If you’re anywhere near St Croix Falls, WI, this weekend, or Taylors Falls, MN, stop on by because today is the start of the annual Wannigan Days celebration. There will be races, craft sales, lots of food and beer, a cake walk, music on the overlook, and two parades – one in St Croix Falls at 6pm Saturday night, followed by a second in Taylors Falls at 7pm. The fireworks are scheduled to start at 10pm Saturday night in St Croix Falls. And this is only a taste of all the fun that awaits visitors to our beautiful river town this weekend at our 59th River Spirit Celebration. (Check out http://www.wannigandays.com.)
But, what is a wannigan, you may ask. It’s a Native American word meaning “house that walks on water”. And that’s what it is, a shanty built on a raft. It dates back to the lumber era. The wannigan followed the men (called river drivers, river hogs, river pigs, catty men, river rats, river jacks) as they rode the cut logs downriver to the mills after the spring thaw. The wannigan carried supplies, equipment, and maybe most important of all to these hard working men, the cook and the food. This was their floating kitchen and kept them fed and strong for the long, grueling, and very dangerous trip ahead. And before you picture lovely picnic lunches on shore when the men got a much-deserved mid-day rest, they ate while they worked. (As so many of us do today, except sitting at a desk.) They used what was called a river pig nose bag, a tin lunch bucket generally strapped to their back, so they could eat while continuing to direct their logs to the saw mills downriver.
Many men lost their lives on those spring log drives. It was easy to lose your footing and slip beneath the surface, where they would be quickly covered over by tons of fast moving logs, and either drown or be crushed…or both. Have you ever been to a log-rolling competition? Or perhaps watched one on television? Imagine doing that while moving from one log to another down a river moving fast from spring snow melt. The ones who fell off weren’t in for a dunking and some good-hearted ribbing from their friends. It’s why the job paid so well and many men were willing to do it.
The cry “log jam” brought townspeople running to view the spectacle; but, chances were great that some of the men would die before it was over. Our stretch of the St Croix River was particularly prone to log jams as the rush of logs from the wide river to the north suddenly reached our narrowed passage where the water cuts through high cliffs of traprock. The result was a complete stop, causing logs to be thrust up and over each other so violently that men could be thrown to their death. The logs would be packed solid up to 70 feet deep in places, pushing the bottom of the jam to the river bottom, and as much as 30 or 40 feet above. These jams extended for miles and could hold up a lumber delivery for months as the river drivers worked to unravel the puzzle and free them one by one. The most spectacular jams happened here in 1865, 1877, 1883, and 1886. The last one was the largest of all and involved an estimated 150 million feet of lumber. On April 8, 1865, the Taylors Falls Reporter announced “river blocked by 20,000,000 ft of lumber” – “log excitement prevailed”. *
So, if you can, come and join us as we celebrate our proud lumber history at Wannigan Days this weekend. We’re supposed to have perfect weather; and I promise you’ll never experience a more beautiful part of our State. At least, that’s my opinion. Come and visit, form your own opinion. You won’t be sorry.
* Log jam information from “St Croix Tales and Trails” by Rosemarie Vezina Braatz.