Logging camps were rough and tumble enterprises, where loggers often worked from sunup to sundown six days a week in their pursuit of timber harvesting across the forests and mountains of the United States. Sunday was their one day off, and one of the pastimes they engaged in for entertainment every week was boxing.
Photographs from logging camps, like one in Manistee, Michigan, show loggers posing wearing boxing gloves as early as the 1890s. Besides being a spectator sport, boxing offered a chance for individual loggers to “work out” any grudges with one another in a controlled setting. It was a good outlet in either case, since some logging operations, like the Nichols Chisholm Lumber Company in Minnesota, employed over 500 men between its headquarters and seven camps in a fifteen-mile radius.
Boxing rings could be easily set up as temporary structures in logging camps, made from available canvas for the floor cover (or just rough-cut boards, if no canvas could be spared), hemp rope around the sides, and four posts at each corner. Plenty of space was left around the outside of the ring to allow lumberjacks a ringside seat as they watched two of their own pummel each other. While leather boxing gloves and shorts were the norms, protective headgear was not. A few boxing standouts even got their start in the camps.
Sam Langford was born March 4, 1883, in Nova Scotia. At the age of ten, he ran away and began working at a logging camp. He later worked as a laborer at a brickyard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and both of these experiences helped build the young man’s stamina and physique. In 1902, Langford turned to professional boxing in Boston, where he won his first boxing match with a knockout (KO) in just five rounds. Over the next twenty-five years, he amassed a record of 2,548 professional rounds during his 316-fight career.
Kid Lavigne, aka “Saginaw Kid,” was another boxer who started out his life in a logging camp. Lavigne trained as a cooper, or barrel-maker, at a sawmill in Michigan, and he went on to become the First World Lightweight champion in 1896. Another was Peter Thomson, “a trained boxer” who gave up the ring in 1905 to become a timber baron with an eye toward the Appalachian Mountains in his native Hamilton, Ohio, for its potential development as a logging center.
The U.S. Army even got into the lumber business. When the United States first entered World War I, the Spruce Production Division recruited experienced lumbermen as well as those unfit for other military services to log, transport, and mill spruce and other lumber for use in manufacturing military aircraft for the war effort overseas. They were called the “Spruce Soldiers.” One photo from 1918 showed a group of soldiers in Pierce County, Washington, posing with boxing gloves: probably a group of boxers who did this in their spare time off duty. Boxing and logging—just two physical activities brought together in a bygone era.