Lesson Materials: Lumberjack Math Introduction

Lumberjack Math Introduction

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?



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

Lumberjack Math Introduction videos

Welcome to Camp

Transcript | Watch video Welcome to Camp on YouTube

What is the goal of a lumber camp?

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

Why did lumberjacks work in the winter?

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

Why did lumberjacks prefer white pine?

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

How do you get a tree to the river?

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

What happened when all the trees were gone?

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

Why do lumberjacks need math?

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