Logging with Oxen

by Drew Conroy
When I need to relax during a stressful day, I conjure up the image of walking beside my team of oxen on a crisp winter morning, the trees covered in glistening frost, the animals' steaming breaths pluming out of their nostrils, and a load of logs dragging on the forest floor. I grew up logging with oxen. I have enjoyed few things in my life more than working with a team in the woods.

The pace is slow and methodical. Team and teamster develop an almost mystical rhythm. Many people are drawn to this image—the thought of working as one with the animals in a calm and relaxing environment. For me it's a seasonal ritual, something I've done out of pure pleasure more than necessity.

In rural New England logging is historically a winter activity. In the 1600s and 1700s oxen were used to clearour forests of large virgin timber. As there was no farm work to be done, and no stumps and stones to be moved, many colonial farmers became lumbermen during the winter, their farm teams transformed into woods teams.

Freezing temperatures, frozen waterways, and snow or ice benefitted the animals in many ways. A shod team could draw tremendous loads over rough ground or swamps that might be impassable in other seasons. On ice or snow they could pull heavier loads or a given load over a longer distance. Troublesome insects didn't bother the animals in winter. And, since oxen don't sweat as efficiently as horses or mules, the cool weather increased their stamina.

Oxen were used not only in New England, but also in the Northwest, the South, and the upper Midwest ntil the end of the 19th century, when they were repaced by horses in logging camps around the United States. Of course horses were later replaced by machinery nd today neither horses nor oxen can compete with machines based on volume or efficiency. Still, draft animals have advantages over machinery, particularly in small lots or environmentally sensitive areas.

I've only known two ox teamsters who tried to make a living logging with oxen. Both had plenty of work, yet to my knowledge both have changed professions. I believe more money may be made logging with machinery, and possibly with horses or mules, than with oxen.

Today many New England ox teamsters work in the lumber industry. Most of them use contemporary methods and machinery for logging, but use the advantage of being self employed to take time off to work with and condition their teams for competition. Pulling contests, which are common in New England, occur throughout the summer and fall. They serve as a reminder of a time when early ox teamsters came out of the forest in spring with their teams well conditioned and "hard," challenging friends and neighbors to see who had the strongest teams.

In comparing oxen to horses and mules—and I have used all three species—I have a few personal biases. In the woodlot, I don't like driving a team from behind for a couple of reasons. First, I can't see around or over large horses, and a forest has far too many obstacles to dodge. Second, I hate trying to avoid being rolled over by logs pulled by a team. When I drive oxen, I walk ahead of or beside the team, directing them from a vantage point that offers more safety and a better view of what lies ahead.

I've been told that a good woods horse doesn't need a driver, so my concern over driving from behind may not always hold true. Some horses can be sent out of the woodlot with a log to the landing, and once unhitched from the log can be sent back into the woodlot for the next load. Oxen can meet the same challenge, but with one limitation. A well-trained team will readily pull logs out to the landing, but I've never seen a team that would go back into the woods, beyond the sight of the teamster, without being driven. I've always wondered is this because they are not as dumb as an ox, but smart enough to realize that when they go back into the woods they'll have to get a new load to pull out.

Although logging with oxen is not a career path that leads to riches, I have made a considerable amount of money logging part time on weekends and during school vacations, especially when I was in high school. My time was not as valuable as it is now, but the money was more than I could have made if I had worked for someone else. It was also a labor of love, and every hour in a woodlot with my team seemed to whiz by. I do not doubt that using a team of oxen for a firewood or logging operation can generate income, so I don't want to discourage a anyone from a fulfilling a lifelong dream.

If you want to log with animals you must be creative to generate enough income to cover the costs of your time, your equipment, and the true cost of maintaining the animals. You can be paid for your services in many ways. I've been paid by the hour to haul out firewood. I've been paid by the day, by the load, and by the amount of lumber or firewood I managed to get out of the lot.

One of my most profitable ventures was using my team to clean up a lot that had been harvested with machines. My job was to haul out the hardwood treetops left after the logs were taken. I didn't need to fell any trees and the wood was free because the landowner wanted the lot cleaned up. The treetops had been in the woods for a year and so were dry enough to cut for firewood. I sold it at the landing as dry wood the day I hauled it out.

rh horse logo

Drew Conroy of Berwick, Maine, is the author of Oxen, a Teamsters Guide, and cohost of the DVD Training of Oxen. This article originally apperared in the
Winter 1995 issue of Rural Heritage.

  • Copyright © 1997 − 2023 Rural Heritage
    Rural Heritage  |  PO Box 2067  |  Cedar Rapids, IA 52406
    Telephone (319) 362-3027

    This file last modified: September 20 2015.

    Designed by sbatemandesign.com