Logging and Learning in Michigan with Fred Herr
by Jon Miller of Detroit, MI
photos by Jon Miller & Richard Roosenberg
On a recent cold, early-March weekend, a small but enthusiastic group of people gathered at Tillers International in southwestern Michigan for a class on “Draft Animal Logging” taught by one of southern Michigan’s great teamsters, Fred Herr. Now 78, Fred has been working horses all his life – on the farm, in the woods, and as a legend in regional pulling contests. In addition, Fred has been teaching classes at Tillers for the last 20 years or so – plowing, fieldwork, logging, training draft horses, etc.
For this year’s logging class, Fred brought two of his horses, Bud and Ned, a beautiful pair of 6-year-old Belgians, and the Tillers folk had a team of oxen in yolk. Following some preliminary cautions about safety and handling of the animals, the class began by practicing ground-skidding logs in open terrain, then a brief introduction to the use of the logging arch and more practice throwing the tongs over logs and skidding them around an open field.
The real fun began as the class moved into the woods, felled several oak trees, and began skidding the logs out to the landing. Fred let the students drive the horses while he stood by and gave instructions about how to approach the logs, how to maneuver the horses around stumps, underbrush, and the like, how to back the horses up, how to hook the chains into the bar on the logging cart, how to skid two logs at once, etc., as well as safety precautions (“Keep hold of the lines while you get off the cart to drop the tongs over the log.”). This was all mixed in with both chastisement (“Loosen up on your lines!” or next minute, “You’ve got too much slack in the lines!”) and encouragement (“That’s it, now go ahead and skid those logs out”).
Occasionally, for maneuvering the horses into particularly tight spots, Fred took the lines himself and, walking along next to the cart, calmly told the horses what to do. And all of the students felt privileged to be under the guidance of this master teamster.
After the Tillers students got the hang of it, both the horses and the oxen were skidding logs out to the landing at a pretty good clip. The high point of Fred’s day, though, came when the oxen got a log hung up while trying to skid it over another log. They strained, but couldn’t get the log to budge. So Fred backed the horses up, hooked to the log, and told the teamster-in-training, “Now, you’re going to have to really hold them back once it moves, ‘cause they’re going to want to pull.” And that they did: the log came over the other log as neat as you please – and Fred was beaming and telling the Tillers folk to get the oxen out of the way, “we’ve got logs to skid here!”
Fred’s horses, of course, are not new to the business of skidding logs. From the time the trees are bare in the fall until late spring when bugs get too thick to work in the woods, Fred and his horses will be skidding logs five days a week out of one or another woodlot around southwestern Michigan.
Nor is Fred new to the logging business! He learned the teamsters’ craft from his grandfather on the farm. A bit later, when his granddad owned a sawmill, Fred skidded logs for him. During Fred’s working career as a millwright with the Kellogg Corporation in Battle Creek, he always worked the midnight shift so that he could farm and skid logs during the daytime. About the farming he said: “I would use the horses ‘til I got behind, then I’d get out the tractor to get caught up.”
Throughout his life, though, Fred’s passion has been in training colts to work in harness. In the past he has frequently taught a “Draft Horse Training” course at Tillers. He still goes to Topeka, Indiana, twice a year to check out the colts that are up for sale. Last spring he came home with yet another three-year-old, Roy. Roy got broke in quickly by working in between Bud and Ned, and by the fall Roy got his first exposure to the pulling contests. During this past winter, Roy has skidded logs with the rest of Fred’s crew. One beautiful fall day last October, while I was working a team of Fred’s horses at a Plow Day, another teamster said to me: “That old man who owns those horses you’re working is the (golldarnedest) best horse trainer I ever met!”
Back in February, a few weeks before the logging class at Tillers International, Fred was skidding from a woodlot south of Battle Creek when I joined him for the day. He has been working this winter with his friend, Harry Day, who also was working with a team of Belgians. Both Fred and Harry use logging arches for skidding nowadays, though both have skidded without carts in the past. Harry, in fact, told me that he had twice suffered broken legs while ground-skidding logs when they hit a stump or other obstruction and lurched over on him. Not only are the logging arches safer for the teamster, they are easier on the horses as well, since they lift the forward end of the log off the ground, so that the only resistance comes from dragging the rearward end.
On this particular day, Fred was skidding logs – mostly maple and cherry, with a few black oak – from an 8-10 acre woodlot in which the forester had marked 145 trees for cutting. With 2-4 saw logs per tree, that would eventually become perhaps 53,000 board feet of hardwood lumber, Fred thought. Fred’s grandson, Adam, had felled the trees and cut them into skidding lengths ranging from 10 to 20 feet. The logs in this woodlot were mostly from 12 to 24 inches in diameter – “a lot smaller than our last job”, said Fred, where they were running up to 34 inches. Since the logs this day were smaller, he skidded most out to the landing in pairs.
Fred uses two logging carts that are home-built, four-wheeled models. The four wheels, spread about six feet side to side, lend stability to the cart, and make it easier to skid logs two at a time. Some of the logs require a bit of engineering to get at through thickets and underbrush, and some planning to have clearance enough in the woods to turn the horses around in order to back up to the logs. Fred will sometimes have to cut back brush or smaller trees to get in to the logs. But he tries to cut as little as possible since “that’s new lumber in 15 or 20 years.” And he does very little damage to the woods by this method of logging: come June, even the skidding lanes themselves will be nearly impossible to detect. That stands in stark contrast to the damage done by mechanical skidders in woods like these.
Since it’s hard for Fred to look over his shoulder when he’s backing the horses up to the logs, he usually gets off the cart once he gets it into position to back up. The horses work mostly to voice commands – backing and turning, and backing some more, so that the cart gets lined up with the cut. Fred will throw chains around both of the logs on either side of the cut, and carefully step the horses forward until the logs get lined up behind the cart. Then he will back the horses up so the cart is right over the ends of the logs, and take up the slack in the chains. At this point, he’ll climb back up onto the cart. When the horses start to move again, the forward ends of the logs will be lifted a few inches off the ground. And that’s how they will ride out to the landing.
On this particular day, Fred and Harry skidded out a total of 53 or 54 logs between them. Some days they won’t get that many out if they are working further off the lanes and have to go to some pains to get in to the logs, or if it’s too muddy or the terrain too hilly.
Fred uses two teams for skidding – all Belgians: Ned and Jack, and Bud and Roy. He works one team for a couple of days, then switches to the other team. By the end of the second day of skidding, he says, each team will be tired and needing a break.
During the winter months Fred and the horses are in the woods skidding logs five days a week. He harnesses the horses first thing in the morning. Then, after breakfast, he loads them into the trailer and heads off to whatever woodlot he is working at the time, arriving and getting to work by 9 a.m.. Except for a short break for lunch, Fred and the horses will work straight through to FOUR in the afternoon, when it’s already starting to get toward sunset in mid-winter. Then he’ll park the logging cart, load the horses back into the trailer and head home. It’ll be suppertime before he gets the horses unharnessed, watered, fed and put out for the night. On the way to the house, Fred will stop by the woodshed and fill up the wood furnace that sits nearby, to carry it through the night. All in all it’s a pretty good workday for someone pushing 79 years of age!
By mid-April, teamsters and teams around Michigan will begin hosting Plow Days. Fred Herr, usually accompanied by his dear wife Irene and his dog George, is sure to be a participant in many of those events. And at the first few Plow Days, several other participants are sure to comment to Fred about how trim his horses look and how their training hasn’t gotten rusty over the winter. Fred will smile and tell them: “That’s because they’ve been skidding logs all winter!”
And as the Plow Day progresses, Fred will start getting calls from this one and that one for some tips on working the rust out of their teams. A few folk will be standing around watching the teamsters intently, and pretty soon Fred will have them sitting on his plow and holding the lines, while he gives them instructions. And several youngsters are sure to ask if they can ride on the horses while he is plowing, to which Fred will reply – with a twinkle in his eye – “You can, if your Dad can lift you up there!”
Michigan is blessed with a number of excellent teamsters, but Fred Herr is one of the best – one of Michigan’s treasures!