Nothing Isaac Stephenson ever accomplished gave him as much pure pleasure as breaking in three yoke of green oxen and hauling the biggest loads of pine logs to the Aroostook River.
Stephenson accomplished quite a lot in his long life, which stretched to 88 years. He made a fortune in lumbering in the Great Lakes region during and after the Civil War. He won election to the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin, founded a newspaper and was a key supporter of Robert LaFollette and the Progressive wing of the Republican Party.
He began lumbering in New Brunswick logging camps at 11 years old. At 14 he moved to Maine and learned to drive oxen through the forests and to the river. At 16 he headed west to the seemingly limitless wilderness of Wisconsin and began cutting it down.
In his memoirs, Recollections of a Long Life, he recounted the migration of the lumbermen from New Brunswick and Maine, the center of the global timber industry in the early 19th century.
“They blazed a way with restless energy into the timbered wilderness of Pennsylvania, of Wisconsin and Michigan, of Minnesota, of the mountain region of the far West and finally of the Pacific coast,” he wrote. “I moved as an individual in the flowing stream.”
Prosperity and Success
Isaac Stephenson was born on June 18, 1829, near Fredericton, New Brunswick. His father, also Isaac Stephenson, had immigrated from a town near Londonderry, Ireland, in 1809.
Logging meant prosperity and success to the struggling Irish. In Londonderry they saw big timber-ships from Maine and New Brunswick laden with masts, spars and hewn logs of a size unknown in Ireland. They were evidence of the vast wealth overseas and stirred the imaginations of the people yearning to escape their trying conditions.
In New Brunswick, Isaac Stephenson, Sr., managed the estates of the Loyalists who fled the United States after the Revolutionary War. Eventually he bought a farm. In the winter he logged. His wife died when Isaac was eight years old.
The family lived along the St. John River. As a child, Isaac Stephenson watched forest products go by. He saw an endless stream of log rafts and towboats, canoes of the Indians and white men, pirogues of the Acadians carrying wool to market.
In the late summer of 1840, barely 11, he began his lumbering career. His father managed a camp of about 15 men, and Isaac came along as cook. Though he wasn’t skilled, he managed well enough, as all they had to eat was pork, beans, bread, molasses, tea and dried apples.
It was an unusually hard winter, with seven feet of snow and an invasion of wolves. All winter long the men felled the trees, hewed them into ton timber and piled them on rollways on the banks of the river. From there they were floated down the St. John River to be shipped overseas for masts and spars.
Isaac watched and willingly learned the lessons of lumbering. He embraced the lumberjack culture of strength, skill and self-reliance in the wilderness. Later he was offered a college education, which he refused.
In 1843, when he was 14, his family moved to a township that would become Ashland in Aroostook County, Maine. Yankees didn’t cut ton timber – logs hewn square with an ax – the way the Canadians did. Isaac’s father was contracted to run a camp producing ton timber.
Stephenson wrote in his memoirs that his great success in lumbering resulted from the lessons he learned in Maine.
He learned to be an ox teamster, mastering the art of training and driving oxen. It was the most difficult and best paid craft in the business of lumbering. An ox teamster could earn $60 a month, while the foreman only made $26 to $30.
When a tree was cut down, a pathway was cleared through the deep snow to the main road. The log with one end chained to a sled was dragged from the stump. Teams of three yoke of oxen hauled the log.
The English and French had starting using oxen before the American Revolution to haul the white pines used for masts. Some were as long as 100 feet long and three feet in diameter. Only oxen were strong enough to haul them.
It took Isaac Stephenson two months to train the teams of oxen, and it took great patience and forbearance. But it was something he was good at.
There was an intense rivalry among the hundreds of ox teamsters in the Maine forests. They placed great importance on contests in hauling trees or starting sleds laden with stone.
The Best Driver
“Fortunately, I made the most of my opportunity,” wrote Stephenson. “The knowledge I acquired stood me in good stead in after years when we did most of the masting on the upper lakes. At Escanaba, Michigan, sixty-five years ago I ranked among the best drivers; and I took, and still take, a great deal of pride in that accomplishment.”
Isaac had caught the eye of Jefferson Sinclair, one of the owners of the lumber company. When he was 16, Sinclair offered him 160 acres, a house and farm equipment if he would go with him to Wisconsin until he was 21. Isaac accepted.
Isaac Stephenson, Rich Man
He would make his great fortune in Wisconsin during the Civil War, suffered great losses in the Peshtigo Fire of 1871 but recovered. He owned vast tracts of real estate in Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as Chicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay and throughout the Great Lakes.
By the time he published his memoirs in 1915, he was concerned the lumbermen had gone too far:
When I went to Maine with my father, the upper reaches of the Penobscot poured a constant stream of logs down to the busy mills between Oldtown and Bangor. .. what once seemed to be illimitable stretches of virgin forest in New Brunswick, in Maine, in Wisconsin and Michigan, have melted away before the westward tide of settlement. The scarcity of timber that seemed so remote then is now ominously close.
Isaac Stephenson died on March 15, 1918, but the work of preserving the forests had already begun.
This story last updated in 2022.