a great big box full of $100 bills and that box was full of those $100 bills. And the old man died, finally, and they buried him up behind the house in the fields under some big trees. And they had a little ceremony and they buried him, and a few days later and she got going through the paper work and thought ‘I’m gonna go get the gold’ so she went and brought it in the house. ‘Well, I’m gonna go count all those $100 bills’ so she went and counted them all up. Then she got into his bank book and it was a bank book from the Tupper Lake Bank. ‘Holy Mackerel! I knew I was rich but I didn’t know I was that rich!’
“There’s another bank book from the Saranac Lake Bank. ‘Holy Mackerel there's a bunch of money in there too!’
“So a couple days went by and she’s sitting there at night. ‘Boy, that golden arm must be worth a fortune. We buried him with that golden arm and it must be worth a lot of money.’
“The next day she couldn’t take it, so at night, she went and got a knife, she got a shovel, she got her lantern, and she went out there in the fields and she dug up that grave. And she pried the cover off the box, and she took that knife and cut the straps that held that golden arm, and she grabbed that golden arm, pulled it out, put the cover on the box, put the dirt back in and took her knife and shovel and ran home. She got to the porch and remembered “oh I forgot the lantern!’
“She looked back and she could see the lantern and it was swinging! The old man used to swing that lantern with his right hand because the left hand was gone. It’s coming closer to the house. The old man is coming. She ran in the house and locked the door and looked out the window. And it’s coming closer and closer, and she can see the old lantern swinging. She ran up stairs and ran into the bedroom. Creeeeeek! She could hear the door open and bang as the door closed.
“Clump...clump...clump! It sounded just like the way the old man used to walk. She got in bed and covered up her head.
“Clump...clump...clump, up the stairs she could hear him. She's in bed and she’s got the blankets over her head. ‘Who’s got my golden arm!?’ Now he’s standing right over top of her. And she can hear him, ‘Who’s got my golden arm!?’ You got it!” Jigger growled and with a lunge he grabbed the arm of Donna Sloan who was sitting on a picnic table close to the fire and everyone, including Donna, let out a scream.
Bruce's performance was greeted with hearty applause by those huddled around the fire.
The activity moved inside with a performance by musician Ben McClelland, who entertained the merrymakers there with his well-performed cover songs from the sixties and seventies.