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Snaking Logs in East Texas

by N. Ray Maxie
N. Ray Maxie
"Snaking logs" is hard work, for both man and animal. In the early days of clearing "new ground" and harvesting timber in the Ark-La-Tex area, the term "snaking logs" described the job of pulling pre-cut logs out of huge forested areas using mule-power. Large timber logs were pulled from the thick pine forest of East Texas with a mule team known as a "two-some". The two-mule team was most generally used because of room restrictions for maneuvering in the forest. Sometimes there wasn't an abundance of room to "snake" the logs out working between the other trees. A good two-mule team could supply plenty of horsepower for pulling the logs.

Team drivers were known as "mule skinners". In some jobs where more horsepower was needed and the room available to operate them, drivers could assemble a "four-some" or a "six-up". We have all seen those large teams pulling stagecoaches in western movies. Why they needed four to six animals pulling a relatively light stagecoach on wheels behooves me. Maybe for the speed to carry mail and passengers much faster. You may remember the large teams of twenty (20), yes twenty mules Borax used in TV commercials for many years. And also the annual Calgary Stampede in Canada? All that horsepower really does make for a good show.

Our logging team pulled all logs to a staging area in preparation for being loaded onto a log wagon, or a truck, or perhaps a rail car. The staging area was a large cleared place in the woods with enough room for the loading operation.

After the sawyers (saw men) had felled the trees, trimmed off all the limbs and cut each tree into proper lengths, the next move was then up to the "mule skinner". Hooking his team onto each separate log, one at a time, the logs were pulled out of the woods to the place of loading. Sometimes it was a fairly long distance to the loading area and it might take the mule-team more time to make the round trip, returning to snake out another log.

At the loading area, two long chains were laid out flat on the ground with one end attached to the hauling vehicle. The team pulled each log across the chains and stopped. The loose ends of the chains were then thrown back across the log and over the vehicle. The team was then taken around to the opposite side of the hauling vehicle and attached to the loose chain ends. They then pulled until the logs rolled up two ramp poles and upon the vehicle. The team would then round trip back to the sawyer area to snake out another log. After a full load was assembled, the load was then secured to the hauling vehicle for transporting to the lumber mill.

This is how it was done before the invention of mechanical power. A good mule team was of great value to the working man. Even the first tractors were slow to be accepted in the woods. Some machines were very expensive, cumbersome and undependable, not to mention expensive to maintain. The transition to tractors was real slow because many logging operators still preferred to use the "mule skinners". Mules were low cost, real versatile and very low maintenance.

My dad told me he once worked for a Job Superintendent that always demanded the mules be well cared for, and rightly so. But not so for the men! "Boys, y'all feed and water them mules and let'em rest some every couple of hours. It cost a lot of money to have to go and buy another mule. But we can always go and hire another man, real fast, if we need'em." He knew in times with so many men out of work, laborers were readily available everywhere.

I have always had a special liking for mules. They are creatures of habit. They are smart, alert and sensitive. Mules have a reputation known as "stubborn", but that is only the act of caution on their part. If they are unsure or curious about something, they will stop and be cautious, until they are satisfied it's OK to continue. A mule likes a routine in his daily life. He likes to be sure of his surroundings and I really don't mind that. He is a "people" animal. He likes to be talked to often and is happy trying to please his master. I presently own a Molly mule named "Dixie". She is not a stout Missouri plow mule, but a saddle mule. Her mother is a Tennessee Walker and I expect Dixie to soon be a "gaited" mule when I start riding her. "Gaited" means a real smooth riding pace. My dad described it as being like sitting in a rocking chair. She is now twenty-two months old and real easy to train. She is already saddle trained and children ride her, but only with close adult supervision. Dixie doesn't have any bad habits, like biting or kicking. She is dark brown and should mature at about fifteen and one half hands. She, like most other mules, is strong, agile and sure-footed. I expect her to mature at about 30 to 36 months.

Snaking logs and "mule skinning" are two jobs that I am happy to say I never had to do and never really wanted to do. Although I have worked long hours as a sawyer and a "straw boss". My dad, my ancestors and other relatives did plenty of those laborious "man killer" jobs. For many years they were settling homesteads, cutting timber and cultivating crops in Northeast Texas and all the way back to Virginia in the late seventeenth century.
N. Ray Maxie
"Ramblin' Ray"
May 14, 2005
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