LESSON PLAN: Lumberjack Math Introduction

Lumberjack Math Introduction


This lesson introduces your students to the lumber industry, the workings of an early twentieth century logging camp, the jobs within a logging camp, and lumberjack lore. This lesson provides the historical context that allows students to better understand the subsequent math lessons in this curriculum.

Essential Questions

  1. How did an early twentieth century logging camp operate, and what were some of the jobs lumberjacks performed in the camp?
  2. How do Paul Bunyan stories connect to real-life jobs and activities in an early twentieth century logging camp?


Upon successful completion of this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. Identify various jobs within an early twentieth century logging camp.
  2. Write a Paul Bunyan yarn that makes connections to the real-life activities of an early twentieth century logging camp.

Time Needed

One to two class periods



Through the slide show presentation, discussion prompts, and video clips, students are introduced to the workings of an early twentieth century logging camp, to the various jobs performed by lumberjacks in the camp, and to Paul Bunyan and lumberjack lore.

Although Paul Bunyan yarns are tall tales, learning about the early twentieth century lumber industry helps students realize that these tales are connected to the lumber industry, and the workings of a logging camp, and they reveal a lot about the jobs lumberjacks performed. At the end of the lesson, students are given an opportunity to write their own Paul Bunyan yarn that makes concrete connections to real-life jobs performed in a logging camp.

The Lumber Industry and Logging Camps

The lumber industry in America began in the forests of Maine, and moved haphazardly westward. By the 1830s, lumberjacks reached Minnesota, and began harvesting the pine in the St. Croix River valley. By the 1880s, logging had become a booming industry in Minnesota. Between the 1890s and 1910, the state’s golden era of logging, an estimated 20,000 men felled trees in northern forests each winter to supply logs to some 20,000 more men who worked in the sawmills, turning logs into boards. Lumberjack Math is set in the winter of 1900-1901, when logging peaked in Minnesota. That winter, over 400 logging companies harvested 2.3 billion board feet of lumber from Minnesota’s northern pine stands, yielding enough lumber to build 600,000 two-story homes.

Lumberjack Lore and Paul Bunyan

Isolated in the dead of winter, and with little other entertainment, lumberjacks often spent their evenings telling and retelling stories around bunkhouse stoves. Out of this oral tradition grew a unique strain of American folklore that told of mythical creatures and lumberjack heroes. Paul Bunyan became the most well-known among these heroes, and was the only one to reach beyond the logging camps, and grab the imagination of a nation.

As with many folktales, the origin of Paul Bunyan lore is murky. Recent scholarship suggests that he first appeared in northern Wisconsin in the mid 1880s when lumberjack storytellers added his character to old folktales, told previously in colonial New England (and some even earlier in Europe). By the 1920s, Bunyan stories had left the bunkhouses of the northern woods, to appear in popular magazines and newspapers. Today, the legend of Bunyan can be found in more than 300 books, and on a half-million web pages.

Many Paul Bunyan stories focus on his feats of strength and use of clever wit to get his logging crew out of impossible situations, or to perform his job beyond the ability of the typical lumberjack. Other stories use lumber lore to explain the geographic features of the land that were so important to the lumberjacks and their vocation. This lesson will use a Paul Bunyan tale that incorporates several of these types of stories to highlight the connection between the tall tales, and the real-life challenges lumberjacks faced.


To fell: to cut down a tree

Stand: In the lumber industry, a stand refers to a section of standing trees to be used for timber

Yarn: a narrative of adventures, especially a tall tale

Stamp: to use a special device (called a stamp) to put a design, word, etc., on something; to create a mark by pressing a special tool against a surface. In this case, it is a large design on the end of a hammer stamped into the log to indicate which logging camp cut the log.

Ice road: a road leading from the stand of trees to the river, made from ice for easier transportation of the logs to the river


1. Using the slide show presentation, introduce your students to a fictional lumberjack camp. Procedure numbers correspond with slide show numbers.

2. Who Am I? Why am I in Bemidji?

Distribute copies of Paul Bunyan—An American Legend to your students.

After reading Paul Bunyan—An American Legend, lead a discussion with students about Paul Bunyan to find out what they know about him, and to ask why this statue is in Bemidji.

  • Discuss how Paul Bunyan was a legendary character in the stories that lumberjacks told in their bunkhouses.
  • This statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox, has been standing in Bemidji since 1937.
  • If time allows, tell some more Paul Bunyan stories! Visit Bemidji for some stories connected with Bemidji.
  • Along with other communities in Canada, New England, and the upper Midwest, Bemidji claims Bunyan as its own.
  • Bemidji currently uses its connection to Bunyan as part of its efforts to attract tourists. That it does so, suggests that Bemidji (and by extension Minnesota in general) has a close connection to the lumber industry.

3. Where is Bemidji?

Since we show the Paul Bunyan statue in Bemidji, the location can be found on the map provided on this slide.

4. Welcome to Camp

Watch the video clip: Welcome to Camp

Transcript | Watch video Welcome to Camp on YouTube

5. The Logging Industry in the United States

This slide shows a logging map of the United States.

Highlight some general points about the lumber industry in the United States:

  • Harvesting timber did not start in Minnesota, but rather was an important economic activity that began early in America’s colonial history. Tall, straight, and sturdy timber was coveted for masts of sailing ships, among a variety of other uses.
  • The harvesting of timber moved generally from east to west, but not in a uniform fashion. Because the transportation of logs depended on rivers, the industry leapfrogged over some inaccessible stands of timber to harvest stands closer to navigable rivers.
  • Lumbering began in Minnesota in the 1830s. Heavy investment began in the 1880s.
  • Lumbering in Minnesota peaked in 1900 (the year in which the Lumberjack Math is set). That year:
    • 400 lumber companies were harvesting timber.
    • 2.3 billion board feet made Minnesota the third largest timber producing state in the nation.
    • An estimated 20,000 lumberjacks worked in the pine stands in Minnesota.
    • An estimated 20,000 men worked in sawmills.

From 1900-1910, Minnesota harvested timber at similar rates.

Decline began in 1910. In 1929, the Rainy Lake Lumber Company closed. During its operation, it had been the largest white pine mill in the world. This signaled the end of “big-pine logging” in the state.

By 1929, mills still operating in Minnesota were mostly cutting lumber from trees harvested out of state, usually from the Pacific Northwest.

6. What is the goal of a lumber camp? (video clip)

Transcript | Watch video What is the goal of a lumber camp? on YouTube

7. Why did lumberjacks work in the winter? (video clip)

Transcript | Watch video Why did lumberjacks work in the winter? on YouTube

8. Why did lumberjacks prefer white pine? (video clip)

Transcript | Watch video Why did lumberjacks prefer white pine? on YouTube

9. How do you get a tree to the river? (video clip)

Transcript | Watch video How do you get a tree to the river? on YouTube

Create a logging camp out of your class by distributing a job card to each student.

  • A typical camp would have one of each of the following:
    Foreman, clerk, cook, barn boss, stamper, and scaler
  • A typical camp would have multiple lumberjacks filling the other jobs:
    Teamster, axman, sawyer, swamper, cookee, road monkey, skidder, driving crew, jam crew

Discuss the job assignments to ensure each student understands her/his role. It might be helpful to review the video clip How do you get a tree to the river? again.

10. Paul Bunyan and Lumberjacks

Have students re-read the Bunyan story they looked at earlier, and mark connections from the story to the real jobs of a logging camp.

Refer to the Paul Bunyan—An American Legend connections document to guide a class discussion highlighting these connections.

11. Your Tall Tale

Have students write their own Bunyan tale connecting their job to the tall tale.

  • Students can focus on Paul Bunyan or a member of his crew.
  • Tales should be approximately 250 words in length.
  • Tales must be focused on the student’s assigned job, and use the vocabulary included on the card.
  • Use the Tall Tale Rubric to quickly evaluate student writing.
  • NOTE: Because this activity requires creativity, which could take some students more time than others, it is advisable to have students start their story in class but be allowed to complete it that night and bring it back the next day.

12. What happened when all the trees were gone? (video clip)

Transcript | Watch video What happened when all the trees were gone? on YouTube

13. Why do lumberjacks need math? (video clip)

Transcript | Watch video Why do lumberjacks need math? on YouTube

14. What is a Greenhorn?

15. You are! Welcome to Northwoods Lumber Company!

Lesson Extensions

Alternative Introductions to a logging camp:

  • Visit the Forest History Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota (sites.mnhs.org/historic-sites/forest-history-center).
  • Take a History Live class (education.mnhs.org/history-live).
  • Visit the Minnesota History Center for the Logging in Minnesota class.

Have students design a camp stamp used to label the cut end of each log.

For the Paul Bunyan story, have students pull images from the MNHS Collections online to illustrate their story.

Lesson Bibliography

Edwards, Michael. Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan. Madison, Wisconsin: The Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2009.

Paul Bunyan Story: The Giant Lumberjack Paul Bunyan Trail. Available online at: paulbunyantrail.com/talltale.html

The Red River Lumber Company. Tales About Paul Bunyan, Volume II. Pamphlet. Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minnesota Historical Society SD 431.9.B9 T34 1920z.

Rounds, Glen. Ol’ Paul: The Mighty Logger. William E Rudge’s Sons. New York City, New York. 1936.

Slide show images:

  • Slide 2
    Paul Bunyan and Babe his blue ox, Bemidji, approximately 1960, Minnesota Historical Society Collections
  • Slide 10
    Paul Bunyan, approximately 1930, John Runk photograph collection, Minnesota Historical Society Collections
    Lumberjacks working near Cass Lake, approximately 1915, Minnesota Historical Society Collections
  • Slide 14
    Typical lumberjack at Rajala Camp near Big Fork. Itasca County, 1945, Minnesota Historical Society Collections