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Mason County Memories


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Horace U Butters Steam Skidder History Column Dave Petersen

Little had changed in the operation of logging concerns in the centuries before Michigan became a state until the invention of the steam engine in 1782 by James Watt of England. It was a discovery that revolutionized manufacturing and travel. In the United States by 1804 Col John Stevens put his boat powered by a Watts engine on the Hudson River and by 1830 steam driven boats had become a common sight. Trains were close behind but were not utilized heavily in the logging industry until some years later. Steam power changed the world and was to the 19th century that nuclear power is to us in the 21st.

Steam power was a critical ingredient to the mills in the cutting of timber from the forests and the building of the cities of the 19th century. After it's discovery it was quickly used in many applications. In many instances steam power replaced wind and water power in the cutting and moving of lumber throughout the country.

In the early years of lumbering the timber was for the most part within an easy distance of rivers and the timber could be hauled over the snow during the rivers and await the spring when the logs could be driven down to the mills. After some time though the distance between timber and the streams became longer and longer. New ways had to be devised to move logs in order to meet the demands for lumber by a nation growing in leaps and bounds.

The Big wheels that were built in Manistee helped to aid in the effort to move the logs during the snow less months to the mill and the Railroad also contributed to that effort. Locally most notably narrow gauge railroads such as the Manson and Oceana Railroad (also known as the Miserable and Ornery) was built by Horace Butters to move logs to the mill. Justus Stearns also used the narrow gauge railroads to move his timber.

By 1881 there were 71 logging railroads operating in Michigan. It was more expensive to operate a railroad to move logs but it helped with the problem of transportation and it also allowed the mills to operate year around.

To address the cost and problems of getting logs out of potholes and swamps Horace U. Butters of Buttersville developed an overhead cabeled steam skidder and was the first person in the country to receive a patent of his invention on November 13th 1883. It was known as the "Horace Butters Patent Steam Skidder" These steam skidders replaced oxen and horses and could move logs across the land, through the air and were great aids in loading logs at the collection site.

By 1889 about 30 of the Butter's Steam Skidder were in operation throughout the Country with the majority of them in use in Michigan, and Wisconsin. The $5,000.00 price tag of the skidder was a factor in more of them not being used by lumbering concerns.

Like many of the lumbermen of the time Horace Butters had a far reaching empire as well with holdings in North Carolina that comprised 100,000 acres of cypress and pine. In order to have a chance to better access to the timber in the North Carolina swamps Horace built several skidding machines that were mounted on scows and floated into the bayous. This didn't work as well as was hoped as the distance into the swamp that they could pull logs from was limited. Once they realized that the skidder was not going to reach the amount of timber that they had hoped they commenced to building a canal 27 miles in length to facilitate the moving of the timber to the mill.

Even with the advent of the steam engine and it's applications when you think about it, lumbering in Michigan was a huge task. They began by cutting of the logs in the wilderness, to moving the logs by oxen and horse to the rivers, driving the logs downstream to the mills, and then afterwards loading the lumber onto ships to carry the product to the market in Milwaukee or Chicago. The use of steam skidders, locomotives, and steam powered lumber hookers made it easier and allowed them to work year round but it was still a daunting task.

It wasn't until almost 1920 that trucks and tractors became commonly used in the northwest lumbering industry and even though the roads had improved by 1920 it was still a rugged enterprise. By that time however our lumbering era had come to an end. Horace Butters however is still remembered for his ingenuity and creativity in developing his skidder and improving the means of getting timber out to the mills and the market.

If you have any stories or photographs of Tallman, Buttersville and logging in Mason County feel free to contact me anytime at 757-3240 or davep@blackcreekpress.com

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