By Robert Williams
In the past two years, Wannigan Regional Park has gone from an idea to a funded reality and a location ready to host events. One of the first was held Saturday, Oct. 14—a history hike and gathering to learn about the park in Frazee and the work and industry that surrounded its sawmill built in 1872 and the millions of board feet of white and red pine that were floated down the Otter Tail River.
The Becker County Historical Society and Museum partnered with the Laurentian Lakes Chapter of the North Country National and Scenic Trail to interpret the logging era. The event consisted of guided hikes on the one mile of the North Country Trail, nature activities for kids, snacks and hot chocolate.
The area’s historical significance was detailed in a 20-minute oration by Typhanie Schafer, the museum’s program and collections manager. Schafer discussed the history of Frazee from the 1870’s to the 1910’s, focusing on the sawmill that put the town on the industrial map. She also highlighted a basic understanding of the entire logging process and how the land that makes up Wannigan Park was used in a collection of early sawmills that ran from White Earth to Ottertail.
A significant portion of the history related came via the book “Pine, timber and the Otter Tail River” by Alton Stearns.
One of the highlights of Shafer’s speech was describing ‘wannigans,’ a critical part of feeding and lodging the crews that worked the logs down the rivers.
“Wannigans were floating cook shacks that housed kitchens and sleeping quarters for the kitchen crew,” Shafer said. “The wannigan was a river barge that measured about 40-feet long and 10-feet wide. The head cook was captain of the boat, planned the meals, ordered supplies and managed his crew and mixed up bread and pastries. The crew on the ship were apprentice cooks, or ‘cookies.’ The cookies were there to learn the trade, prep ingredients, wash dishes, tend to the fire and dish up and serve the food.”
There were two meals per day taken to shore: breakfast and the evening meal.
“As with the work camps, meals were structured and strict, only allowing time for the men to eat,” said Schafer. “The workmen were often unskilled migrant workers who just needed the job.”
Each worker needed to consume 5,000 calories per day to complete their logging tasks.
Schafer described the meals from a Stearns’ passage: “Breakfast was served at 5:15 a.m. and consisted of ham, eggs, fried potatoes, coffee, bread, butter and stewed prunes. In quotations, he said, ‘always stewed prunes,’” which got a chuckle from the gallery.
“The menu seldom changed. Coffee was only served at breakfast; tea was the popular drink. Each man packed his own lunch which he carried in a knapsack. The cooks had to have 100 sandwiches prepared, eggs boiled and a large supply of cookies and doughnuts. A log driver’s lunch consisted of 2-3 ham sandwiches, a couple of boiled eggs, 2-3 cookies and a couple of doughnuts. He had a tin can which he used to make tea over boiled river water and a small fire…supper was served at 6:15 sharp so the kitchen could get done at a reasonable time.”
Farmers in the area provided much of the food needed to feed the workers.
Schafer closed with a perspective on area sawmills from the first one built in Becker County on the shores of White Earth Lake in 1868 to more mills following in Richwood, Lakeview Township, Cormorant Township, to Frazee and beyond.
For more information on Wannigan Regional Park visit wanniganpark.com; for more local history check out beckercountyhistory.org and be sure to read about the first Frazee mill fire in this issue of the Forum, courtesy of Special Correspondent Paul Gubrud.