Excerpt 2: from The Camboose Shanty

The typical camboose shanty that housed 50 to 60 men was a low log building about 35 feet by 40 feet, with side walls six feet high and gables about 10 feet at the peak... The sole entrance to the shanty was a rather small door at the end of the building... Rarely there was a window... as a rule, there were no windows at all, and all the light and ventilation (not so much light but lots of ventilation) came through a large hole in the roof, 12 feet square, surrounded by a square chimney... this opening carried off the smoke of the camboose...

The inside plan of a shanty was not always exactly the same, but the following was a common arrangement... To the right of the door as you came in was a pile of four foot firewood. The hardworking chore boy had to provide about a cord and a half every 24 hours, as well as six large "back logs." In front of the door, between it and the camboose, was the place of the grindstones, usually two, which in the evening were in constant use sharpening axes... To the left of the door, were two barrels of wash water, and a stand for a couple of wash basins. There was a spout through the logs here to empty out the dirty water. It often froze up in winter and the ice had to be forcibly punched out. Next in the corner stood the cook's water barrel, and along the wall came the cook's shelf for meat and other stores, the cook's work table and the bread shelf. Farther along this side, the clerk had his desk and beside it, the van chest which held the tobacco, moccasins, clothing and sundries for sale to the men. The right side of the building was taken up by two tiers of bunks, six or seven in each tier, and across the end farthest from the door were two more tiers of seven bunks, in which the men slept with their feet to the fire. Continuing down the left wall, before you came to the clerk's outfit, there might be four more bunks, and this was where the foreman slept. Often his was the only bunk in this corner. A bench of flatted timber resting on blocks extended along in front of the bunks...

And now for the camboose, the heart of the shanty... It was a square of logs in the middle of the shanty, 12 feet each way, retaining a foot or so of earth and sand, on which a fire for heating and cooking burned day and night. Four posts at the four corners rose to the low roof, and to one of them was attached the cramier... the ingenious adjustable crane that swung the pots over the fire. One end of the camboose was divided off by a log into a separate trough filled with sand. In this place, known as the "bean poles" beans and bread were baked in cast iron bake kettles buried in the hot sand. The "cook's shovel" used to bury the kettles was round-pointed with a short socket into which the cook fitted a long straight handle...

[The cooks would test the sand by spitting on it. If the spit sizzled, the sand was sufficiently hot. Later on, when wood-fired stoves replaced the open fire of the camboose, cooks would test the temperature inside the oven by sticking a hand in.]

The "cookery" consisted of about four camp kettles, large iron pots of 10 or 12 gallons with pails and tin covers, seven or eight bake-kettles, cast iron "ovens" 14" to 16" in diameter and 4” to 5" deep with cast iron covers and lugs, a five gallon tin tea pail and a large dish pan. Other appliances were several pairs of pot hooks of various sizes to handle the kettles and pots. What might be called the tableware if there had been any table - but there wasn't - were tea dishes (pannikins), tin plates, and soup spoons. No knives or forks were provided. Each man brought a small butcher knife and fork and the experienced shantyman used it with neatness and dexterity. Between meals it was stuck in the wall of the owner's bunk.

At night the camboose fire supplied the only light... [and it] lit up the shanty better than lamps could have. It was as large and cheerful as a good sized bonfire, and it never went out... .the cook began his day at anything between three and four in the morning... Eight o'clock was a late hour in the shanty. Everyone had to be at his place of work [in the forest] by break of day, and the farther he had to go the earlier he started. He stayed on the job until sundown and then walked back, often several miles, to the shanty...

The camboose shanty was the old original cafeteria. There was no table and everyone served himself. Getting a tea dish, a tin plate and a hunk of bread from the cook's shelves, the hungry man took whatever food he wanted from the pots and kettles around the fire; then, sitting on the bench with his brimming tea dish beside him and his heaped plate on his knee, he proceeded to eat with the ready help of his butcher knife. For the perfection of hospitality, you had to come to the camboose. Food was always ready; no one pressed you to eat, and no one stopped you. You ate as much as you pleased and at any time. Some even got up in the middle of the night for a snack....

With his simple open fire and his few pots and kettles, it was surprising what well-prepared food the camboose cook could set out. All this dishes were fine examples of good plain cooking, and the bread baked in the sand was particularly fine. It was close-grained yet light and of a delectable nutty flavor. The latest electric ovens of these days produce nothing better - if as good...

While the food was unlimited in quantity and excellent in quality, it was lacking in variety... Breakfast was always about the same: baked beans, bread and tea, green tea; black tea and coffee were never used. Some men liked to add a little black strap molasses to their beans...

Each gang working together in the woods: logmakers, road cutters, teamster, skidder, took a lunch with them in a cotton bag. It consisted simply of boiled salt pork - very fat Chicago heavy mess - and bread and tea. A wise precaution was to bury the lunch bag in the snow to hide it from the ravens, who liked nothing better than to tear it open with their powerful beaks and devour the lunch... At noon the men met around a camp fire and boiled their tea and sometimes had to thaw out the bread by holding it on a stick close to the flame. The teamster gave his horses their oats, and the men ate the fat pork and smoked their pipes a while before going back to work. This sounds like frugal fare, but I have seldom enjoyed a meal as much as the bread and pork at a logmaker's fire in the winter woods.

Supper was the principal meal of the day. The main course was a camp kettle full of boiled beef and another of boiled potatoes. Salt pork also was available, and dessert would be represented by boiled rice with raisins and stewed dried apples flavored with cinnamon... There was always unlimited bread and sometimes rather high-flavored butter. Sea pie was the special treat on Sunday morning. A couple of bake kettles were filled with pork, beef, bread and dough with plenty of fat and buried in the hot sand to bake. Old shantymen lick their lips when they think of sea pie. Another Sunday special was "des grillades": mess pork cut into slices and fried. This was very good eating but it was considered a wasteful way of cooking pork... Once in a while pea soup was served; and if there was any baking powder the cook would make a batch of enormous cookies the size of a tea plate. They were tasty enough but not what you might call rich. Also there was generally a barrel of shanty biscuit (hardtack) on hand for use before the cook got his bread baked, or in emergencies and on journeys...

In general, the men were satisfied with their lot and their work, and did not think that they were suffering any particular hardships. They felt at home in the shanty and enjoyed the freedom of the life... They were content to be largely cut off from the outside world until the creeks began to break up in the spring and it was time to get the rigging for the drive ready.

In general, the men were satisfied with their lot and their work, and did not think that they were suffering any particular hardships. They felt at home in the shanty and enjoyed the freedom of the life... They were content to be largely cut off from the outside world until the creeks began to break up in the spring and it was time to get the rigging for the drive ready.


Charles Macnamara
19th Century
Ontario, CANADA
© 1959 Ontario History: The Quarterly Journal of the Ontario Historical Society

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