The Au Sable River Lumberman’s Monument: William B. Mershon’s Struggle to Create a Meaningful Memorial of Michigan’s Lumbering Era
David K. Vaughan
The Lumbermen’s Monument, located on the high banks of the Au Sable River, depicts three bronze larger than life figures representing three individual lumbering tasks: the landlooker in the center, the woodsman on his left, and the river driver on his right. Intended to represent the efforts of Michigan’s pioneer lumbermen who conducted lumbering operations in the state during the greatest period of lumber production, from 1850 to 1900, it was erected at a time when public attitudes towards the state’s lumbering efforts were in the process of transition, from initial admiration and support for pioneering achievement to one of increasing concern about a more balanced approach to forest management. It was dedicated at a time when the detrimental effects of the lumbering efforts were being examined by a new generation of conservation-minded critics who questioned the wisdom of the wholesale harvesting of Michigan’s thousands of acres of pinelands that had occurred during the late 1800s. Now that the pine had been harvested, the cutover lands seemed to offer little appeal, either economically or aesthetically. Farming the land once occupied by trees had proven to be generally unprofitable, due to the sandy nature of much of the soils in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, and the landscape of brush, uneven stumps, and spindly pines was neither economically viable nor visually appealing. What had once been a major Michigan industry in the 1880s had, fifty years later, left much of the northern Michigan landscape denuded and its inhabitants without productive livelihoods.
A recent photo of the Lumberman’s Monument
The man principally responsible for the creation of the Lumberman’s Monument, William Butts Mershon, was sensitive to the economic, conservationist, and aesthetic concerns, and the monument for which he was primarily responsible for bringing to fruition embodies a symbolic representation of these concerns. Mershon was the son of a Saginaw lumberman and had worked for a period of time in the woods himself, and was familiar with the lumberman’s life. His primary motivation for undertaking the project was to commemorate the achievement of Michigan’s pioneer lumbermen at a time when scenes of lumbering activities were fast becoming fading memories. The development of the monument occurred at a time when public attitudes assessing the impact of the Michigan lumbering efforts were very much in transition.
In addition to being centrally involved in the practical struggles of planning all aspects of the project, establishing working committees, raising the necessary funds, selecting the location, and overseeing the installation of the monument, Mershon found himself occupied, directly or indirectly, with ideological issues as well. In addition to articulating and defending the purpose of the monument, influencing the design of the monument, and framing the public perception of the monument, he strove to ensure that, as much as possible, the public who viewed the finished product would appreciate its historical as well as cultural significance. Although Mershon was assisted by several of his fellow lumbermen or their heirs in his efforts, the burden of achievement rested primarily on his shoulders, because it was essentially his idea, because he was centrally located in Saginaw, and because he was personally committed to the project.
The Lumberman’s Monument, dedicated to the men who were involved in the lumbering activities of Michigan in the mid- to late- 1800s, is located about 15 miles west of Oscoda and 15 miles northwest of East Tawas, Michigan.[i] It has been a popular tourist attraction in the northeast Michigan area for over eighty years. Set in a growth of Norway Pine on the high banks of the Au Sable River, the monument, with three bronze figures, nine feet tall, standing over a large bronze log, carrying various implements of the lumbering trade, all mounted on a large granite base, has been the subject of innumerable photos since it was first dedicated in 1932. The Lumberman’s Memorial is the central object of an extended display of artifacts and information about Michigan’s pioneer lumbering industry and is in the middle of a forest camp site, with a forest service information building, a logging display, and campgrounds nearby. Its National Forest facilities are open from May until October, and the monument is visited annually by thousands of campers, hikers, and tourists.
The monument sits approximately 200 feet from the edge of the high banks overlooking the Cooke Dam reservoir of the Au Sable River, in the area known as the High Rollways, so named because in the peak lumbering years, from 1870 to 1900, the banks held stacks of logs that would roll into the river 300 feet below when the spring thaw arrived. Once in the river, the logs would be carried downstream by the river current to the lumber mills in Au Sable and Oscoda to be cut into boards and shipped to the distant ports of Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit.
The three bronze figures stand atop a granite base. The figures symbolically represent three of the key workers in the lumbering industry: the landlooker, the woodsman, and the river driver. In the center stands the landlooker, or forest surveyor; the woodsman on his left; and the river driver on his right. The landlooker holds a box compass in his hand, which he is studying to determine the exact location of the section of land that he is in the process of marking for his employer. The woodsman holds a double-bladed axe in his right hand and balances a double-edged crosscut saw on his left shoulder, the teeth of the saw facing away from his exposed neck. The saw would be used to fell and cut the pine tree in sections, and the axe would be used to trim the branches from its trunk. The river driver holds the primary tool of his trade, the peavey, also called a cant hook, in his right hand, and holds his broad-brimmed hat in his left hand. The river driver would use the peavey, invented in Maine by Joseph Peavey, to dislodge logs caught in a jam on the river. It could also be used to push the logs free from one another as he rode them down the river on the swift current. He wears the distinctive sash of the river driver around his waist.
The front side of the granite base on which they are mounted contains the following inscription:
Erected to perpetuate the memory of the pioneer lumbermen of Michigan through whose labors was made possible the development of the prairie states.
The other three sides of the base contain the names of the lumbermen whose families contributed to the cost of making and mounting the monument. When it was initially erected, the area had been stripped of all pine trees by the lumbermen. Today it is surrounded by the pine trees that were planted around the time of its dedication. While visitors to the site are immediately aware of the beauty of the monument and its setting, few know much about the history of the monument, about the attitudes towards forest use at the time of its creation, or about the man who was primarily responsible for its creation.
William Butts Mershon
William Butts Mershon (1856 to 1943) was the son of one of the Saginaw Valley’s lumbering pioneers: his father, Augustus H. Mershon, established a planing mill in Saginaw in 1851. W. B. Mershon was established in the lumber trade by 1876, and developed a box factory and other business enterprises related to the milling and shipping of lumber. He also became interested in the development of metal tools, including the manufacture of bandsaw blades for lumber mills, which his father was credited with inventing.
William Butts Mershon
In his youth, W. B. Mershon developed a keen and lifelong interest in hunting and fishing, and in the 1880s designed his own personal rail car, called “The City of Saginaw,” with which he hosted his companions on hunting and fishing trips. An avid hunter, and his friends harvested fish and game in in large numbers. Later in his life, he was dismayed when he saw the Michigan wildlife thinning out, because he genuinely appreciated the variety of wildlife that existed in the Michigan woods. One of the first forms of game to disappear was the Passenger Pigeon, which had once flown across the Michigan skies in such large numbers that they had literally darkened the sky, as if the sun had suffered an eclipse. Concerned about the disappearance of the species, he collected a variety of essays, including his personal recollections, which he assembled in The Passenger Pigeon, published in 1907.
In 1923 Mershon wrote Recollections of My Fifty Years of Hunting and Fishing, a collection of personal reminiscences supplemented by accounts from his friends. In the preface to the book, its historical, as well as personal, intent is evident: “I have undertaken to tell these stories [so] that in the years to come comparison can be made with the past and future.”[ii] Mershon observed that in the period described in his tales, some forty years before the book was published, there were fewer hunters, access to hunting and fishing areas was much more difficult, and the land was much less developed. The reduced numbers of animals and fish, he said, were less the result of overhunting or fishing than changes brought by farming and increased population.[iii]
In Recollections of My Fifty Years Mershon meditated briefly on the changes that he had seen in the lumbering business as well as in hunting and fishing activities. The opening paragraphs of one essay in the book, “Duck Shooting,” are devoted to a description of early lumbering activities on the Saginaw River, which conclude with this wistful lament:
How times have changed. There is not a single sawmill on the Saginaw River today cutting pine. One or two mills are sawing the remnants of hardwood timber that half a century ago was considered worthless, and that today brings a higher price per thousand [square board feet] than the very best white pine did.[iv]
In 1923, when Recollections was published, he was 67 years old, an age at which many people begin to devote as much time to thinking about the past as about the future. Whatever his reason, he was in a receptive mind when he was presented with the idea of helping to establish a memorial in honor of the pioneer lumbermen of Michigan.
Given his wealth derived from his and his father’s lumbering activities, Mershon could be considered one of Michigan’s “lumber barons,” a pejorative term associated with the lumber company owners who cut the Michigan timber, pocketed the money, and then, their forest lands stripped, moved on to other timberlands or other occupations. Historians of the period, while agreeing that there were such men, disagree about the definition of the term and who should be included in the category. For instance, Jeremy Kilar, who termed William B. Mershon a “lumber baron,”[v] also stated that “it may be impossible to ever achieve a consensus about the values and methods of the nineteenth-century [Michigan] lumbermen.”[vi]
Mershon himself certainly benefitted from the wealth that his family’s lumbering activities brought him, but he did not leave the area, and lived in Saginaw for the remainder of his life. He filled a variety of public positions in Saginaw, including serving as its mayor in 1894 and 1895 and participating on a number of community committees. Although he and his father benefited from the wholesale harvesting of the Saginaw Valley forests, he was among the first of the established lumbermen to support of the cause of forest preservation and re-use. Mershon was a member of Michigan’s 1908 Forest Commission and vigorously supported state land and forest management efforts. Dave Dempsey has documented Mershon’s extended conservation efforts, calling him a “pioneer conservationist.”[vii] Hazen Miller referred to him not merely as a conservationist, but as a “Quixotic Conservationist,” who “became known not only throughout his state but also throughout the entire nation.”[viii] One indication of Mershon’s attitude about modern forestry methods is that he sent his son, William Junior, to the Biltmore School, near Asheville, North Carolina, where the first forestry school had recently been established.[ix]
Thus Mershon was uniquely placed to coordinate and direct much of the effort to create the Lumberman’s Monument. His personal experience had familiarized him with the early lumbering methods, when it was literally a race to see which firm could cut the most lumber, yet he was an avid supporter of more modern forest management methods designed to improve not only the appearance of the forests but their usefulness as well. His memories of the early days of lumbering included the men who worked in the forests as well as the men who ran the mills. Although much of his correspondence was with the men and the families of the men who operated the mills, such focused communication was necessary, as these were the people who financed the project.
Evolution of the Project
Though W. B. Mershon deserves most of the credit for the creation of the Lumberman’s Monument, the idea did not start with him. The sequence of actions includes the efforts made by an Iosco County Forest Service Supervisor, a member of the newly formed Michigan Kiwanis clubs, and a publicist for the Northeast Michigan Tourist Association.
After the logging industry in the northern half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula began to wane in the early 1900s, local citizens began to think about other means of bringing people into the north woods. The development of six dams on the Au Sable River by the Consumer’s Power Company in the 1910s brought some construction workers into the area, but most of these workers left when the last of the six dams was completed in 1924.[x] There was also some consideration about renewing the cutover lands to make them more appealing to visitors and more profitable to the local communities. The sight of thousands of acres of land with stumps sticking out of the ground at heights of two to four feet, mixed in with scrub brush and other spindly growth, was not one likely to bring eager viewers. To remedy the situation, the State of Michigan formed the Michigan Forestry Commission in 1889; many of the early members of the Forestry Commission were lumbermen themselves. In the early 1900s there were increased pressures to manage Michigan’s forest lands, improve their appearance, reduce the threat of fire, and to plant new trees.[xi]
Between 1900 and 1932, when the monument was dedicated, numerous state and federal government agencies were formed to ensure that forest lands were properly managed. In 1904 the first Michigan state forest planting occurred.[xii] In 1905 the American Forest Congress was held in Washington D. C.; its goal was to “foster public understanding of the economic importance of forests and advance the conservation of forest and related resources.”[xiii] The American Forestry Association had been established in 1875 with a membership of 25; by 1916 there were over 8,000 members.[xiv] In 1911 passage of the Weeks Act (expanded in 1924 by the Clarke-McNary Act) allowed the federal government to purchase private lands where necessary to assist in forest management and to reduce the threat of fires. Its primary impact in Michigan was to bring about the establishment of National Forests along the Manistee and Au Sable Rivers.[xv] William Mershon was among those who shared the growing concerns to make better and more productive use of Michigan’s forests. In a 1920 letter to P. S. Lovejoy, a forestry professor at the University of Michigan and a staunch conservationist, Mershon recommended planting new trees in the cutover areas to improve ground cover for wildlife, help the soil to retain moisture, present appealing locations for recreation, and generally add to the value of the land.[xvi] The Au Sable River area was of special interest to Mershon, because he had often fished and hunted along the river and its tributaries.
To improve Michigan forest management, it was necessary to create usable roads into the interior of the state. In the 1800s, the main routes to the interior were the trails created by the lumbermen as they bought supplies into the lumber camps; many of these trails followed paths worn by the Indians who had lived in the land before the lumbermen arrived. One important route lay along the south bank of the Au Sable River from Lake Huron to the area known as the High Rollways. From Oscoda, located on the Lake Huron shore, the main path west led along the south side of the Au Sable River, which in the final third of its course flowed generally in an easterly direction towards Lake Huron. A more heavily traveled route led from East Tawas, located on Tawas Bay, on a northwesterly direction to the High Rollways. This trail was initially developed as a link between East Tawas and an early lumber camp located in the High Rollways area operated by T. F. “Tommy” Thompson, one of the first lumbermen to establish operations in the area, a route that became known as the Thompson Trail (now known as the Monument Road). In 1926 the Thompson Trail was officially dedicated, and at that time, R. G. Schreck, an area supervisor of the Huron National Forest, began to conceive of an idea for a memorial to the old time lumbermen, the “Stalwarts of the Pines.”[xvii]
Two years later, in 1928, members of Kiwanis Club, a community service organization that was formed in Michigan in 1915, undertook a project to introduce new pine tree seedlings into the Huron Forest near the High Rollways. The project was conceived and led by attorney Harry Black of Flint, the head of the district’s committee on conservation. Black worked out an arrangement in which the federal government agreed to cover $1 of the $2.94 cost per acre to plant the seedlings. The individual Michigan Kiwanis clubs and their members would finance the remaining amount, each club paying for as many acres of seedlings as it could afford. Initially over 5,000 acres located along the banks of the Au Sable River were devoted to this project. The dedication ceremony for the project was held on September 21, 1928, with planting to begin the following day.[xviii] The area where most of the planting occurred was known as the McCullom Banks, an area where “millions of feet of white and Norway pine logs were banked during the winter months and then rolled into the Au Sable River in the early spring to eventually find their way into the sawmills at Au Sable and Oscoda.”[xix] Representatives of the Michigan Kiwanis Clubs who attended the ceremony were asked to bring large stones to be used in a monument to the lumbermen.
Inspired by the Kiwanis impulse, Schreck, who had helped to coordinate the Kiwanis plantings, and T. F. Marston, a publicist of the newly formed North East Michigan Tourist Association, approached William Mershon with the idea of establishing a monument to commemorate the achievements of Michigan lumbermen, an idea that Mershon readily supported. Schreck, in his position as area supervisor, actively promoted replanting efforts. While Marston supported reforestation efforts, he also knew that forests and the outdoor life would appeal to individuals living in the larger cities in the southern part of the state and in other states. The advent of the automobile had created an interest in travel for most Americans, and the creation of new and improved roads plus attractive sites of natural and historical interest might lure travelers to the northern areas of Michigan, thus increasing tourist revenues. The Lumberman’s Monument, located in the middle of a newly planted section of pine trees, located on one of the most picturesque locations on the Au Sable River, would be such an attraction.
Two months after the Kiwanis ceremony, Mershon wrote a letter, dated 28 November 1928, in which he presented his initial idea of developing a monument to the old time lumbermen using the pile of stones provided by the Kiwanians as a base on which would be placed a “real, creditable and lasting memorial, worthy of the lumbermen of Michigan.” He sent copies of this letter to over fifty Michigan lumbermen and descendants of lumbermen to generate interest in the project. Mershon initially envisioned “a base surmounted by a bronze figure of an old lumberjack, or a bronze in bas-relief that would depict the story of old time Michigan lumbering days—a load of logs, a lumber camp, scene of the drive, or a dozen and one things that we were all so familiar with fifty years ago.” In his letter, Mershon expressed the hope that his readers might support the idea by agreeing to contribute money to the enterprise. In this initial letter, Mershon did not indicate the kinds of lumbermen he had in mind, but his description clearly refers as much to the men who did the work of lumbering as to the bosses or owners who sent the men into the woods.
A little over two months later, in February of 1929, he reported to his friend John Blodgett of Grand Rapids, son of another prominent Michigan lumberman, who had agreed to support the lumbermen’s memorial plan, that the great majority of recipients had “enthusiastically endorsed” the idea. Mershon recommended the names of several Michigan lumbermen and businessmen who would constitute a committee to formulate a plan of action. In addition to Blodgett, he suggested John Bush of Negaunee (in the Upper Peninsula), Charles Mitchell of Cadillac, Rust Macpherson of Saginaw, H. E. Fletcher of Alpena, Brewster Loud of Detroit, T. W. Hanson of Grayling, Joseph Fordney, and George L. Burrows of Saginaw, and himself. These men, or their fathers or uncles, had been major figures in the Michigan lumbering business.
The first meeting was held at the Holland Hotel in East Tawas late in May 1929. All members of the committee were present except for Bush, Loud, and Fordney. Other individuals who attended the meeting included Allan Fletcher and Robert Rayburn, from Alpena, T. F. Marston and J. A. Dermody from Bay City, and Harry B. Black, from Flint; Black had been the initiator of the Kiwanis tree-planting project. They were greeted at the hotel by R. G. Schreck, Supervisor of the Huron National Forest; W. A. Evans, Mayor of East Tawas; L. K. McHarg, general manager of the Detroit and Mackinac Railroad; E. L. Dimmick; Eugene Hanson; and Herman L. Butler.
On the morning of 24 May the men visited the High Rollways area, looking at locations along the high banks on the south side of the Au Sable River from Five Channels Dam east to the area where the Kiwanis Huron National Forest planting had occurred (the location that was eventually selected). After they returned to the Holland Hotel, Mershon convened the meeting. He stated that the visit to the high banks of the Au Sable had been a “revelation” to him, because he had thought that the area was topped with “worthless soil,” and he was pleased to see that the Norway pines which had been planted there the previous year and earlier (some sections had been re-seeded as early as 1911) were growing nicely.
The committee discussed some other sites, including the Hanson Pines area at Grayling and the banking grounds at Averill, on the Tittabawassee River, west of Saginaw. The Hanson and Salling Lumber Company had preserved a section of original pine lands north of Grayling and were in the process of constructing a display that included replicas of buildings that might be found in an old-time lumber camp. This display area eventually became known as the Hartwick Pines. The small village of Averill was the location of a good deal of social and commercial activity on the Tittabawassee River, the primary river that had fed cut logs to the lumber mills in Saginaw in the 1860s and 1870s. Good cases for the historical value of these locations could be made. In addition, some people expressed the idea that the High Rollways site in the Huron National Forest might be too remote to draw interested visitors.
Mershon reminded the men present that the idea of a memorial was to recognize the achievements of the lumbermen “of the old days” and that he thought that it would be possible to raise $25,000 toward the completion of the monument by soliciting donations from the members of the original lumbering families. He pledged $1000 as a start to the monument fund. John Blodgett said that he had initially been dubious about the suitability of the location, but after seeing the proposed site and the effects of the government re-planting effort, he had changed his mind and now “favored the location and the project.” He also pledged $1000. T. W. Hanson, an active lumberman from Grayling, stated that the location was “ideal” and that he was prepared to commit to a like amount. The location of the site on the High Rollways along the Thompson trail was unanimously approved by the committee.
Blodgett, who had brought some sketches of a possible design for the monument to the meeting, was elected as chairman of the art committee—the committee responsible for determining the design of the monument and selecting the individual who would create the memorial, and Mershon volunteered to act as the chairman of the finance committee—the committee responsible for raising the funds. The members of the group commended R. G. Schreck for the preliminary work he had done in scouting the site. Schreck stated that the area in which the planned memorial was to be situated consisted of 300,000 acres, of which 30,000 acres were under cultivation with an additional 10,000 acres planned for development every year. Because it would be located in the middle of a national forest, the monument would not be subject to the development of hotels or resorts that might encroach upon the site.
Mershon immediately began a full-scale effort to solicit funds from the early lumbering families. With the assistance of Marston, he prepared a letter, copies of which he mailed to his list of possible subscribers. Mershon began his letter, dated 15 June 1929, by stating the goal of the project: to “vindicate the memory” of Michigan’s “pioneers of the lumber industry,” who had been looked upon in more recent times as “destroyers of forests,” or as “timber barons,” but who in fact were “utilizing the forests” as nature had intended, and who by doing so “not only helped largely in settling Michigan but helped the development of the other states,” and whose financial recompense for their efforts was often “meager.”[xx] Mershon’s statement that the lumbermen had been using the forests “as nature had intended” would suggest an anti-environmental attitude to most modern readers, but it reflected the reality of the strong demand for lumber as the primary construction material for business as well as residential dwellings until the use of steel-reinforced concrete after 1900.
He envisioned “an heroic sized bronze depicting some individual or incident in the lumber industry of old” that would be placed in a suitable location where it would “endure for all time.” He stated that the purpose of the memorial was to honor “the old Michigan lumbermen in commemoration of their forefathers’ strenuous and useful pioneering.” Mershon, born in 1856, was old enough to recall the days when the Michigan wilderness had appeared endless and impenetrable, a vision that was not necessarily shared by those born after 1880. He urged recipients to pledge a certain amount with the amount pledged to be paid within six months. He concluded his letter with an account of the reforestation activities that were occurring in the Huron National Forest, adding that new graveled roads had recently been constructed from Oscoda and East Tawas to the monument site.
The Selection of the Sculptor
In addition to the challenge of raising the necessary funds, a challenge which increased significantly after the effects of the Depression of 1929 were felt, Mershon also faced a challenge in communicating his vision of the memorial with the sculptor selected to create the monument, Robert Ingersoll Aitken. Blodgett’s arts committee worked quickly, for early in September of 1929 Blodgett announced that his committee had selected Aitken, a sculptor unknown to Mershon. Mershon had suggested the names of several other sculptors to the committee, including A. Phimister Proctor, who had sculpted the Pioneer Mother statue at Kansas City and the Circuit Rider at Salem, Oregon; Frederick MacMonnies, who had created the Pioneer Monument at Denver; and Solon Borglum (younger brother of Gutzon Borglum, of Mount Rushmore fame), who had created the Buckey O’Neill memorial, at Prescott, Arizona. None of the sculptors of these monuments was considered by the art committee.
Blodgett apparently did not realize that Mershon expected to be included in the art committee’s deliberations about selecting the sculptor and determining the memorial’s design, and Mershon was unhappy about being excluded from the process. Blodgett called a meeting at the Bancroft Hotel in Saginaw on September 11th, at which Aitken and other members of the committee would be present. After meeting with Aitken, the assembled members would then drive from Saginaw to the High Rollways so that Aitken could view the proposed site. Mershon was clearly unhappy about the fact that the selection of Aitken and the arrangements for the meeting had been made without consulting him; he complained to Marston that neither “Blodgett or his committee have . . . consulted me a blessed bit or let me know anything about their other meeting[s] and this is the first I have heard of Aitken.” In spite of his feeling of being kept in the dark about the decision, Mershon immediately generated letters to several local committee members and other interested individuals, informing them of the upcoming meeting and inviting them to participate.
As the monument’s design evolved, Mershon became increasingly dismayed at what he saw as the sculptor’s inability to grasp the essential details that should be included in monument’s components. For Mershon, incorrect details in the monument were not merely a matter of differences of artistic vision; historical inaccuracies constituted an insult to the men (and their families) who were meant to be honored in the memorial. As a consequence, he pursued his requests to Aitken for modifications to the memorial design with dogged determination.
In a letter to a potential contributor, Robert Weidemann, written a few days after the meeting, Mershon reported on the results of Aitken’s visit: “several of us [subscribers] accompanied [Aitken] to the site of the memorial on the banks of the Au Sable River.” The group had decided on a location as well: “the memorial will be at the intersection of three improved highways, on a high bluff with a commanding view of not only the river but the far distant hills and valleys.” The intersection of “three improved highways” was the intersection formed by the roads leading to the High Rollways from Oscoda and East Tawas; the third highway was the road leading west to the Five Channels Dam. By “improved,” he meant that the roads had been graded and provided with gravel surfaces. He added that the committee had come up with a new estimate of the costs—thirty thousand dollars—but even that amount would probably not be sufficient.
In a November 1929 letter to another potential subscriber and which served as an example of letters written to all the potential subscribers, Mershon stated that the art committee had held one final meeting with Aitken in Detroit, who had shown them preliminary sketches of the proposed design, which the committee had approved, and that the estimated cost of the project had now reached $50,000. In this letter he indicated the final design of the memorial: “a grand, heroic bronze, three figures nine feet in height, one of the riverman with his cant hook, one the woodman with his saw and axe, and the middle figure the landlooker with his compass and pack.”
Mershon also clearly stated his concept of the purpose of the memorial in his letter to subscribers:
I hope you will join in this undertaking. The old time Michigan Lumbermen are deserving of recognition, even at this late date, for they had pretty poor picking and were looked upon more as forest destroyers than they were public benefactors who created a vast industry at a time when the west was being settled and the [Michigan] lumber was greatly needed.
The Evolution of the Design of the Memorial
Because he had not been included in the discussion about the selection of the monument’s designer or of the monument’s design, Mershon was suspicious of the monument’s creation process almost from the beginning, and he cast a wary and often critical eye on its progress. Of the qualifications of the sculptor himself, however, Mershon could have had little complaint.
Robert Ingersoll Aitken (1878–1949) was, at the time of his selection to complete the monument, one of America’s foremost sculptors and designers of historical monuments. Born in San Francisco, he studied painting and sculpture at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco and held his first exhibition at the age of eighteen. His early commissions included the Naval Monument in Union Square and a sculpture of President William McKinley in Golden Gate Park, both located in San Francisco. Aitken taught for three years at the Hopkins Institute and then lived in Paris for three years. While in France he was influenced by the French sculptor August Rodin. He returned to the United States and opened a studio in New York City in 1908. He exhibited a number of works at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco; the best known of these was a fountain representing the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.[xxi]
Robert Aitken and his bust of Thomas Jefferson
Aitken became a member of the National Academy of Design in 1914 and won the Academy’s Elizabeth N. Watrous medal, which he had designed, in 1921, for his monument depicting George Rogers Clark, an important explorer and soldier of the old Northwest, located at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Perhaps his best known contribution to commemorative designs is the sculptural group in the west pediment of the United States Supreme Court Building. Aitken’s sculpting style can be described as a combination of traditional form and realistic detail.
Like Mershon, Aitken was a man of firm convictions and habits of work, and the correspondence between them during the next year showed both Mershon’s dedication to an authentic representation of the lumbermen’s life as it would be shown on the memorial and Aitken’s commitment to his own sense of artistic integrity. The aesthetic visions of the two men clashed. In reviewing the correspondence between the two men, it often seems as if a common, satisfactory vision of the final design would be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
Aitken made a preliminary small clay representation of the monument as he envisioned it, and he sent photos of his model to Mershon and Blodgett for approval and comments. In his letter to Aitken, written November 11th, 1929, Mershon set the pattern for the nature of his response to Aitken’s efforts. He made it clear that he was not happy with what he saw: he complained “that laced boots [as shown on the men in the model] were not known anywhere near the time that this [scene] was supposed to depict; that the pullover sweater was not known; that one of them should have a sash on; that as a group they looked too intelligent . . . [and] that a lumberjack always had suspenders on over his shirt.” Mershon concluded by promising to bring some photographs with him when he traveled to New York that would illustrate what the old time lumbermen looked like, and when he visited Aitken’s studio, they could “talk things over.”
It is doubtful that Mershon’s comment that the men “looked too intelligent” indicated that he wanted the men to look less capable; it was probably his way of saying that he considered the expressions on the men’s faces to be too serious, too determined, too hard-set. He preferred that the men look more natural, carefree, exuberant, cheerful. This interpretation of his comment is borne out by subsequent comments he made to Aitken and others.
In another letter to Aitken written two days later, Mershon repeated his concerns, first about the suspenders: the lumbermen, Mershon says, “nearly all wore suspenders,” and the sash worn by the riverman was more for “ornament” than utility. He repeated his insistence that the men on Aitken’s model “do not look tough and rough enough”; he must have thought that the men that Aitken had sculpted looked more neatly groomed than would have really been the case. And he raised a new issue; he and others who had seen the photographs thought that the log over which the men were standing should be “taken out.” The log, he went on, “is not needed to interpret the picture.” Writing to J. B. Danaher, one of the subscribers to the monument, two days later, Mershon repeated his complaint about the log: “the more I look at that photograph, the more I dislike the log. I have shown it to a number of people . . . [who] have said, ‘Why not do away with the log entirely?’ We do not need a saw log to interpret the figures. It would be a lot more artistic—not so much like a soldier’s monument with cannon balls piled around it—if that saw log was left out.”
As the monument shows, Mershon lost the argument about not needing a log , but it is easy to see why Mershon and others disliked the saw log as it appeared in Aitken’s first model—it is much too small, a pathetic example of the kind of pine tree that the Michigan lumbermen had cut down. Why, Mershon must have asked himself, would anyone believe that it would require three men to cut down such a small tree? However, if Aitken had included a totally accurate example of a large Northern pine tree trunk, its size might have dominated the scene, blocking views of, or even hiding portions of, the lumbermen. To include a log of such a size would have given the impression that the lumbermen had not mastered the forest, and that the pine trees were more significant than the men who were cutting them down. Aitken undoubtedly realized, if Mershon and the other committee members did not, that the log had to be in the picture for an important artistic and thematic reason: it represented the challenge of nature that the lumbermen had to overcome. How could the men be depicted as “heroic” if there was no indication of that part of nature against which they had successfully striven? The log had to be in the picture; it was just a matter of finding the right scale. The eventual size was a compromise, larger than the initial version, but smaller than the largest of the pine logs the lumbermen had cut down.
Aitken’s first model of the Lumbermen’s Monument.
But even as Mershon was complaining about the details of the model to Aitken and others, he promoted its effective representation of the lumbering effort to potential subscribers, writing to Edward Clark, a trustee of the Gates Estate and a potential subscriber, on 22 November, that the memorial was “really a very creditable undertaking and the result will be artistically a credit to us all.”
Aitken responded quickly to the criticisms of Mershon and Blodgett, adjusting the details of wearing apparel on the clothing of the men in his second model, which he prepared in two weeks’ time.
Aitken’s second model of the Lumbermen’s Monument.
On December 5th, a day after he had visited Aitken in his New York studio, Mershon wrote two letters, one to Blodgett, who had not come to New York, and one to Aitken. To Aitken he continued his emphasis on accuracy of detail:
I don’t think that you have conceived the idea of that group correctly. The landlooker is the “boss”: he is the lumberman whom we are commemorating, and the other two figures are his employees, so he should be necessarily a little higher type than the others. Why couldn’t that group be rearranged so as to have the lumberman himself face the way you have it now, and then the other two at an angle—the riverman looking out over the river as if he were saluting one of his comrades on the drive running the logs down below him—waving his hand to him or taking his hat and making a swing of it, and be of the type of a regular old time French Canadian—jovial and smiling as if he were calling out to his friend, and to balance that the woodsman could face more toward the forest. That would get away with [do away with?] that most objectionable log. Of course the model that I saw yesterday did not have the bark of a pine log on it at all; it was more like a sycamore or some unknown kind of a tree. It would be a mighty small saw log that would not reach just above a man’s knee at least, and it does not need a saw log to interpret the purpose of the picture.
Get some fire and animation in it so anyone passing by will want to come back and look at it again and then repeat the performance and take his friends to see it afterwards. You will have all the time in the world to work on this. There isn’t a bit of hurry, and as it is for all time, let’s get it right or not at all.
Mershon’s manner of speaking in this letter is direct and confrontational. It was one thing to tell an artist what details should be in a commissioned work; it was entirely another thing to tell an artist how to do it. In his comments here and later we can easily sense what Hazen Miller described as Mershon’s “gruff” style. Mershon’s intimidating manner caused him to be known among those who had witnessed it as “the Bear.”[xxii] There can be little doubt that Aitken did not appreciate Mershon’s abrasive style and that it was one of the factors that contributed to a pattern of increasing non-communication on the part of Aitken.
In his letter to Blodgett, he said that he had looked at Aitken’s second model in New York and “was disgusted with it”:
If he cannot do better than he is doing now, I haven’t the heart to ask any of the subscribers to contribute. He has worked in that log again, still coming below the knee of the individual, and it had bark on it that looked more like a sycamore, if it looked like anything, than it did like a pine log. He does not comprehend that the ordinary logs were sixteen feet in length. Says he wants it there to fill the space. He had a double bitted ax that I think in proportion to the figure could be at least eighteen inches across the blade. The landlooker, or the lumberman himself, he had put a little sort of a turban cap stuck on the back of his head. He had not altered the formal cut of the whiskers of the woodsman. They still look as though they had been neatly trimmed within a day or two by a city barber. He had put suspenders and a rough shirt on the riverman, and he had put a beard on the central figure. . . . There is no life or animation in what he has at the present time.
Mershon desired realistic and authentic details, urging Aitken to capture the looks of the lumbermen and rivermen as he remembered them. In contrast to Mershon’s insistence of realistic representation, Aitken understood that for a monument to capture the viewer’s interest, the figures must be idealized. An effective statue, Aitken knew, must present a spirit of adventure and achievement in a challenging situation, in which the figures (and especially the faces of the figures) had to show determination, a sense of purpose, and control. If Mershon had studied Aitken’s 1921 statue of George Rogers Clark at the University of Virginia, he would have seen how Aitken made every figure in the group (Rogers’ men behind Rogers on his horse and the Indian warriors blocking their progress) display determination in a confrontational situation. Aitken’s figures are highly stylized, not realistic, but their expressions of confrontation and resistance are immediately appealing.
Aitken’s George Rogers Clark Monument, University of Virginia
Eventually, after the monument was mounted, Mershon admitted that he liked the final version, recognizing consciously or subconsciously that Aitken’s artistic impulse was correct. However, Mershon continually struggled to transmit to Aitken his vision of the details, appearance, and attitudes of the men he had known and worked with in his lumbering days. He did not want that vision to be altered to fit an artistic impression that misrepresented the truth as he knew it. As we will see, Mershon was not the only individual to suggest changes to the details of the model.
On the 14th of December Mershon wrote to Blodgett summarizing his fund-raising efforts, stating that the fund was up to $42,700 and that he had “reached completely the end of [his] rope.” Clearly wearied by his extensive fund-raising efforts, he told Blodgett that he had written hundreds of letters and was “losing courage and getting tired of it.”
When Blodgett informed Mershon that he was going to visit New York City after the first of the year, Mershon wrote to Blodgett on 20 December, repeating his concerns about the details:
His second model was what set me going. The double bitted ax, as I wrote you, was larger than a broad ax; I’ll bet the blade was 12 inches across and 10 inches the other way. The log that he insists on having there, which is a regular monstrosity anyhow, could never be taken for a pine log of any kind. He did get suspenders on the riverman. Well, I wash my hands of that phase of the program from this [point] on.
However, Blodgett did not visit Aitken in January, choosing instead to vacation in Florida. Another member of the arts committee, Robert Stearns, visited Aitken. Stearns wrote to Mershon on 4 February 1930 that he had seen the second model and approved of the changes that Aitken had made, including making the log much larger, revising the style of the ax, and adding suspenders to the figures. The result, he told Mershon, was “greatly improved.”
Seven members of the arts committee and other interested subscribers met at Mershon’s office in Saginaw on 12 February to review photographs of the second model. Mershon summarized the comments made at the meeting in a 17 February letter to Aitken: the log should be larger; the ax was better, but the woodsman holding it should grasp the handle a little closer to the ax head for better balance; the handle of the peavey was too slender; the woodsman should be wearing a Mackinac jacket, not a pullover sweater; and, most importantly for realism’s sake, the woodsman’s hand should grasp the saw by the handle, not around the teeth of the saw. Any outdoorsman would have immediately recognized the hazards of attempting to hold a large saw by the teethed edge.
Concerned about paying for the memorial, Mershon wrote to Blodgett stating that he had received subscription promises totaling only $45,000, and he recommended that the size or the scale of the model be reduced accordingly. Blodgett suggested an alternate plan: guarantee Aitken $45,000 and promise to pay incremental amounts up to the $50,000 price if additional funds could be subscribed. Mershon asked Aitken if such a condition would be acceptable. Aitken responded immediately (on 19 February) to Mershon’s letter, stating that he was willing to accept the offer. Although $50,000 may not appear to be a particularly challenging amount of money, it would be the equivalent of nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in today’s values.
On February 27, Mershon sent a letter to Aitken with information relating to an additional detail about the lumbermen’s wearing apparel that had not previously been mentioned. James Macgillivray, editor of the Oscoda Press, had written to Mershon about one other aspect of the river driver’s dress: stagged pants. As Mershon explained to Aitken,
These old river drivers, that would be the man with the cant hook, wore boots, regular old cowhides, that reached pretty nearly to the knee. They were pulled on with two straps or ears that stuck out on opposite sides near the top. Then instead of rolling up the pants or tucking them in they stagged them. That is, they took a knife or scissors and cut off the bottom part of their pants so that they would only hang down over the top of their boots three or four inches. Thus nine-tenths of the men working in the woods I am reminded had their pants stagged or rolled up. The river driver did not roll his up because if he got in the water there was that much extra weight to combat. I think if you put stagged pants on this river driver it is going to make a big hit.
In his response to Macgillivray, Mershon reiterated the purpose of the memorial, “to commemorate the old time Michigan lumberman and not the lumber industry,” and he indulged in some reflections on the kind of animation and character he had hoped the figures in the memorial would show. He thought that the figure of the river driver should capture the spirit of the “typical Canadian French woodsman,” the kind of individual who was “in the vast majority in our lumber woods operations here in Michigan—robust, short in stature, laughing eyes and smiling face.”[xxiii]
I was in hopes to get such a figure, facing the river looking out at his companions on the drive, swinging his hat and calling to them, or else dancing a jig. They were all such a jovial lot that I wanted to get this expression of good nature into these woodsmen instead of the seriousness which I am afraid too much predominates what we have finally selected. I have tried to give the artist this conception, but at this late date of course they are unfamiliar with the old lumber days.
One of the individuals whom Mershon mentioned to Macgillivray as an example of a typically lively lumberman was Rube Babbitt, whose family had come to Michigan to work in the lumber camps, and who became a hunting and fishing guide in the Grayling area after the lumber activities ended.
In his comments to Macgillivray we can see once again the situation in which Mershon found himself: a survivor from the old lumbering days trying to pass along his vision of the past to a world for which that past was increasingly being modified by revisionist images of either myth (enhancing the reality of the past) or denigration (devaluing the efforts of the past).
On the first of May, Mershon sent a letter to all subscribers informing them of progress. He reported that he had paid an initial installment of $10,000 to Aitken, that another $10,000 would be due when the committee approved of the three-foot model that Aitken was in the process of making, and he encouraged everyone to submit the 40% share (and more if possible). A week later he wrote to Robert Stearns that Aitken’s third model was in the process of being completed, and he hoped that the committee would act quickly to evaluate and approve the model.
In a letter written to Aitken on the same date, Mershon commented again on the figures as Aitken had fashioned them: “Everyone who has come in here has commented on the fact that there is no sash on either of the woodsmen. The rivermen were known as the “Red Sash Brigade” in the old days. The Canadian Frenchmen all wore red sashes around their waists, the ends hanging down. By all means get a sash on your figure and by all means get a Canadian Frenchman in the group.” Perhaps to encourage Aitken to follow his suggestions, Mershon mentioned that the total amount pledged was now $46,200 with promises of more to come.
However, in a letter to John Blodgett written the following day, Mershon expressed deep doubts about the effectiveness of the impact of the figures on the memorial:
I hope you can punch up your Committee on Model and Artist to make an inspection of the [third] three-foot model. Everyone comments on the absence of a sash on any of the figures and that not one of them is a Canadian Frenchman. George Burroughs, who came in a day or two ago to pay his $1,000 subscription, said that the original design looked like three farmers going out in the woods to chop some wood, and he is by no means the only one who has said this. In fact, I have not had a single one of the contributors who have viewed the picture express satisfaction or pleasure with it. What we should have done was to have selected an artist who knew something about the subject and grasped the spirit of it, but that is too late now. Maybe the model he [Aitken] is working on now will be better.
These are bitter words, especially coming after the first installment had been paid to Aitken. Mershon’s not very subtly hidden message is that if he had been part of the discussion about selecting the artist, he would have voted for an artist who knew something of the lumberman’s life. However, the committee was pleased with Aitken’s third version, and approval was given in July. Early in August Aitken began to work on the full size version of the sculpture.
In August Blodgett wrote to Mershon suggesting that Aitken include some calks on the river driver’s boots. Blodgett added that even the landlooker (whom Blodgett refers to as a “cruiser,” or timber cruiser) could have a few calks on his boots. Calks (or caulks) were short metal spikes affixed to the soles of loggers’ boots to give extra traction and gripping power, similar to the spikes used on golfer’s shoes. Calks were especially necessary for river drivers who would be walking on the water-soaked pine logs as they floated in the river. Even woodsmen might wear calks on their boots, as Blodgett reminded Mershon: “As you know, cruisers usually wear some calks but not as many as a river driver. I always wore a few calks in my boots, because they would get a glaze on the bottom in walking over the pine needles that would soon make them as slippery as glass.”
Mershon promptly forwarded a copy of Blodgett’s letter to Aitken, offering to send Aitken “a whole package” of calks so that he could have an accurate idea of what they looked like. Mershon also requested information about the estimated completion date for the granite base, adding that the logistics of transporting the granite base to the display site would have to be communicated to R. G. Schreck, who would coordinate the local arrangements. In a letter to Aitken written a day later, Mershon suggested another small but relevant detail: log marks. He wrote that the log should display some log marks (indicating company ownership of the log) at each end of the log.
After receiving no replies to any of his earlier letters to Aitken, on 15 September Mershon wrote to Aitken again. He began by including a favorable comment by one of the subscribers, who had examined one of the photographs of Aitken’s second model that Mershon had included in letters he had written; the subscriber had written
I think you were fortunate in selecting the artist. He seems to have grasped the spirit of the thing. I like it as a whole and each member of the group but especially the central figure. It seems as though you would know he was a landlooker the instant you set eyes on him.
However, unable to restrain his sense of frustration in not receiving answers to several questions he had asked Aitken in earlier letters, Mershon complained:
You are the poorest correspondent I ever tried to do business with. I wrote you about the boot calks, whether or not you wanted me to send you any more or whether you could use them, but you did not answer. I also have written you twice to know when you will want the list of names of those commemorated. I have also asked you when you expect the Memorial to be completed. You see I am asked this question right along. Many of the subscribers say they will plan to be in attendance at the unveiling ceremony if they are notified some little time in advance.
Sensing the need to satisfy Mershon’s demands, Aitken responded early in October, agreeing that he was, indeed, “a poor correspondent,” but that the work on the model was taking most of his time and that any of the questions that Mershon had asked about details on the memorial “did not seem to demand immediate answers.” Aitken said that if he received the names to be commemorated “sometime in December it will be soon enough.” As to when it would be completed, Aitken said that he hoped to complete it “by the date of my contract.”
Mershon was happy to hear from Aitken: “At last I have a letter from you,” he wrote, and declared himself satisfied with Aitken’s answers to his questions. In response to Aitken’s comment that the memorial would be ready by the date indicated on his contract, which was in the middle of the following March, Mershon said that weather conditions in Michigan would affect the transportation process: heavy loads could not be carried over the unimproved roads that existed in the area until the middle of April. Mershon mentioned the importance of placing the base of the memorial in position in sufficient time to allow for settling before the memorial was mounted on top. Mershon also pointed out that water and gravel for making concrete were not easily available at the site location and arrangements for both would have to be made well in advance.
Mershon delivered the final list of names in a letter to Aitken early in March, 1931, with instructions that “the greatest of care be followed in cutting these names [into the supporting granite block] so that there are no mistakes [or] misspellings.”[xxiv]
The Casting and Installation of the Monument
Aitken made his first model, small-scale, from modeling clay. After receiving committee approval of his third and final design, Aitken made a full-scale model in clay. Then assistants placed two thick coatings of plaster of Paris over the soft clay. When the plaster of Paris coating had hardened, the clay was removed, and the inside of the plaster was coated with shellac and grease. Then more plaster of Paris was poured into the space where the clay had been. When that larger, more substantial amount of plaster of Paris had hardened, the rough outer coats were chipped off, and an exact copy of the original clay mold was the result. This plaster of Paris model was then sent to the metal foundry, where another cast was made, a fireproof cast to resist the molten bronze that was poured inside it. When that casting was removed, the metal statue was complete.[xxv]
In his final version Aitken attempted to follow every detail that the memorial committee had requested. Aitken told a reporter in an interview after the final model was completed that the site selected for the memorial was “wonderful,” and that its placement and setting were especially effective: “The ground falls away steeply behind it and you may look uninterruptedly past it to the distant . . . horizon,” while the three figures “face growing battalions of [newly planted] trees.” Aitken summarized the impact he thought it would make: “Many passers-by who heretofore may have thought of the lumberman as a mere land-grabber and despoiler of forests, will gain a somewhat different impression of him.” Although Mershon and Aitken had never discussed the desired aesthetic effect of the men depicted on the memorial, it is evident in Aitken’s remarks that he thought that his depiction of the lumbermen should create an impression of determination, competence, and ability.
Aitken posing in front of the final version
On July 10th, Mershon wrote to Aitken requesting some information about the estimated completion of the memorial. Mershon knew that if the memorial was not in place by November at the latest, the weather would not cooperate either for the laying of the foundation or for any public ceremony. Aitken responded on 13 August, attempting to allay Mershon’s fears. He informed Mershon that the foundation would be prepared by the Rosedale Monument Works of Montclair, New Jersey, and the project would be supervised by Mr. O. H. Leaman. Aitken stated that the names of the lumbering families and companies were being cut into the granite base and when it was ready, he would direct Leaman to the site where he would “select the exact spot” where the monument would be placed.
On 7 October, Leaman and a number of the Memorial committee members, including Mershon, met at the site of the monument to determine its location and orientation, and to estimate necessary work to prepare the site for installation of the monument. The following day Mershon wrote to Stearns that he had coordinated with R. G. Schreck about the details of the site preparation, adding that sufficient money was generated by the interest on the subscriptions received to pay for the work of preparing the site. Mershon concluded, “I will be glad when it is all done. Aitken has about worn me out.”
R. G. Schreck willingly accepted responsibility for transferring the memorial and its granite base from Bay City to the memorial site, and for preparing the ground on which the memorial would be erected. Fortunately, the Michigan weather cooperated in the fall, as the region enjoyed warm days with sufficient precipitation to settle the soil. The river road from Oscoda was regraded to circle to the south of the memorial, thus keeping automobile traffic out of the direct line of sight between the memorial and the river; the road had originally run along the high banks between the monument and the river bank. The south bend of the road that the Iosco County Road Commission prepared the following spring ran along the path where the current service road is now located. Many years later, the river road was moved even farther south to its current location, requiring a major reconstruction of the road around the memorial.
Visitors to the memorial today can walk down a short path from the memorial to the river bank to view the Au Sable River, but the view is partly obstructed by the trees and other foliage that have since grown up along the river bank. They will have difficulty visualizing what the area looked like in 1931, when three dirt roads intersected in a remote, uninhabited area in which the landscape consisted of bushes, stumps, scrub oak, and a few small, stringy pine trees.
The roads from Bay City to the monument were mostly unimproved, and Schreck expressed understandable concern that trucks might bog down in soft dirt. Two 3-ton trucks were hitched in tandem to carry the stone base. Fortunately, good weather resulted in firm road conditions, and the stone was transported the 80 miles from Bay City to the monument site without incident. The memorial was installed late in the afternoon on 24 October 1931. Schreck confidently told Mershon that he would be pleased with the results: “I believe it to be one of the best I have seen. It is very striking and as one looks the details begin to appear in a very realistic manner. Hundreds of people travelled to the site today to see it.”
A photo of the Lumbermen’s Monument shortly after it was installed in October 1931. The old River Road appears immediately behind the monument. The Au Sable River can be seen in the background.
Unfortunately, the late installation date prevented any possibility of holding a dedication ceremony that year, and the ceremony was postponed until the following summer.
The Dedication Ceremony
During the winter of 1931-1932, Mershon saw to the completion of the final details associated with the monument’s location. In addition to requesting that the Michigan State Conservation Commission set aside a number of acres around the monument as a preserve in which hunting would not be permitted, he arranged for the Anchor Fence Company to construct an iron fence around the monument. The Anchor fence featured firm metal posts set in the ground about ten feet apart with a solid metal bar connecting each post at the top and a thin but sturdy metal mesh attached to the posts and top bar. It would minimally interfere with direct viewing of the monument. The Anchor fence materials arrived at the site by June 26th and the fence was erected around the first of July. The fence is visible in early post card views of the monument; it remained in place for fifty years and was removed when the site was redesigned in 1981.
Lumbermen’s Monument showing fence; old River Road visible immediately behind.
After some discussion, the date of 16 July was set for the dedication ceremony. Mershon wrote to Aitken, inviting him to attend the ceremony: “A great many people have seen the Memorial and the comments are most favorable, not only from old time lumberjacks and camp cooks but those who appreciate anything artistic.” Aitken did not reply. In fact, in 1932 Aitken essentially ceased communicating with anyone on the committee. There were several possible reasons for his silence: one was that he had not received the full amount ($50,000) that he had initially been promised, and even though he had agreed to a modified contract that stipulated that he would be paid if sufficient funds were received, he undoubtedly was unhappy that he had received a lesser amount. Second, he had probably decided that further communication, especially with Mershon, was fruitless. Mershon’s increasingly abrupt communication style had certainly alienated Aitken, and he had no intention of continuing to subject himself to epistolary abuse. Third, and more logically, he was probably at work on other commissions.
Press releases were sent out prior to the event. One such notice appeared in the Escanaba Daily Press on July 15:
A program starting at 9 o’clock will include a tour through the Huron National Forest, in which the monument is located, a picnic luncheon at noon, when the Chippewa Indians will initiate many of those present into their honorary tribe, followed by the dedication ceremonies.
The day of the dedication, Saturday, July 16, was dry and hot; the temperature was in the 90s. It was so hot that many in attendance sought shelter under those trees sufficiently tall to offer shade, which meant trees far from the memorial site, as all trees and shrubs had been removed from the immediate vicinity. A presentation platform, on which the speakers were seated, was erected about 100 feet west of the monument. Reporters from the Bay City, Saginaw, and Detroit newspapers were in attendance.
Participants included, in addition to Mershon, Michigan Governor Wilbur M. Brucker; Congressman Roy Woodruff of Bay City; Ovid Butler, Executive Secretary of the American Forestry Association; Major R. Y. Stuart, Chief of the U. S. Forestry Service; and representatives of the Michigan Kiwanis organization. Judge Hermann Dehnke of Harrisville served as the master of ceremonies. Other individuals recited poems or sang songs. Two area bands provided entertainment before and after the ceremony.
In his remarks made at the ceremony, Mershon reviewed the history of the project and stated the purpose of the memorial, which he had articulated since its beginning, to give credit to “those heroic men who were so often unjustly criticized as destroyers of the forest when they were really the pioneers of an industry that was necessary for not only the building of our own state but the settlement of the West.” The pioneer lumberman, Mershon said, “played his part well, and [it was] a necessary part. The forest was created for use and he provided for its wise use and received little recompense,” adding, however, that “the generation that came after him did reap more substantial benefit.”[xxvi] Mershon may have glossed the historical facts slightly when he referred to the lumbermen as making “wise use” of the forest, but his purpose was, as it always had been, to recognize the truly significant accomplishments of the early lumbermen, woods workers and river drivers as well as lumber bosses. Although he never provided examples of those who “received little [or perhaps no] recompense,” it is clear that Mershon intended the monument to recognize the achievements of the first generation of Michigan lumbermen, those who ran substantial financial risks.
William Mershon at the Dedication Ceremony. The seated man with hat may be Governor Wilbur Brucker.
In his prepared comments, Mershon recognized the efforts of the men who cut the trees and guided the logs down the river to the mills. At the dedication ceremony several poems were read, and one was specifically written for the occasion, celebrating the achievements of several workers well known for their roles in the early lumbering efforts of the Michigan logging industry. One of these poems, “The Lumbermen of the Cass [River],” by Henry Dodge, which named several early woodsmen and river drivers, was printed in the pamphlet that included Mershon’s address.
Following his remarks, Mershon officially presented the memorial to Major Stuart of the U. S. Forest Service. The project that had occupied much of his time for the previous four years was officially over. Mershon did not remain at the memorial site after his portion of the ceremony ended. Immediately after he concluded his remarks, he went to his cabin on the North Branch of the Au Sable River, near Lovells, to do some fishing.
The reviews of the ceremony and of the monument were favorable. One account that appeared in the Detroit Free Press on the day following the ceremony stated that in his speech Mershon had “paid tribute to the old-time lumbermen who helped to build the middle west.” The anonymous reviewer acknowledged the financial support provided by the “timber barons.” The reviewer also noted that Aitken, the “nationally known sculptor, who was scheduled to speak, was not present.”[xxvii] There is no evidence that Aitken ever visited the monument or the area again.
The American Forests magazine prominently featured a photograph of the monument on its July 1932 cover. The article that accompanied the photograph gave a glowingly romantic interpretation of the effect and purpose of the monument:
Gone, perhaps forever, are the hard fisted men of the Michigan woods; gone, perhaps forever, are the spring drives, the whine of the sawmill, the lusty fights, the songs that thundered through the woods. Gone perhaps in actuality, but the memory of it all shall live forever in these three figures standing heroically against the sky. Some day the unseeing eyes of those mute figures will look out upon an expanse of wood strenuously rivaling the scene that lay there seventy years ago.[xxviii]
The most detailed review of the ceremony was written by Albert Stoll, first a sports editor and then a conservation editor of the Detroit News. Stoll opened his comments with a laudatory description of the monument itself:
What is undoubtedly one of the finest bronze memorials ever erected in Michigan now stands on the high banks of the Au Sable River overlooking the backwaters of Cooke Dam. It is a group of three heroic figures—the woodsman, the timber cruiser and the riverman—as they appeared in the old pine lumbering days. Standing astride a great Norway pine log, the group is mounted on a 30-ton granite base and occupies a location in the heart of the Huron National Forest.[xxix]
Stoll added that “there can be no criticism” of sculptor Robert Aitken’s efforts, “for it stands today a perfect example of the sculptor’s art.”
Stoll’s review took on a more somber tone as he mentioned “one thing that marred the occasion”: those present at the ceremony seemed more concerned with “defending the actions of the pioneer lumberman” and in paying homage to the “romantic lumberjack of the old pine days,” than with considering the “partial preservation or replacement” of the pine forests. Stoll summarized the same points that Mershon had made in his address, but in a more critical mode:
The attempt was made repeatedly to impress the thousands in attendance that it was no crime against the State or posterity to remove all of the virgin forest growth, that it was there to be used, that its harvesting aided materially in the development of the West, that those responsible for the timber cutting gained little in material wealthy and that it was unjust to continue to refer to the pioneer operator as “a ravisher of the forests of the State.”
Stoll concluded with comments that effectively inverted the intent of the ceremony:
The millions of acres of barren, idle, denuded pine lands of the north remain today as they did when the timber was taken from them, and they afford the descendants of those who profited most through cutting of Michigan’s virgin pine the opportunity to plant trees as well as erect monuments.
Stoll could have mentioned the fact that the monument was erected on the site of, and was in part inspired by, a major effort to repopulate the pine forests in the area, an effort that had been initiated through the efforts of some of the lumbermen of the area, including Mershon, thirty years earlier. Nor did he acknowledge the fact that Mershon had been active in early Michigan conservation efforts. Although shaded by its critical tone, it was the only review which addressed the symbolic significance of the monument.
More recently, John Knott, in Imagining the Forest, echoes Stoll’s critical commentary when he states that the inscription on the Lumberman’s Monument, “Erected to perpetuate the memory of the pioneer lumbermen of Michigan through whose labors was made possible the development of the prairie states,” “gives an emphatically positive spin to the plundering of Michigan’s white pine by focusing on the lumber industry’s role in the country’s westward expansion.”[xxx] Knott complains that Mershon’s dedicatory speech was “more concerned with celebrating and justifying the business success of these owners than with praising the sawyers, river drivers, and all the others who did the physical work of getting pine logs to the mills.”[xxxi] In addition to accusing Mershon of focusing primarily on the financial risks of the early lumbermen, Knott also suggests that it was “inaccurate” to think of the Woodsman and Riverman as “heroic figures,” because they were “lumberjacks or shantymen,” as if representations of these workers should not have been included on the Memorial.[xxxii] Elsewhere in his book, Knott acknowledges Mershon’s involvement in early forest planning, but he does not mention Mershon’s conservation efforts when he discusses Mershon’s ceremonial remarks.[xxxiii]
Knott’s comments disparaging the leaders of the lumbering profession, while made some eighty years after the event, reflect the critical attitudes towards the lumbermen that W. B. Mershon hoped that the creation of the memorial would help to ameliorate. In a comment suggesting possible confusion of purpose on Mershon’s part, Knott accurately describes the complexity of the symbolism of the monument when he observes that Mershon’s address effectively conflated the bosses and the workers:
One effect of Mershon’s speech, and of calling the sculpture the Lumberman’s Monument, was to associate those who built the lumber industry by acquiring land and creating companies with the labor of the lumberjacks themselves and the aura of romance they had acquired.[xxxiv]
In his critique of Mershon’s comments, Knott ironically describes exactly the effect Mershon was trying to achieve; in his concept of “lumberman,” Mershon envisioned all who labored in the Michigan woods. While some men might pay the wages and some men receive them, they were all, in Mershon’s view, workers who shared the burden of harvesting the trees and bringing the logs to the mills. As shown in the comments made in his letters, Mershon saw the entire group of woodsworkers as shared companions in the challenge of making a living from the pine trees they harvested. If Mershon mentions the owners of the Michigan lumber companies more often than the shantyboys and lumberjacks, it was because he was obligated to acknowledge the financial contributions that they had made to create the memorial. The remarks of Stoll and Knott, while reflective of modern environmental concerns absent from the thinking of most of the original lumbermen, fail to recognize the shared bonds most lumbermen felt about the physical challenges they had faced working on the river as well as recognizing the financial risks taken by many of the lumbermen in the early days of Michigan lumbering.
William B. Mershon worked diligently to ensure that his vision of the men who worked in the woods in the early days of Michigan lumbering was represented in their memorial as accurately and as faithfully as possible. Struggling to create a monument that would mute the criticisms of those who accused the old-time lumbermen of being selfish capitalists, and that would also not unduly mythologize their achievements, Mershon stuck doggedly to his vision of the truth as he saw it. Although he was perhaps not as successful as he would have wished, many of his suggested corrections made their way into the final version.
Aitken, in his final version of the memorial, accommodated nearly all of Mershon’s specific requests. The Riverman wears a sash and holds a floppy hat that he could wave if he wanted to; he also wears boots on which a few calks are visible; the Woodsman wears “stagged,” or cut-off pants, and holds both the axe and the saw correctly. The suspenders that Mershon requested are mostly absent, a hint of suspenders appearing just under the coat the Landlooker is wearing; and log marks are evident at one end of the log. Aitken endowed the log with distinctive Northern pine bark, and included a small branch with a pine cone. He also showed a sturdy chain with a hook draped across the log. The expressions on the faces of the men are determined, and probably more “intelligent” in their appearance than Mershon might have preferred. However, as a professional sculptor with many memorial statues to his credit, Aitken knew that memorials showing irresolute or hesitant figures would never convince viewers that such individuals would be considered in any way “heroic” in their efforts to overcome the obstacles they faced.
In his grouping, Aitken showed the three men as a closely bonded team, sharing the challenges of the north woods with a skilled and resolute approach. Although the position of the Landlooker, standing slightly forward of the two men at his side, indicates his role as the leader, all three are essential to the lumbering process, grouped as a team in close proximity, for artistic and thematic unity. If they appear a little more physically fit than the average woodsman might have been, Aitken knew that symbolism was more important, for commemorative purposes, than realistic depiction.
In spite of the fact that William Butts Mershon and Robert Ingersoll Aitken seemed, at times, to be communicating about the project in different languages, when they were communicating at all, the final result was one that favorably impressed the original viewers, and one that continues to impress viewers today, nearly eighty-five years after it was first installed. Especially in a setting of tall, fully mature pine trees, the Lumberman’s Monument, resting on the banks of the High Rollways overlooking the Au Sable River, projects a vision of determined efforts in a setting of peace, calm, and serenity that invariably impresses all visitors. The final result gives little hint of the conceptual, financial, and logistical difficulties that faced the men who were responsible for its creation.
Mershon’s final comment, in a letter to John Blodgett written three months after the ceremony, was: “I am tickled to death all this Lumbermen’s Memorial business is finished.” W. B. Mershon, who was 76 years old the year that the monument was dedicated, paid a significant personal price for the completion of the project in many ways. Not only had he made a major financial contribution to the project, he had written over 2500 letters, and his health had suffered as well: during the last year of the project he had often been confined to bed under a doctor’s care, he had gradually been losing the sight of his right eye, and the condition of his throat was worsening as well (however, ill though he was, he still found time to go hunting and fishing). But as a review of his correspondence relating to the project shows, without the determined and conscientious effort of William Butts Mershon, the sculpture that we know today as the Lumberman’s Monument might never have been created.
The correspondence of W. B. Mershon, quoted throughout, can be found in the W. B. Mershon files of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My thanks go to the staff of the Bentley Library for providing helpful services during my many visits to the library. The original photographs of Aitken’s initial two models of the monument as well as the finished full-sized version with Aitken posing in front can also be found in the Mershon files, as well photographs and newspaper articles of Mershon at the Memorial’s Dedication Ceremony.
My thanks go also to the individuals who reviewed the manuscript prior to its original publication in The Michigan Historical Review: their insightful comments helped to sharpen the focus, content, and style of the final version.
[i] Today it is referred to about equally as the Lumberman’s Monument and the Lumbermen’s Monument. It is referred to in both forms on web sites devoted to its description. “Lumbermen’s Memorial” was the term that William Mershon preferred, not “Lumbermen’s Monument.” To be precise, the complete phrase he preferred was “Pioneer Lumbermen’s and Woodsmen’s Memorial of Michigan,” a phrase that can be seen on the cover of the envelope issued by the Post Office on the date of the monument’s dedication, July 16, 1932. It is best known today as the Lumberman’s Monument.
[ii] William B. Mershon, Recollections of My Fifty Years Hunting and Fishing (Boston: The Stratford Company, 1923), pp. i-ii.
[iii] Mershon, p. iii. Heavy hunting practices by wealthy individuals, including Mershon and his hunting companions, had also contributed to the reduction of game in Michigan.
[iv] Mershon, p. 59.
[v] Jeremy W. Kilar, Michigan’s Lumbertowns: Lumbermen and Laborers in Saginaw, Bay City, and Muskegon, 1870-1905 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), p. 272.
[vi] Kilar, p. 135.
[vii] Dave Dempsey, Ruin & Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), p. 23. Dempsey details Mershon’s conservation activities throughout, but especially on pp. 23-24, 42, 47, 63-64.
[viii] Hazen L. Miller, The Old Au Sable (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans, Revised edition, 1964), p. 107. See also William B. Botti and Michael D. Moore, Michigan’s State Forests: A Century of Stewardship (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2006), pp. 24-25. Miller also documents Mershon’s intense interest in hunting and fishing along the Au Sable River.
[ix] William B. Botti and Michael D. Moore, Michigan’s State Forests: A Century of Stewardship (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2006), p. 25.
[x] Neil Thornton, Along the Historic Riviere aux Sables (Tawas City, Michigan: Printer’s Devil Press, 1987), p. 122.
[xi] Botti and Moore, p. 5. Mike Moore, “A Short History of the Michigan State Forests: The Early Days” (Michigan State University Extension).
[xii] Botti and Moore, p. 17.
[xiii] Alexandra Eyle, Charles Lathrop Pack: Timberman, Forest Conservationist, and Pioneer in Forest Education (Syracuse: State University of New York, 1992), p. 84.
[xiv] Eyle, p. 133.
[xv] Joseph J. Jones, “Transforming the Cutover: The Establishment of National Forests in Northern Michigan, Forest History Today (Spring/Fall 2011), p. 49.
[xvi] Norman J. Schmaltz, “P. S. Lovejoy: Michigan’s Cantankerous Conservationist,” Journal of Forest History, Vol. 19, No. 2 (April 1975), p. 74.
[xvii] Thornton, pp. 145-146.
[xviii] Clarence M. Loesell, A History of Kiwanis in Michigan (Charlotte, Michigan: Kiwanis International, 1956), pp. 40-41; Jones, p. 53.
[xix] Thornton, p. 146.
[xx] Much Michigan lumber was shipped to Chicago to help in rebuilding the city after the disastrous fire, which occurred in October, 1871.
[xxi] David Dearinger, Paintings and Sculpture in the National Academy of Design (New York: Hudson Hills, 2004).
[xxii] Miller, p. 118.
[xxiii] Mershon’s desire to impress the French-Canadian character on the figure of the river driver was undoubtedly due to his familiarity with many of the French-Canadian workers who lived in Bay City’s “Frenchtown” area during the height of the lumbering era. See Kilar, pp. 107-08.
[xxiv] See Appendix A: List of Names
[xxv] A. G. Lias, “Bronze Statue Is to Memorialize the Pioneer Lumbermen of Michigan,” The Christian Science Monitor, 2 June 1931. Clipping of article can be found in the Mershon files at the Bentley Historical Library.
[xxvi] “Address by Wm. B. Mershon,” at the Lumberman’s Memorial Dedication, July 16, 1932. Printed in a small pamphlet included in the Mershon files at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
[xxvii] “Tribute is Paid to Lumbermen,” Detroit Free Press, 17 July 1932, p. 37. Article made available by Newspapers.Com.
[xxviii] Gregory V. Drumm, “A Memorial to Pioneer Lumbermen,” American Forests, Vol. 38, No. 7 (July 1932), p. 406. Drumm was associated with the East Michigan Tourist Association.
[xxix] Albert Stoll, Jr., “The Lumbermen’s Memorial Group,” Ironwood [Michigan] Daily Globe, 27 July 1932, p. 4. Article made available by Newspapers.Com.
[xxx] John Knott, Imagining the Forest: Narratives of Michigan and the Upper Midwest (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), p. 59.
[xxxi] Knott, p. 61.
[xxxii] Knott, p. 59.
[xxxiii] Knott, p. 158.
[xxxiv] Knott, p. 61.