By: Robert Leslie Smith
Reviewed by: H. F. Lippincott
Fire Ants Books/The University of Alabama Press, 2008
If you asked Leslie Smith’s grandmother where her husband was, she’d answer, “Gone to the Swamp”—the area in north Baldwin County, Alabama, where the family conducted lumbering operations for 150 years, starting before the Civil War. As a boy of ten, Smith (b. 1918) began to accompany the logging crews, helping with chores and gaining self-reliance and a sense of responsibility. Now in retirement from the Navy and as a county school superintendent, he recaptures in great detail the period before World War II when lumbering had not yet been motorized.
Smith describes backbreaking effort to fell huge hardwood trees, using giant-toothed, two-man saws. Yoked oxen hauled the logs out of the swamp, and when high water permitted, rafts of logs floated down the Tensaw River to the Mobile lumber mills. An uncle, the Public Timber Inspector, estimated the board footage of the rafts, received them in Mobile, and negotiated the best price from the mill owners—a complex job relying on trust and integrity on both sides.
Far from fresh food, the crews subsisted on grits and salt pork, dried lima and Navy beans, along with primitive stews of beef or squirrel and onions, poured over potatoes or rice. Every meal had “flour bread” (biscuits) and for dessert “hobo duff” (flour and dried fruit), both made with sweet evaporated milk. To keep up energy levels, the men carried jars filled with water and molasses. At night they washed under buckets of water and slept in portable shelters or tents. Smith describes the operation in exuberant detail in an attempt to record a way of life now obsolete. The narrative is varied with anecdotes and river lore. The family got out of the business after the war because of death and decreased demand. Recreation is now the main industry of the area.
The book has copious amateur photos, and it ends with a twenty-page glossary of logging terms and equipment. Part social history and part business case-study, the book is a fascinating record of how generations of an Alabama family were determined to scrape a living out of the swamp. Oct 2008
H.F. Lippincott is retired from the teaching of English and French.