JOHN HUELSDONK, “THE IRON MAN OF THE HOH,” WAS THE WEST COAST’S PAUL BUNYAN, AMERICAN FOLKLORE’S LUMBERJACK STRONGMAN. HE AND HIS WIFE, DORA WOLFF, WERE GERMAN IMMIGRANTS WHO SETTLED IN IOWA IN THE 1880S—UNTIL JOHN, AT THE AGE OF 21, WENT WEST. BY 1890, HUELSDONK FOUND ONE OF THE LAST PATCHES OPEN TO HOMESTEADING IN THE HOH RIVER VALLEY ON THE OLYMPIC PENINSULA. HE CLEARED LAND, RETURNED TO IOWA, MARRIED, AND HEADED BACK TO THE HOH RAINFOREST. HE AND DORA HAD FOUR DAUGHTERS AND PUT THEM THROUGH UNIVERSITY WHILE THEY WRESTED A LIVING FROM THE LAND.
That meant farming, logging, and raising animals. John quit logging after a steam donkey pulled his fingers into a block. As he regained the use of his hand, he spent more time hunting and trapping for food, pelts, and bounties. Huelsdonk’s reputation for strength grew as he hauled provisions through the woods for loggers, rangers, hunters, and scientists. At five feet, 10 inches tall and weighing a lean 230 pounds, he could carry two loads at once—up to 200 pounds. They paid him double wages.
The story that solidified his legend was a 25-mile hike from Forks to Spruce with a kitchen stove on his back.
The story that solidified his legend was a 25-mile hike from Forks to Spruce with a kitchen stove on his back. It wasn’t his heaviest load, but it was awkward. A ranger on the trail asked if it was heavy. John replied, “No, but that fifty-pound sack of flour jostling around inside is a bit bothersome.”
After 40 years of homesteading, Huelsdonk had earned a reputation for hardiness that spread beyond the rugged Olympic Peninsula. In 1931, he appeared in the Sacramento Bee for putting “Panther on the Menu” for a construction crew working on a bridge. This cuisine sounded wild in California. To the Iron Man, it was neighborly and practical. The government had a cash bounty on cougars, and they attacked his cattle—besides, the meat tasted like lean pork. In 1933, papers across the country published a story headlined “Famed woodsman fights bear with bare hands.” Huelsdonk won—it wasn’t his only encounter with a bear.
In 1933, papers across the country published a story headlined “Famed woodsman fights bear with bare hands.” Huelsdonk won—it wasn’t his only encounter with a bear.
Cash was scarce. Bounties on predator animals paid by the State Game Department were vital income. John got his share, including an 11-foot cougar named Big Foot. Conservation meant different things back then. Huelsdonk saw the land change from a frontier into land managed by the Forest Service. Sometimes, there was friction. Occasionally, they provided jobs.
In a 1969 interview for the Port Angeles Evening News, his daughter Lena described him as “a gentle-man who didn’t show off his strength”—and, she noted, neither did he “drink, smoke, or raise heck.” However, she recollected a picnic in 1936 where her father, at 70, bested his younger companions with one-handed chin-ups and handsprings.
She recalled “one real feat”—a time Huelsdonk was target shooting with some hunters. His wife, Dora, teased them and said they should quit wasting bullets. She suggested a distant hawk some half-mile off. It had been harassing her chickens. John obliged, and as much to his surprise as to everyone else’s, he hit it in the eye.
John did not seek notoriety. He denied stories about him that were not true but owned what he did. No, he did not row from La Push to Seattle for groceries. He just hiked 60 miles to Clallam Bay for them.