By Joann M. Ringelstetter
In 2004, the first of several murals in downtown Stevens Point, Wisconsin, was completed on a building near the Wisconsin River, around which the city developed in the mid-1800s. It was designed and outlined by Kelly Meredith and then painted with the help of Susan Prentice Martinsen and local volunteers who “painted by number.”
The mural honors Wisconsin’s logging history; in particular, the rivermen who drove logs from Northern Wisconsin down the river to mills and then to market. Forests in northern Wisconsin were logged during the winter. When spring arrived, the winter thaw caused the river to swell, creating a fast-flowing means of transporting the logs downstream to the mills to be cut into lumber.
This was a dangerous job because the rivermen, or “river rats” as they were commonly called, rode the logs down the river, pushing and prying them with pike poles to keep them from jamming up. Many rivermen were injured or killed on the drive down the river. So why were they willing to do it?
River rats could earn three times what they earned as loggers. And there was a certain pride in having the strength and stamina to do it, along with being among the elite in the logging industry. For some, being flexible meant having a job for most of the year: cutting down trees in the winter, driving them down the river in the spring, and sawing them into lumber in the summer.
These brave river rats, who represent a big part of Wisconsin’s history, have been honored with a River Rat statue and historical marker in Merrill, Wisconsin. They are also honored at the Lumberjack World Championships held in Hayward, Wisconsin every year in July. If you get the chance, head to Hayward to see the competitions in sawing, chopping, tree climbing, log rolling, and other lumberjack skills.