The settlement and development of Clark County was due to its’ vast stretches of pine, immediately tributary to the great waterways. The pineries in this region originally embraced a vast tract commencing on the Black River about twenty miles below Black River Falls, and extending to Iron Mountain, about twenty miles from Superior. The southern most reaches of this great forest consisted of gray and jack pine, while proceeding up the river the gray pine diminished, nearly disappearing ten miles above the Falls. A change of the sandy soil to a loam clay, and in wet places, to hard pan, takes place some three miles below Wedge’s Creek on the east, and three miles above the creek on the west side of Black River, twenty miles above the Falls. Where the heavy soil existed the red pine nearly disappeared, and the lofty groves of white pine alternated with ash, basswood, elm, butternut, cherry, birch, white oak, and red oak. The hardwood timer region with its’ soil, flora, and timber presents nearly the same appearance as the hardwoods of New England. Along the banks of the river and its’ branches the balsam, fir, and spruce were found scatteringly in small trees.
Dewhurst, Levis, Sherwood and Washburn townships were in a great part covered with medium sized pine with some hardwood ridges interspersed. This was cut off in the early days. The great fires of 1885 and 1886 burned thousands of acres in these towns clean, and in time these acres were overgrown with wild grasses. Large bodies of hardwood were found in the northeastern portion of Levis. The most universal of the hardwoods was the linden or basswood, which constituted nearly one-half of the hardwood suitable for lumber, and was found in every town in the county, of excellent quality and very abundant. Next after this was oak, red and white, ash, maple, elm, birch and butternut constituted the remainder of the lumber products. Many forties were found that would cut upwards of 100,000 feet of timber. The white oak was said to be the best in the works for barrel stock and wagon timber, being very sound and tough, and yet cutting easily. The rock elm timber was chiefly valuable for the manufacture of wagons and buggies.
For nearly thirty years after the organization of the county, logging and lumbering were the principal industries here. The first loggers were the Mormons who settle near the mouth of Wedge’s Creek and started the industry.
The control of the Black River for log driving purposes, ever since the year 1864, has been with a corporation known as the Black River Improvement Company. This improvement company was created by the act of the legislature. The officers and directors were all lumbermen operating on the Black River, as indeed, were all of its’ stockholders. The purpose of the corporation was to improve the navigation of Black river and lakes near the mouth of the same, in the counties of Clark, Jackson, Trempealeau, and La Crosse, by building dams, break jams, deepening, widening, and straightening the channel, closing up chutes and side cuts leading from the Black river into the Mississippi, and into its’ bottom lands, and into sloughs; to erect booms and piers, to construct levees or dikes, and repair and straighten the banks of Black River; and they were authorized to prescribe, charge, and collect tolls on the running of logs down Black River.
This improvement company and complete control of the river from the time of obtaining its charter until the driving of saw logs ceased. It was the policy of the company to discourage the manufacture of lumber on the river, except at its mouth. It was a selfish one and took no thought of the years. To come.
After the year 1872, when, by constitutional amendment, the legislature was prohibited from creating corporations by special law, several corporation were organized under the general laws of the state, for the purpose of competing with the improvement company. Among them were the La Crosse Booming and Transportation Company and the Black River Flooding Dam Association. In litigation that ensued afterwards between the improvement company and the new corporations, the latter were uniformly beaten.
The Supreme Court of the state decided that the Black River Improvement Company, having under their charter taken and retained possession of a part of the river, for the purpose of improving its navigability, the other companies had no right under the law, and took no authority to improve any part of the stream, even if it was a part of the river, that the improvement company had never attempted to take and improve – that the possession of a part of the river was in law a possession of the whole of it, by the elder company. From thence on the Black River Improvement Company had undisputed control of the river.
A logging camp on Black River presented to the spectator a combination of animated sights and sounds. Here, camped in log shanties, and with log stables for oxen and horse, were congregated together anywhere from twenty-five to nearly 100 men according to the size of the winter’s work laid out for them.
Some of the men would be engaged in cutting down the pine trees, and were called “choppers”, some were engaged in sawing the logs into lengths, varying from 12 to 18 feet, or more, the average being 16 feet. Others with oxen were busy skidding the logs and others called “teamsters” engaged in hauling the great loads of logs on immense sleighs from the skidway down to the river, where they would be unloaded either on the ice on the river, or else put on rollways on the river bank, from there at the opening of the river in the spring to be tumbled into the swift running current, the last work mentioned being called “breaking the rollways”. Before the logs were landed, they were marked on the bark on the side of the log with the owner’s log mark, and stamped on the ends of each log several times with what was known as the “end mark’. Each logger had his own number or mark, which was recorded in the lumber inspector’s office at La Crosse. Each “end mark” was different either in design or initial, no two being alike, and the purpose was to design a mark that could easily be cut upon the log with an axe.
With the coming of spring and the disappearance of the snow from the logging loads, labor in the forest came to an end. The loggers now turned their energies to the log drive. The rivers were freed of their imprisoning coat of ice and spring floods came to carry the logs to the mill. Unhappy the logger if his operations took him far upstream, if the melting snow and the spring rains produced only a slight rise of water. Then his logs were tied up, and he must wait for a more favorable year to carry then to market. However, when the river was high the men gaily set forth to break the rollways and to deliver to the swollen stream the harvest of the winter’s work. The drive was most picturesque as it was the most dangerous portion of the season’s operation. Down the ice-cold torrents thousands and thousands of logs went hurtling and surging, sometimes halting at an obstruction and piling up in ride masses then rushing on again in greater momentum.
A crew of men furnished with boats or bateaux, tents, blankets, and provisions would follow down the river behind the floating logs, and with pike poles and cant hooks tried to keep the immense sea of logs floating down the river in constant motion. Sometimes the logs would jam up against a rock or bridge pier and would extend more than half a mile up the river. The dexterity the men showed in accomplishing the break was marvelous. The work was done at the keystone of an arch bound and held the great mass together. The work was dangerous, and sometimes a daring fellow did lose his life. The work was well paid, n the late 1860’s and early 70’s, log drivers received from $6.00 to as high as $7.00 per day. No union labor there, nor eight hours a day work. The hours commenced at daylight and ended at darkness. Teamsters generally continued their duty long after daylight had gone, in the care and attention that was necessary to give their teams.
The boss of the camp was the foreman, but the real czar was the cook. He had a helper who was termed a taffel or cookee. When the meals were ready he announce “Grub pile”. The menu had a sameness about it that bordered on monotonous. Breakfast consisted of pork, beans (with or without vinegar), hot biscuits with molasses, tea and occasionally coffee. Dinner was the same except stewed dried apples were added to the menu. Supper was a duplicate of breakfast, except Sundays, when stewed prunes would appear on the menu. Salt, pepper, and mustard were served at all meals and were called knick knacks. When the logs were banked at the landings, they were visited periodically by a “scaler” who measured the logs with the Scribner rule, and estimated the number of feet in each log, afterward giving the owner a “scale bill” stating the number of logs scaled with their marks, and the number of board feet measure that they contained, and filed a copy of the same with the Lumber Inspector of La Crosse.
After the years of lumbering, the pioneers settled down to raising cows for milk and meat. Thus dairying made large strides. Nearly every farmer made their living by having herds of cattle. Then to have twenty or thirty cattle was considered a good-sized enterprise. In 1981, farms having upwards of one hundred head of cows was commonplace. In the early years milk was hauled to market in cans by horses and wagons or sleighs, according to the weather. Later, it was necessary to have the cans of milk hauled by a covered, insulated truck. Sanitation is of utmost importance in marketing the raw milk. Levis has approximately 20 farmers at present (1981) who still are in dairying . Others are either working in the city of Neillsville or are in various businesses of their own.
Source: Town of Levis 125th Book (Provided by Clark Co. "The Jailhouse Museum") – 1856 - 1981, Author unknown.