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Romance among the log rafts during lumber harvesting days

It is possible that Gerald Tutor’s grandparents, Amelia Loretta Valashek and George Calius Martell, are included in this photo aboard the boat Eclipse. They met while working in the log rafting industry in 1905. CONTRIBUTED LYNNE TUTOR MCGEE


The course of the Mississippi River, particularly from the point of its union with the St. Croix River near Hastings, Minn., has been a major transportation and commerce avenue ever since settlers first moved inland in the United States in search of new lands to settle.

By the 1850s, when navigation opened along the Northern Mississippi via steamboat, settlers began harvesting the vast pine forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota, using the river to carry the lumber south where it could be milled and rerouted to fill the construction needs of the new west.

For the next half century, the harvest and subsequent shipment via river continued, and Hannibal, Missouri, was the destination for much of this native lumber. Hannibal offered available sawmills to cut the timbers into boards, a ready workforce, easy river access and railroads to haul the lumber westward.

By 1905 and 1906, the harvest was slowing, as the native trees were becoming depleted. But the industry continued, having gained much sophistication during its half century of existence.

Gerald Tutor of Poplar, Wis., (married to Hannibal native Lynne McGee Tutor) tells the story of his grandparents who met while working on the lumber rafts on the Mississippi in 1905.

As a young woman, Amelia Loretta Valashek, moved to Guttenberg, Iowa, in search of a job at the town’s leading industry, one of three button factories. This was during the era before plastic, when buttons were culled from the shells of freshwater clams harvested from the Mississippi River.

It didn’t take long, however, for Amelia to recognize a more lucrative employment opportunity in this town along the banks of the Mississippi: that of a cook on the log barges.

“They tied the logs together and built a shanty in the middle for the cook,” Gerald said. “The biggest of the log rafts were almost a mile long. By 1884, they attached a small steamboat to the front of the raft in order to steer it.”

His grandfather, George Calius Martell, was a hand on one of these log rafts.

Gerald explained that there was a holding area for harvested logs along the St. Croix and Upper Mississippi. Each log was marked with its owner’s stamp, which was hit into each end of the log, driving the wood fibers way into the log, so the mark couldn’t be trimmed off.

When the spring thaw came, the log barges were shot down the river. By 1854, the rafts were pushed by a steamboat. As the rafts got bigger, the steamboat couldn’t steer them, so they lashed a small steamboat to the front of the rafts to steer.

The Eclipse was used as a steering boat, and Gerald Tutor has a picture of people aboard the Eclipse, dressed in their “good clothes,” perhaps members of the log raft crew traveling back upstream after delivering the logs. It is possible that Gerald’s grandparents are included in this photo aboard the boat. The Eclipse was also used as a packet boat.

George and Amelia left the river and married in January 1906 in Iron River Wis., “which is a long way from the Mississippi River,” Gerald pointed out.

They went back to George Martell’s homeland, and farmed there. He was a pig farmer. Five children and 10 years later, Mrs. Martell died, and is buried in Iron River.

One of those five children is Gerald’s mother, Marjorie Loretta Tutor (1912-2001) who married James Wylie Tutor.

“I only saw one real photo of my grandmother,” Gerald said, “because she died when Mother was 3. The only picture is of a wedding – but not her wedding,” Gerald said.

His grandfather remarried after his wife died, so the grandmother Gerald remembers was actually his step-grandmother.

This photo of lumber processing demonstrates the vastness of the logging process in its heyday. CONTRIBUTED LYNNE TUTOR MCGEE

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