on the

Mississippi River

In The Twentieth Century

By Sheldon L. Helle

Savanna, Carroll County IL

Contributed by Sharon K. Bearce


Over the years, I have seen many movies and read many stories on logging but all have been either on the olden days or on western logging in the big timber. Having put in 54 years from 1928 until 1982 logging in Illinois highland and river bottoms, I decided to tell the story of the changes in our methods, plus many true stories of my own ex­periences. I will tell it as I have lived it.

The mighty Mississippi is just that! Mighty! It has its own way. You learn to abide by the river. It calls the tunes.

The river bottoms in the timber country has a way of fascinating a person, especially a logger: Early in the spring, before the, in­sects and mosquitoes get there, and after the birds come back from the south, the quiet rare beauty is breathtaking. Fall colors are so beautiful, especially in our area with the hills overlooking the Mississippi. The river in the winter was so quiet. It is hard to describe: We used to hear the whistle of the steam locomotive over in Iowa. Seemed like they were very close, but actually, they would be several miles away. We could hear the wheels on the tracks and the power of the engine.

The trains on the Illinois side on a real cold morning sounded like they would come right through the cabin. A man could yell at someone and his voice would carry a long distance, yet when there were no trains and no voices, the quiet was strange, almost eery. We often heard the coyotes in the timber and the ice on the river cracking. The sound of the ice cracking seemed to travel. It echoed like thunder. Yes, the Mississippi River does call its own tunes.


A short story from the 19th Century seems important at this time. I can only tell what I have read, but will assure you the Mississippi River played a great part in the development of the Great Plains States, clear to the Rocky Mountains.

1944: Hazel and I crossed the Mississippi River by train at New Orleans, Louisiana. I remember how the train slowed to a walking speed. We crossed on the Huey P. Long bridge and must have been forty minutes crossing. The width of the river was unbelievable.

1948: Hazel and I and our family crossed the smallest bridge on the Mississippi, I think about twenty feet long. A short time later we were at the headwaters at Lake Itasca State Park in Minnesota. We carried Lorraine, helped Harley across, and Lyle and Louise were able to make it across on their own.

We have crossed most of the Mississippi River bridges a few times, but we have crossed our local bridges thousands of times. I am still fascinated by the beauty of the Mississippi.

The year 1800: The Northern part of the Great Midwest and the Southern part of Central Canada was covered with White Pine Timber. Itasca State Park still has a great tract of White Pine Timber. There are also a few isolated small tracts left. The farthest South I ever heard of a natural white pines forest is at the White Pines State Park at Oregon, Illinois. This park is located about 40 miles southwest of Rockford, Illinois. This timber has some of the finest trees I have ever seen anywhere. About thirty years ago a tornado went through and destroyed many of these great trees.

About 1830: The Midwest was becoming populated. They needed lumber in large quantities. Many of these people, including my Grandfather and Grandmother Helle were immigrants from Europe.

The best transportation they had at that time in history was water. Now this is where the Mighty Mississippi and its tributaries played a big part. The great Weyerhaeuser Lumber Company (the largest in the world today), started at Hayward, Wisconsin. Edward Hines and many others started in that area.

The growth of the Great Plains States was made possible because of the Mississippi and its tributaries.

In the next eighty years those old timers did a job that I don't believe has ever been surpassed before or since. They did more hard work in less time than seems possible. I believe they also told more tall tales like the great Paul Bunyan stories.

They used the river to transport logs down the Mississippi. White pine logs would float from winter through summer, three quarters of the way out of the water. Some old timers called them cork trees.

Now these old timers would cut logs all winter, skid them to the low lands of the Northern rivers, then put them all together in to small rafts (called brails). These brails were generally about forty feet wide and sixty feet long. These men would wait till the ice melted and the flood waters came, then with pike poles, food, water, & blankets, they would ride the logs as far south as St. Louis, but they accumulated other brails as they went down the Mississippi.

The small rafts or brails would build up to as many as two million board feet in one large raft. The large rafts were handled by brute strength and the flow of water. Two million feet of logs would weigh upwards of eighty thousand tons.

The white pines logging was really big from 1840 to 1910. In this period of history billions of feet of logs came down the Mighty Mississippi. ­ Generally, the loggers sold the logs to sawmills along the way. At the peak in 1880 several hundred rafts came down each year. The cattle drives of the West were patterned after the Mississippi logging procedure.

According to information from the area news at that time, a Mr. Borth wrote about his Father being paid $80.00 for a trip from An­tigo, Wisconsin to St. Louis, Mo. About three months.

Abe Lincoln's Mother's brother, Stephen B. Hanks was on one of the first rafts brought down the Mississippi River. This was about 1842 or 1843.

Seventy three years later in 1916 a rafting crew stopped' at Savanna, Illinois, (my present home town.) They picked up Mr. Hanks, then in his nineties. The crew asked him to pilot the last raft down the river to Davenport, thus in one man's liftime, the entire White Pines logging on the Mississippi River was completed.

Savanna had a share in rafting of logs. Many of the large rafts or fleets as they were also called, were held in storage north of Savanna in the big bend of the river. Sometimes they would hold millions of feet of logs for months until they could be sold to the sawmills. Often they would be divid­ed into smaller rafts for the last of the trip.

Between 1860 and 1880, they gradually converted to steam boats. By 1880, forty or fifty steamers went up and down the river each day, along with all the logs coming down. It made the Mighty Mississippi a busy waterway. Millions of tons of logs and freight were moving each month of the summer.

I don't have the date of the last raft to come down the river by man power but have reason to believe it was about 1885 or 1890 when the steam boats took over. The rough and tough and hazardous job of riding the rafts was over. The end of an era.

Most of the sawmill's locations were from Dubuque, Iowa to St. Louis, Missouri. Most were on the west bank of the river as the market was west and we did not have bridges in that early day. Weyerhaeuser had a large mill at Rock Island, Illinois. Their fami­ly moved there and bought land. We have sawed the oak timber from their land on two different occasions in recent years.

From the Clinton Chamber of Commerce: A story about Clin­ton, Iowa's logging history.
First Sawmill At Clinton, Iowa:
The first of Clinton's many sawmills was built in the spring of 1856 by Charles A. Lombard. It had the capacity of 5,000 feet of lumber per day. Another sawmill was established at Lyons that year, and soon there were many sawmills along the river handling the lumber rafts floated down the river from the north. The city grew rapidly with this industry.

Largest Lumber Producing City In The World:
In the early 1880's Clinton was recognized as the largest lumber producing city in the world. In the summer an average of 40 to 50 steamboats passed daily up and down the river and hundreds of log rafts were floated down from the north in the spring. One of the biggest problems the sawmills had was to dispose of the sawdust. The entire north end of Lyons two and a half blocks west from the river is underlain with sawdust to a depth of 20 feet or more. Sloughs and streams were filled in with it, and large por­tions of the city were built on sawdust bottoms.

Woodworking Plants:
Woodworking plants naturally followed the sawmills and Clin­ton became a very important center for furniture and millwork. As the supply of lumber gave out in the northern woods, the sawmills were gradually closed and wrecked or converted into plants for other industries. The interests of the lumber people were gradual­ly transferred to railroading, with the last log raft arriving from the north in 1906. The city then returned its attention to trading, manufacturing, and retailing. Many families from Clinton made prosperous livelihoods from the lumber business during its peak.

Several of the families acquired yachts and traveled all over the world. Clinton's Jane Lamb Hospital was named after the Lamb Family. This family was a heavy contributor to the building of this hospital.

Nearly all of the Great Plains region of our country clear to the high country of the Rockies was built up with lumber from the hun­dreds of billions of feet of lumber from the great logging operations on the Mighty Mississippi and its tributaries. Nature has a way: The great northern woods were gone. The Plains states were populated. The need for lumber in enormous quantities was gone. The sawmills moved west over the moun­tains. That is another story.

In the twenty five years from 1910 to 1935 very little logging was done on the Mississippi. An all new generation of people found a use for softwood lumber from the bottom lands of the Mississippi River. That is my story starting in 1935.


Who Owns The Land Along The Mississippi River
The Mississippi River bottom lands were owned by farmers or private people with the exception of a few million acres that were owned by the Fish and Wild Life Service under the control of the U.S. Government Interior Department. This land was all game preserves, No Trespassing was allowed.

Between 1935 and 1939, the War Department purchased all of the flood lands near the River. Also during this time ownership was in question, so it seemed open to the public. By the early 1940's, ownership was established. The land ac­quired generally was flood land but to keep a common boundary line, the government took many acres of higher land, then leased it out to private people for summer home sites.

The men in charge were very competent. They knew very well where all boundary lines were. All of the timber that was for sale was paint marked, both at the stump and on the trunk of the tree. We had very high respect for the people in charge of the Federal Lands. They were fair to both contractors and Tax payer. It was a pleasure to do business with these people.


1928 Cuba, Illinois:
I quit high school and started skidding logs for my Dad in the Spoon River Bottoms with a team of horses on a logging cart. I was fourteen years old. We also farmed. There were thirteen children in our family. Lloyd, Royle, Joe, Delbert, Don, Ethel, Walt, me (Sheldon), Verle, Gene, and Gail; then the last two, Charlotte and June. The youngest seven were still home when we moved to Wyoming, Illinois. We logged and sawed at the sawmill in Wyoming. Our logging equipment was still horses. In 1933 we bought an old used Cater­pillar tractor, much better than horses.

1935 A Partnership:
My brothers, Delbert, Walter, and myself formed a partnership to log and saw the timber from the Pechang Island (12 miles south of Galena, Illinois.) on the Mississippi River Bottoms. This was large timber. Delbert, his wife, Nellie, and two small sons, Gordon and Lawrence, Walter, his wife Alice, and myself and Hazel, a new bride of two months, all moved to Galena in July, 1935.

Highland loggers on the Mississippi River Bottoms did not do so well. It was a new experience. Many mistakes were made. The biggest mistake was our over confidence in our ability to log the river bottoms. Another problem was our lack of knowledge of the river. We just did not realize the river would rise and fall two or three feet a day. It never stayed the same.


We had one 1934 Model Chevrolet one and a half ton truck for lumber delivery. We had a fair two ton Caterpillar tractor and logging wagon to hall logs with. We used a Model 20 Caterpillar, weight about four tons to skid logs and load the log wagon. Then with the two ton cat we would pull the loaded wagon from the timber to a barge or ferry boat landing. The tractor and loaded wagon would be driven on the ferry boat all at one time. This load­ed the boat to full capacity. After crossing the 150 foot wide slough, we would drive onto the mainland. This was unfamiliar to us and done with a new group of employees. Inexperienced help is always a problem but when management is also inexperienced the problems multiply. Manage­ment was inexperienced!

August 1935:
Tommy Dickerson was our Cat operator. After about three weeks of running it he drove it too far ahead on the ferry boat. The ferry tipped or dumped the tractor, wagon and logs all into about twelve feet of water. He wasn't hurt and the ferry boat came back up as it floated at water's level. Some of the logs came up but floated away. We had some men dive down and attach a cable to the wagon and we pulled that out. Then the tractor was pulled out. The financial loss was very severe as we were out of business two or three weeks. We did get going again with the same method but I drove the tractor on the boat from then on until we quit for cold weather ice.

I would like to tell about the mud, mosquitoes, and poison ivy. They were all over us. We had just never seen conditions like we had there. We came in at night like mud balls. Poison ivy made raw sores allover our body. Eventually, we did get immune to the poison ivy but never will get to where we can stand Mississippi River Swampland Mosquitoes. Never! I just don't have words to describe conditions that severe. We did survive. We now wonder how. Summer and fall snuck past at a fast pace. We had very little money but we were optimistic so we built a cabin on the mainland for each family.

Delbert's home was nearly completed and so was Walter's. Ours was closed in but not finished inside. Cold weather set in. We had primitive heat. It was cold, cold, cold. The water pail froze every night. Potatoes were left out doors and brought in as needed.

The slough that separated the island from the mainland was about 150 feet wide. As this slough froze over, we could not use the ferry boat. The idea was to have enough logs on the mainland to hold us over till the ice would hold the trucks. These plans just did not work out. We moved the portable sawmill on the island sometime about December. These plans were to haul the lumber out. (Logging had been a big disappointment.) The barge was too small for the Cater­pillar and wagon but OK for our trucks. Logging and sawing went well but the ice did not freeze solid enough to hold heavy trucks even with light loads.

Christmas Day 1935:
Walter and I carried "by hand" a 2,000 foot load of lumber over this 150 foot wide stretch of ice. We then loaded it on the truck. Hazel and I still talk about our first Christmas together. We needed to sell the lumber for payroll. By that time financial losses were so bad we were working on a shoestring and a weak one too.

Walter and Alice had their first born, a son, Burnette Walter, September 30, 1935. Hazel and I had our first born, a son, Lyle Ray­mond, March 15, 1936. Up until January 19, 1936 we were manag­ing, then the big storm hit! Yet today, historians list January 20,1936 until February 23, the coldest spell in recorded history. It never did get up to zero. Most of these days were twenty to thirty degrees below zero day and night. All roads were impassable most of the time.

Three of us walked through the timber (with four feet of snow to a river of ice) to Bellevue, Iowa, bought a few supplies, and walk­ed back, about a ten mile walk, just for something to do. It was 20° below that day.

There was a small grocery store about two miles South at Blan­ding, a railroad siding (stop.) We could walk and purchase groceries while we were snowed in during that three weeks. About this time we built a home-made V type snow plow out of lumber. This plow was to be pulled behind a Caterpillar tractor as we did not have a bull-dozer blade back then. We built a platform for the men to ride on when they werp not scooping snow.

We started for Hanover at daybreak. We did have phone service so the farmers were called to help open the roads and cut fences when needed. We mostly drove through fields as the roads were drifted higher than the Caterpillar could get through. But we had about ten farmers to scoop snow when needed. We drove about eight miles like this, then came to where the township road commissioner had opened the roads. The last four miles we drove on in with the men riding on the plow and tractor. Five miles per hour was the top speed. We got to Adam's Garage in Hanover at 1:00 P.M., got a bite to eat, got some supplies, and headed home. The thermometer registered 20° below zero in the sun.

About 5:00 the sun went down. I had ran that tractor about ten hours, twenty-two mile, 20° to 30° below zero. Two miles from home the older wiser men insisted I should walk the rest of the way home. I was the only Cat operator there so we drained the radiator and walked home. As I started to walk I realized my hips and bottom needed circulation badly.

Many years later, I would still thank those older and wiser men for forcing me, a young man, just twenty-one, to listen to their wisdom. Tractor seats back then were just the size of your bottom with no room for any movement. There was no cab or wind shield for protection either. I will always be grateful to them and will never forget that day.

Before we started out that day, I had put on all the clothes I had. Fred Hayes, Nellie's dad said, "Sheldon, put this on." It was a large sheep skin-lined coat with a large collar. A wonderful coat. I sure was glad to have it before that day was over but I had so many clothes on I dared not fall down.

From the age of nine, Alice was raised by an older sister and her husband, Edith and Raymond Allen of Sheffield, Illinois. These folks had a large family. Their oldest son, Buddy, came up to visit and work. On January 31, 1936 a tree limb fell and hit Buddy on the head. He died in a Freeport, Illinois Hospital on February 2. He was like a brother to all of us. This was a disaster. It made us realize how small our other problems were.

Soon after this tragedy, I was having supper with Jim Hammer at Hanover. I was feeling low about the loss of Buddy. Jim was helping us and buying large timbers and paying cash or even advances if needed. Jim had been in the infantry during W.W.I. in France. He told me he had to go over the top four times. They could not stop if a buddy went down that they had to keep right on going. He told me he had been gassed on the Western Front in France in 1918. (An unlisted casualty.) Germany was defeated and he came back.

After that talk, I knew life went on. Jim became a very good friend. He also died in 1940 at the age of 45. Jim and Buddy were the type of men you always remember.

The ice was solid now. 24" thick. We went ahead logging over the ice on the slough. Jim was buying timbers for the coal mines. The timbers were 16" square, 20 feet long, and weighed 2,500 pounds each. They were called mat timbers and used under the large electric coal shovels. We put the timbers out by the hundreds; loading them on railroad cars at Blanding, a railroad stop, one store, and three or four houses.

When the roads became impassible in March, we used the railroad right of way land. Our trucks made ruts so deep on the railroad property, I kept track and they were still there twenty-five years later and quite possibly still there now. The last days of logging March 1936:

There was mud, mud, and more mud! Our Caterpillar tractor broke down. A final drive gear went out. We couldn't get it repaired before the Mighty Mississippi rose over the top of everything, including the tractor and sawmill. We did get the sawmill power unit out though. We loaded this tractor on our barge and put it on the mainland. Our truck went through the ice but we had attached a steel cable to the frame so we were able to pull it out. But twelve feet of water was damaging to the vital parts, plus it took a lot of repair work to get it running again. Our first nine months logging the Mississippi were over. We learned a great deal, made a little money on the timber order, and lost a wonderful friend.


Walt and I were broke. We moved to Abington, Illinois. Jim Ham­mer financed us. We bought a sawmill from him on credit and us­ed his Caterpillar. During the Spring of 1936, we had a good job sawing near Ab­ington, Illinois. We logged with horses and Jim's Cat. We had hired some good help, Bob Ashbery, Lee Folger, and Glee Howater, all young men. We'd also hired about six older men, all good workers. In those days in the woods, we all ate lunch at the mill site and got acquainted with each other. These men wanted to know about Galena and the Mississippi River area. we told them about our Caterpillar under water and the beauty of Northern Illinois Hill Country.

As a group, these three young men offered their help free to get the tractor when the water went down. We accepted their offer, but told them it would be a hard hard twenty hour day of work. They were still eager and willing. We left Abington about midnight. Our cousin was to catch a train at Savanna so she, Walter, and myself rode in the cab and the three men rode in the box of the 1936 one and a half ton flat box Chevrolet truck. Forty miles per hour was the cruising speed. No more.

Taking time out for breakfast, we arrived at the slough on the Mississippi about 6:00 in the morning. About 140 mile trip. We laid a plank floor on some steel oil barrels and went across the 150 feet of water. The Cat was inland about fifty feet. We started by taking the tractor apart in small enough pieces for men to carry. We took the tractor weighing about 8,000 pounds all apart. We carried and rolled the pieces out on the small raft. I think we took about four raft loads across the water and loaded all the parts on­to the truck. The Cat tracks weighed 500 pounds each. They were the heaviest pieces. We rolled them.

Time out for sandwiches. An hour or two fighting those mosquitoes plus knee deep mud. Awhile before dark, we were loaded. The boys wanted to see Historic Galena so we drove the twelve miles there. We looked at the town awhile, got a hot lunch, and headed back.

We arrived back in Abington about 1:00. A twenty-five hour day! We were dirty, tired, and half eaten alive by mosquitoes but it was a day of accomplishments we were all proud of. Except for those mosquitoes, it was a very successful trip. I have never worked with a finer group of men. They enjoyed the trip and the experience. They received no pay, just their meals and our gratitude. I believe that may have been about the time I adopted the follow­ ing motto.

"Do the best you can with what you have at the time it needs done."

Delbert stayed only awhile. The river stayed up too long so he moved to the Peoria area. We can't say yet whether it was a suc­cess or a failure but we did find out why historians call it the "Mighty Mississippi!" We decided man has to log on frozen ground. Never in the spring or early summer.

We owed several bills but one in particular was a $65.00 bill to this doctor. When we realized the spring flood would cover the sawmill, we removed all saws and vital parts, belts, pulleys, misc. tools and equipment. This was all stored at Wyoming. We were out of money. Totally broke.

Later, in the summer, we found out this Doctor Logan had attached our sawmill for the $65.00 we owned him. He had hired peo­ple to go get the sawmill and store it in Galena. He was a tyrant. We knew he would not sell to us as we had the main parts. We had a friend, Jake Duvall offer him $100.00 for the sawmill. The doctor agreed. Again, I repeat, he was a TRYANT! When Jake took the the money to him, he asked Jake if he was buying for the Helles. Jake told him no. The doctor said,"Don't lie to me. I saw the Helle truck on the street. I know you are with them. You don't get the mill" In 1936, a sawmill without the vital parts was just junk. We had half of what it took for a sawmill. He had the other half.

Four years later, a friend of ours, Charlie Tobin of Hanover bought Logan's part of the mill for $35.00. Tobin let us have it for $35.00. The doctor had paid all court costs, attorney fees, plus $100.00 to get the mill out of the bottoms and four years storage. He lost his $65.00 plus several hundred more. A case where an extremely unreasonable man got his just dues. We did pay all our other bills except for the doctor.


March 1936: We were moving to Abington, Illinois. when our son Lyle was born in a hospital in Peoria. Hazel had been at her folks about the last three weeks prior to the birth. We logged and sawed in the Galesburg area for about two years.

February 1938: We moved back to the island timber. We rented houses in Hanover, then later moved into the three room cabin Delbert had built. Walter and Alice had moved into a farm home near by. By this time they had lost their first born, Burnette of pneumonia. They also had a second child, a daughter, Janice Arlene, born December 29, 1937.

The Army Engineers began to clear all the timber from the lowest land of the Mississippi Bottoms. Some contractors were giving logs free for the hauling.

After taking two years to ponder what went wrong in 1935 and 1936, we decided to move back. We sawed the mainland timber when the river was high. We logged the lowland if and when the ground was frozen AND the "mosquitoes" were gone. During February and March we got a lot of logs out over the ice. During Spring and early summer, we sawed some for other sawmill men plus we kept sawing our own logs. A busy time.

Using a small barge made of barrels and lumber, we moved horses onto the island. We would cut timber on the water's edge, skid logs, and roll them into the water, and float them to the mill sight where we had a cable across the slough. Then we would drag logs out of the water to the sawmill. This method worked fair.

A few stories on Chester Stratton: Chet, as we called him, was a strange but interesting fellow. he was from Savanna and was a logger by trade using horses. Chet and his son, Larry moved into a one room cottage next door. At first, we lost tools. We were told where they went, who took them, but no proof. Later, we became acquainted. Hazel would invite them in for coffee and sandwiches or just to be plea­sant. They liked her and our son, Lyle, who was about two years old at the time. All our tools came back.

Chet could and did out-swear any man I ever knew, but we got used to it, even though we did not approve. One time my Dad ask­ed if we would let some friends from Wyoming stay with us for Duck hunting. We said sure. They stayed about a week. Anyway, Chet talked to his horses in his professional way. As I said before, when it came to swearing at horses, he was in a class of his own. We later told him the one man was a Minister. Chet asked hazel why didn't she tell him these things. He would not have sworn like that in front of a minister for anything in the world, if he'd known. We all knew that minister was a more educated man when he left, but explained as best we could about Chet. Chet did have his standards. He limited his swearing around Hazel too.

In spite of Chet's ways, we liked him. He was about fifty-five years old. Much over-weight, a good sense of humor usually, but a violent temper when angry. Chet had a very good singing voice. In the evening, we men would go to town for supplies. He would ride along singing off­colored songs all the way. One night, Hazel wanted to go along. I knew we'd have to change Chet's songs for that trip. As soon as we started out Chet started singing loud and clear, "In the Garden." He sang church hymns all the way there and back. He never did sing the same song twice. A very interesting trip.

Chet lost his temper one day and started a fight with a guy named George Shumaker. Walt and I caught him, held him down, and George got away. George signed a complaint against Chet. The judge fined Chet $37.50. George loaned Chet the money to pay the fine. He didn't want him to spend any time in jail. When you have seen two men each weighing over 240 pounds, in a vicious fight, you have seen a fight you won't forget. A year later Chet left and went logging near Aledo, Illinois. for Webster Lumber Co. He lived in a cabin alone and died there. We were told he wasn't found for several days. He is buried at Lower York Cemetery, Thomson, Illinois.

The summer of 1938: We logged some out of the River Hill Country near Hanover. We also bought some river bottom logs from Amel Haase and his sons. We were able to pay our bills, live fair, but times were still rough. September 1938 of all months in the year was about the last month to expect a flood, but the mighty Mississippi is about the least predictable of any river I know. It flooded.

When we built the cabins, old timers, seventy five years old told us and showed us the high water mark. This flood went higher. The sawmill went under first, but we had moved all logging equipment out on high land earlier. The Mississippi is a slow river (no flash floods). You have plenty of time to get out of its path. When we knew our cabin floor would go under, we got ready to move out. We had a hole in the floor of the cabin big enough to stick a yard stick down to check the water.

Lye, about two and a half, measured nearly every hour. Lye would not sleep until he was certain the water would not get into the cabin. It was an exciting night, especially for a little boy who was so aware of what was going on. That water was rising an inch an hour. In the morning we found out the floor was not level as one corner had water seeping through. At no time were we afraid. We had moved in some barrels and lumber the day before. We put all the furniture up on a platform and went out the window on a plank where the land came next to the cabin. The one door was going under water. The water got six inches deep on the floor.

We visited with my family and Hazel's family. I worked with my brothers at Wyoming and Walt worked for Andy Sproule, another sawmill man. Ten days later we moved back. We cleaned the cabin as best as we could. We cleaned the sawmill area. Most of our saw dust pile had floated down the river. That was a help.

Our brother-in-law, Harrison Osborn, Charlotte's husband, had worked like a beaver to see that the sawdust went out with the flood. Today that is illegal. We did not even think of asking for help from anyone back then, but we did received invitations from brothers and sisters and our folks to stay with them as long as our home was flooded. We stayed with several of them for nearly two weeks total. We sawed all fall and early winter on hill timber and logs brought down the river by the Haase family.


The contractors moved in to finish clearing the lowlands for the flood control dams. The Army Engineers were putting in locks and dams to control the water level on the Mississippi. The job was to be finished between 1938 and 1939. We knew this job was coming to a close. We were preparing for this. We had a finance company at Toulon, Illinois. We had dealt with for years. We asked them to loan us some money. The finance company owner, Phil Dewey, said he would go in as a partner at 50% interest, no limit. He loaned us $5,000. The plan meant we would put a big crew on to log as again, the logs were free. The best logs we have ever seen. We hired three extra trucks besides our own. January, February, and March we logged as never before in our history.

Walter was sawing all he could with a small crew. I was walking from one crew to another over a three or four mile area of the river bottom. I was helping alii could when and where they needed help. We took the logs out over the ice. We logged close to 700,000 feet. We sawed all summer and fall. We paid every debt we owed, (except Dr. Logan.) We paid Phil Dwey, the finance company owner $7,500. If it had been 1980, we'd be talking of a $50,000 loan and a payoff of $75,000. Our method was: All logs were rolled on by hand the hard way or when too large we used a chain system to roll them on to the truck with Cat tractors. Also, to get the skilled help that knew how to log, we called on family, friends, and neighbors. Of course, some of them had no place to stay. Hazel and Alice each took in boarders. Walt and Alice had a big farm house with plenty of room. They had some nephews come up to work. They were top help. Dave and Lee Allen. We took in two men from Minnesota and a neighbor from down home, Everette (Smokey) Duvall. All skilled help. All good natured men. We had one spare bedroom which the three men shared.

A little about Smokey: He got a cold and coughed a lot. Now Hazel and I are total abstainers. Smokey knew this so he always asked Hazel if it was O.K. to take a nip of his special cough syrup (whiskey) to help his cold. It was all in fun. Hazel knew Smokey as they had gone to school together. She would tell him alright but not too much. We all knew he didn't take too much syrup. We still talk about Smokey's cough syrup, especially when we see him. A few years ago he saw our son Harley in Clinton, IA. He told Harley about his Whiskey cough syrup and the fun he had with Hazel. He was quite a character, but he knew what needed to be done and did it.

One day at the mill, I unloaded a barrel of gasoline and spilled some on myself. I got too close to a fire (we had fires as the mill was not inside). My clothes caught fire. I panicked and ran. Walt and two big Swedes saw me. I don't know if I fell down or was knocked down but I got my head in a snow bank and those three guys were all over me. No doubt they saved my life but nearly kill­ed me in the process. I was told the fire went ten feet high. Proves the old saying that the Lord takes care of children and damn fools. I was no child, just careless.


A look at life in 1938 and '39
When you are running a boarding house, even for just three men, it was different than with just the three of us. Hazel, myself, and Lyle, two and a half years old. However, at the time, we did not think of our boarders as such. They were our friends. Hazel, being a farm girl, knew how to manage. She was a neat, orderly, and smooth worker. She did a great job and I was proud of her. Generally, these log jobs would last about three months or less through January, february, and part of March. These men back in 1938 and '39 were easy to please as none of them were ac­customed to the finer things in life. Hazel had a way of making a simple lifestyle pleasurable.

As I was writing this story, Lorraine asked what type of food did we have. I said, "Different." We had two choices: "You take it or you leave it!" All joking aside, we ate well. Solid wholesome food. We had no refrigeration, but in the winter a cold corner of the home would freeze the food. We bought slabs of bacon or salt pork. Lots of beans and eggs. We had very little fresh fruit or fresh meat. We did have plenty of spaghetti and macaroni. Our breakfast meals were comparable to today's pancakes, oatmeal, bacon and eggs. We just didn't have the variety we have today.

Nearly all food was bought in bulk. There were no prepared foods except in cans or metal containers. Never any plastic. Very little, if any, glass. Also, we made most of our own syrup by boiling sugar and water together and maybe a little flavoring. We very seldom ate out and when we did it was usually a 5 cent hotdog or a 10 cent hamburger, plus coffee or pop for 5 cents.

I remember a few amusing incidents during the late thirties. We sold lumber to Andy Sproula. We also sawed his logs for him in our mill on a custom basis. Sometimes we would run his mill. He paid us $5.00 a day when the going rate was $2.00 per day. Good sawers were always paid premium wages.

Anyway, one Sunday Andy wanted to look at some special ash trees up the river. We had a small motor on our boat so I started out full throttle. Andy pleaded, "Slow down, Sheldon. Please, slow down some, please, my head is busting!" I was just creeping up the river, but Andy had a little too much to drink the night before. I could see a big advantage to being a nondrinker as I did not have a headache on Sunday mornings. Andy always told about the first time the Internal Revenue peo­ple checked his books. They asked if he would mind bringing the books to their hotel room. Andy agreed. Andy had done thousands of dollars worth of business, but threw all the cash receipts, checks, and records in a big box. No system at all. Just a big box full of paper. The IRS men took one look at that box and said, "Next year keep books and take that box home." We all thought this was funny. I still remember a story Andy told about a night below zero. He thought it would be too cold for the State Police and that it would be a good night to haul over-length long pilings, 60 foot long small trees.

Well, the police were out and when they stopped him both knew he was illegal. The load was way too long. Andy came down out of the tractor wearing nothing but a coat, no hat or mittens. They took one look and must have decided anybody poor enough or dumb enough to be dressed like that on a cold night like that need­ed sympathy. They said, "Get going and get the hell out of here. We are going the other way." Andy told me he laughed the whole trip through. The trip went just as he had planned. I have not heard from Andy for many years but was told he went South and was still in the timber business. Andy was a man you never forget.

I worked with one of our employees, Ed Smith from Galena. We hauled lumber to the railroad to be loaded on cars. Ed always in­sisted on doing more than his share. We were loading heavy planks manually (by hand). He would say, "You're too damn little. Let me do it." Ed was average size. I was small. We became close friends and I really did like Ed. He joined the Army in World War II and was killed in action in Germany. I have always believed perhaps, he was still saying, "Let me do it. Your are too damn little." That would have been like Ed. A great guy to keep in memory.

We had a wide plank for getting up and out to our barge. If the plank was not pushed up onto the barge and the river rose too much the plank would float away. One cold morning, Harry Osborn hollerd, "Hey Walt, that old devil let that plank float away again." Now the old devil that Harry was referring to was Chet Stratton, a big man. Chet was walking in new snow right on Harry's heels. Chet yelled out, ''The hell he did." After Harry got over the shock at that voice right behind him they both had a good laugh. Walt and I did too.

One morning Harry was to burn a slab pile. He took about four gallons of gasoline and used oil, mixed them together and threw it on the slabs. It separated. He was too close. A great explosion! It lifted him straight up! I yelled, "What happened?" Harry yelled back at the top of his lungs, "I just got the shit burned right square out of me!" His face was burned, but fortunately, did not leave scars. We still kid him about that morning. Harry was like Ed Smith. He has never been willing to do his share. He always wanted to do a little more. A great guy to work with and a great brother-in-law.

When Hazel and I were married, we had hopes for a great future. We decided to buy good furniture as we could afford it or wait. When we bought a cook stove (range) we bought a Kalamazoo. This stove was considered one of the best. It's advertisement slogan was "Kalamazoo Direct to You." We paid $5.00 down and $5.00 per month. I picked it up at the railroad station in Galena. The total price was $55.00 plus a very small interest charge. We used nail kegs for chairs and rough planks on saw horses for a table, but we did get that good stove. We moved this stove from Blanding at the Pechang Island home to Abington, Illinois., to Knoxville, to Gilson, to Delong, then back to the Island home, then to Dubuque, Iowa then Keosauqua, Iowa, back to Savanna, then four moves with in the town. We moved that stove a total of twelve times within eleven years. With Hazel's care it still looked like new. Then we bought a new bottled gas stove. We advertised our old stove for sale for $45.00. Some men stopped by with a truck, bought the stove, paid cash, and loaded it on the truck. One fellow said let's tie it on with the rope. The driver said no that he'd drive careful. It wouldn't falloff. I found out about two months later that they made one mistake. They stopped at a local tavern, drank too many drinks, and took the first curve too fast. That stove slid off the truck and was com­pletely destroyed. They really were sick when they picked up the pieces and hauled them to the dump.

One time we had a final drive gear go out on a Caterpillar trac­tor while it was on the island. We could walk over the ice, but the repairs had to be done on the island as it would not move. This job under ideal conditions in a warm building would take about eight hours. It was 20° below zero. Ivan DuVall and myself agreed to do the repairs. We knew we had to have the tractor the next day. We started about 5:00 P.M., put gasoline in five open top five gallon cans, and placed these heat cans in a systematic form to keep as warm as we could. Twelve hours later the job was done. This job consisted of taking the one track off, then removing the bogee or side of the tractor, then the gears, then replace all of the parts. Ivan and I, both had done this type of repair so we did have the big advantage of knowing what we were doing. Ike, as we called him, was one of those men you always remember.


The Amel Haase family lived two miles north of us in an old farm house. Amel and his sons, Bill, about twenty, and Owen, fourteen or fifteen, were helping their Dad log in the Mississippi bottoms. Logs at that time were free.

Backing up a little, I will describe as best I can about this time in history on the river: The Army Engineers had contracted to remove the lowland timber from millions of acres of flood land from St. Paul, Minnesota south to St. Louis. Each winter there were jobs for two or three months for thousands of men up and down the river. Men came from hundreds of miles around for the "Big Clearing Job." This lasted for three years.

The Haase family came from LaCross, Wisconsin. They never went back. They stayed in the area. We became close friends. One Sunday my brother, Joe came up for a visit. Amel stopped in for a couple hours, too. This was 1939. About a month later Joe said, "I think I know that guy. I think he was on the same grain harvest crew as I was eleven years ago in North Dakota." As soon as I saw Amel I asked him if he by chance, had been in the harvest fields in North Dakota in 1928. He said yes. That was his home and the boss, Mr. Cullum was his uncle. I thought brother Joe had a remarkable memory after eleven years but I do realize that a man 6' 6" with an amazing personality like Amel's would have been hard to forget.

The Haase's and the Helle's worked together and visited together for years. We still visit with Willie Haase and his wife from time to time. They live in Galena, Illinois. Amel, Owen, and Whitey, the younger brother, worked at Savan­na for several years then eventually moved away. Amel got cancer and died. He's buried at Porter in Southwestern, Minnesota where his parents had lived. What a mobile world. One day we heard about a family moving into a cabin about three hundred feet north of ours. This was an undesirable family, (troublemakers.)

We were very proud of our small neighborhood. Most worked at the sawmill, kept out of trouble, and were good people. We didn't want the trouble. Ed Smith, who worked at the mill, was angry. He said we should burn the D--- place down but Ed was a law abiding person so of course, he didn't seriously consider doing it. (Years later, Ed was killed in action in World War II in Germany. That night after Ed's comment, Hazel said, "Sheldon, come look. There's a fire." Sure enough the cabin was burning. A tar paper cabin with a straw mattress sure does burn fast!

I went up to Walt's. Owen Haase was there. I asked Owen who set the cabin on fire. Owen said, "What cabin?" I knew then who set the fire. Later, I found out he had told Walt, "Well, I set it off." (Meaning the fire.) A fifteen year old boy can get a little frisky at times! At the time I was slightly irritated, not because the cabin burned, but because I thought I'd get the blame. I was not blamed so all was well. The mill crew thanked Owen for keeping undesirable people out. Boys will be boys.

While we lived at Hanover times were hard. There was very little meat on the table. One day Walt and Charlotte's husband, Harry lifted a fish net. About the time they got their boat of fish they saw a motor boat coming in fast. Walt was throwing fish back in the water as fast as he could saying, "Destroy all the evidence." Right then they were caught. They asked the guys in the motor boat, "Is this your net?" They said no or you would have been shot before this.

When I saw Walt and Harry, were they excited! Walt would not go back but Harry and I waited till dark and we went back. Those were the best fish I ever ate. They lasted about a week. All we could eat. The Haases and the Helles had become friends with the Game Wardens. Just taking time to visit and having nice families no doubt helped.

Well, as most sawmill men on the river were now cutting govern­ment timber on higher land but still on the river bottoms, it was not free anymore. The people at the Rock Island Arsenal took control of all Federal land in the area. They started to inspect all sawmill operations to see who was cutting government owned timber. They were not charged with stealing but were charged for all timber estimated to have been cut. This could have cost a for­tune in those days.

About a month before the inspection started, our game warden friends told us to get out quick. He would see to it that we would not be charged. High water washed out most of our tracks. And we were never charged for the timber we cut. Neither was the Haase family, but we did know several loggers who were charged thousands of dollars. We were extremely grateful to our friends, the Federal Game Wardens for tipping us off. A lesson to remember is in this short verse: A man may be happy Without a fortune, but he can never be happy without a friend

One day, Walt, Alice, and Janice, about a year old, and Hazel and Lyle, about two an a half, Verle and Elmer, Hazel's brother, were all snowed in at a farm house about six miles south of Galena. It was nearly a six mile walk home. The farmer said, "You men can walk home but the women and those children are stay­ing overnight. We have room for them." The men were needed the next day at the mill.

About twenty five years later, a man walked into our sawmill office at Savanna. He asked if I was a Helle. I had never seen this man before nor have I seem him since. He asked if my wife was the small freckled face woman that stayed overnight south of Galena. I told him yes. He told me about the night of the storm and how nice those women and their two little kids were. He and his wife really enjoyed their company. He said it was a night they would always remember. I then told him how those two little kids grew up and how proud we were of both of them but that we had lost Lyle at the age of twenty in a tragic accident. I have said many times, Time does not heal such grief completely. That old farmer that I never saw but once made me feel very proud of my wife and sister-in-law. Great people! Of course, we are always proud of our children, especially when they are good kids like ours!

After we moved to Dubuque and then Savanna, we did not log the river until years later in 1944. An all new chapter in our lives on the river.


Down through the years, I have heard hundreds of tall tales. Some I do not believe. Some about half the story is believable. You be the judge, but a sawmill logging story would not be complete without a few "Tall Tales."

Back in 1935 I knew an old timer who was about seventy five years old. I was about twenty two. I am now sixty eight, so this story is obvious many years old and cannot be verified as absolutely true. He told me about this big turtle going up the Mississippi River. He was pushing all the water ahead of him and stirring up dust behind him. Now, forty five years later, I can tell you this much: I have seen huge turtles on the river so the first half of this story may have been true, but I have never in my life ever seen dust near the Mississippi. Always frozen ground or mud, mud, and more mud! So, I have reason to doubt that old timer's story.

This fellow named Harry was testifying in court The lawyer asked him his occupation. He said he was the best damn logger on the Mississippi River. Later, when he went back with his friends, one of them asked Harry why did he tell them he was the best logger on the Mississippi. Harry's answer was, "I had to, I was under oath."

This young lad about ten years old was on the witness stand in court and the lawyer said, "Sonny, were you coached by anyone?" The boy said, "Yes, Sir." He then asked, who coached him. His answer was, "My dad did, sir." The lawyer then asked, "What did your dad tell you?" The lad said, "My dad told me that a bunch of big shot lawyers would try to mix me all up but if I would just tell the truth, I would be alright"

Another young lad was six years old and had never spoken a word. One day he said, "Damn, these potatoes are salty." His shocked mother asked, "Son, if you can talk, why haven't you talked before this?" He answered, "Up till now everything has been alright"

I like to tell this story. It's nearly the truth. Back during the depression when the Federal Government started meddling in our business, this Federal man asked me what we paid each individual employee. I told him their pay scale. He wanted to know if we had' any other people working. I told him about the two halfwits. I told him we generally paid them what was left over, if any. He wanted to talk to one of them. I said, "You are."

One week end I bought a bunch of hammers reasonably cheap. ($1.50 each) I peddled them out for $1.25 then went back for more. I told the man I sold out at $1.25 a hammer. He said, "Helle, you can't do that. You pay me $1.50 a hammer." I said, "Beats running the sawmill"

Harry was carrying supplies up the gang plank to our barge. We had a 150 pound anvil. The plank broke under the heavy load; drop­ped Harry, plank, and anvil in the twelve feet deep water. The third time Harry came back up, he hollered, "If you guys don't help me I'm going to drop this damn anvil"

One year Chet Stratton rented some ground for growing melons. I helped him haul some soggy cow chips for fertilizing each in­dividual melon hill. Now, some of those hills must have been too rich a soil or too many soggy cowchips because we had some melon vines growing so fast they wore our melons out dragging them through the fields. One melon lodged in between the gate post. We cut a hole in the melon and drove our vehicles on through to the other side. We cut a hole in that side and drove on out. Fall came and Chet got careless. In that melon was an over ripe seed. It fell on Chet's horse and nearly killed it.

We did have lots of melons though. Chet sold a bunch. Hazel and I had all we could eat. Walt and Harry had all they could snitch. (They tasted better.) Enough foolishness, back to the true story.


Truth being stranger than fiction, from here on out will be the truth. We sawed railroad ties at Dubuque, Iowa We had sawed nearly thirty thousand ties for the Webster Lumber Co. We had learned a lot about high speed sawing. Walter ran the mill and I ran the boom truck. We had about ten other employees on the job.

We moved to Savanna, Illinois on October 7,1940. We kept our size 30 Caterpillar crawler (weight 10,000 pounds.) We had a boom truck with a power winch for loading logs, also used some for skidding out of the woods. We were logging some on the flood lands of the Mississippi River Tributaries. This was winter time logging. No mosquitoes. No mud. We logged highland in the spring, summer, and fall.

At Savanna with our own ideas and our own tools, we built our log boom so we could raise it to a high position for loading logs and lower it for skidding as well as for moving on the roads. This low boom allowed us under bridges and low wires. To our knowledge, this machine was the first of its kind anywhere in the Mississippi River area or the Midwest.

It was the beginning of modern power logging where you could load logs in fifteen minutes. Previously, that job took hours of hard manual labor. No manual or hand labor anymore. We were loading with small shifting levers. A new era. This made the small sta­tionary sawmill much more practical.

During the next three years there was little change at the sawmill. World War II; we had a small crew sawing crating lumber for gasoline powered light plants. These light plants were used for field hospitals or other military bases all over the free world.

1944: It had been nearly ten years since we first logged the river bottoms. We had logged several million feet of logs out of the lowlands besides our experience on the island. We acquired a lot of experience plus a lot of good modern logg­ing equipment. We had learned the hard way how to log the Mississippi River Bottoms, but time would show us that mighty river still could have some surprises in store.

1944: We had not logged the Mississippi since the winter of 1938 and 1939. World War II was raging. Both, Walter and I, had been deferred from military service due to our families. Later, a nation­wide lumber shortage developed and all sawmill people were given automatic deferments. We were sawing lumber for war materials shipped overseas.

The Mississippi River Bottoms are not level. At the time the timber was cleared, they had just cleared the lowest land that was to be flooded. This raised the river level. This was land next to the river (thousands of small sloughs or water pockets going into the river.) This left millions of acres of timber on the higher land. This timber was the best timber, but still on the bottoms in the flood plain. As our country needed more lumber for the war effort, they decided to sell some of this timber. It was sold to the highest bid­der. We, the Helles at Savanna, were the successful bidders on a tract of timber seven miles north of Savanna on the Markas Bottoms.

December 1944: We moved our equipment in. We had acquired some of the best logging equipment in the Midwest. We had a high speed log loader and a larger Caterpillar tractor. It had been nine years since we had started logging low land timber. We were, perhaps, at that time in history, close to the best loggers in the Midwest. We had learned how to log that ol' Mississippi River Bottoms. We had good help. Some are still with us like Waldron (Slim) Weirather and Loyal Brunner. Timbermen use different ways to describe timber. Some will say beautiful, good, wonderful. Some will say "it is the kind of timber that makes your eyes water." (For you farmers, it would have been a 200 bushel per acre crop.) The Markas Bottom timber was all of these plus it was the best timber we had ever seen before or since. We cut there three winters hundreds of thousands of feet. Our logging went so smooth, I do not have any special stories to tell.

We first skidded the logs out with the Caterpillar tractors to a main logging road, then we used a rubber tire boom truck to skid them out to a main loading area. After that we loaded them on trucks with the boom truck we had built. (Some logs were so big, two or three logs made a load.) Some loads we could load in five minutes.

I remember one cottonwood tree that we had to cut the logs eight feet long as we could not handle the weight in longer lengths. We cut eight logs 64' to the first limb. The timber was all marked by the Forestry Department of the government. We cut only the large trees and left small ones to grow for future cutting. We have cut this same timber two times since: once in 1958 and again in 1965.

In the 1930's, the C.B.&Q. railroad (now the Burlington Northern) put into service a high speed diesel train. This Burlington Zepher passenger train was, at that time, considered to be the fastest in the nation.

From Savanna, Illinois to Prairie duChien, Wisconsin, it averag­ed 84 M.P.H. for 54 miles. Our long trucks had to cross these tracks. The train could be seen about a mile away. Our arithmetic told us that this train moved close to a mile and a half a minute. We had about forty seconds to cross those tracks. Our trucks were short. No long trailers like we use today, but it still kept us on our toes. We don't remember any close calls, but do remember always being nervous. The last time we logged, we put a man on the tracks to watch for trains.

One time we logged when the ground was still frozen solid, but the river went on a rampage. We skidded logs day and night till after dark. The last days we worked through water nearly two feet deep. We finished our contract, moved all the equipment out after dark, and the next day the water was twenty inches higher. By then it would have been impossible to have logged. We had learned to log even if it was twenty or thirty below zero. We worked long days, even on Sundays as long as the ground was frozen solid. We got out of the bottoms when it got muddy. Walt had said many times, "When nature makes a boulevard out of the bottomlands and kills the mosquitoes, then is the time to log." Over the next thirty years we logged over twelve million feet of logs out of the Mississippi River Bottoms. We logged over a million feet out of the Markas Bottoms.


The Green Island Bottoms - 1948
Green Island, Iowa in 1948 was a very unique little village; population, about two hundred people. It sits at the foot of a very high cliff. Some of the homes are up high on the hill and some are down on low land. The Milwaukee Railroad went right through town. Most of the homes are between the railroad tracks and the cliff on one main street. This street was two blocks long in 1948. It still had a hitching rack for tieing horses though, I never did see horses tied there. It had a church, a school, one tavern, and one store. It had the railroad depot and a railroad siding where we loaded many loads of logs. We bought supplies at the little store and got well acquainted with the lady that ran the store. Our crew was a group of well man­nered men, not at all like the loggers were expected to be. We were a part of that new generation of loggers that were a part of the twentieth century.

Thirty years later, Walter was attempting to buy a tract of timber near Green Island. The lady that ran that little store owned the timber and had not decided to whom she would sell to. She asked Walt if he was Sheldon Helle's brother. He told her he was. She then told him she would sell the timber to him. She added that Sheldon always treated her nice and she hadn't forgot. Green Island is just south of where the Maquoketa River enters the Mississippi, fifteen miles down stream from Bellevue, Iowa, and twenty miles up from Savanna.

There is a 5,000 acre levy district between the river and the bluff. Green Island is at the edge of this levy district. To the best of my judgment, the levy was about forty or fifty feet high, a hundred feet wide at the base, and thirty feet wide on top. We bought the timber in this tract (about three million feet on about three thousand acres). All the timber was behind the levy. This levy had been there since 1888. We started logging in the winter of 1948 and 1949. We had ac­quired more trucks and more logging equipment. Also, we had hired brothers, Bud and Charlie Brock (just out of high school), but very good help. We'd hired Phillip Hottenstein and Don Fitzsimmons, Wayne and Glen Doty, also brothers and farm boys. All good steady workers. Of course, we still had Slim and Loyal, and Harry Osborn, all old hands by then. We also had part time help. I was there all the time and Walt was there most of the time. We didn't saw steady so Walt sawed as needed.

We still did not have a dozer for building roads so we had to build our log trails the hard way. We cut stumps level to the ground. We cut and skidded logs so fast the trucks could not keep up. Old timers from Green Island told us the levy had been there sixty years. It would be safe to pile the logs out by the road near Green Island. We stock piled over one hundred loads of logs about one mile from the timber near the road. We expected to haul the timber to the sawmill in the summer. They were still behind the levy, protected, we thought, from the Mississippi and Maquoketa Rivers.

On February 13, it started to rain. We had to quit hauling the logs. We moved the trucks and loading equipment out. We left one log skidder safe inside the levy with our stock pile of logs. It rained about three days and three nights up through Northeast Iowa, to about 150 miles west of Dubuque. Temperatures went up so high the snow melted along with the rain. The ice, about two feet thick on the Maquoketa broke up and great cakes of ice indescribable came down the Maquoketa River. Some cakes were maybe two feet thick and 100 feet square. There was no way to realize the magnitude of all this ice coming down the river.

During normal years in history, the ice would break and float out of the Mississippi first. According to all available records this was the only time before or since that the Mississippi ice did not leave first. That year that 01' river gave us another one of its surprises. About ten o'clock that night, the people at Green Island realized something was wrong. Some men got a boat and removed the people from the lowlands that were flooding. It was hard to believe, but the great chunks of ice from the Maquoketa had piled so high on the Mississippi ice that the water went clear over the levy tak­ing out a 200 foot section. Some people estimated that the water rose three or four feet per hour. The people were safe, but many did lose their livestock.

Our several hundred big logs were up to one mile away where the wind had blown them and carried them on the flood waters. They were scattered over thousands of acres. It was a loss of several thousand dollars to us, but the loss was bad for all concerned. A case of where the Mighty Mississippi did not give. It just would not take that much water. As we said before, the Mississippi calls the tunes. We did not get the log skidder out until June. Then, we had to get a farmer to help pull it out with a good team of mules.

In any big job there are interesting incidents; some amusing, some sad, some we forget. I do remember a few worth mentioning.

Green Island is directly across the river from the sprawling Savanna Army Depot. One cold winter night one of the underground storage igloos blew up with 150 tons of explosives. The explosion was heard up to 100 miles away. The people at Green Island still talk about that night.

Savanna had considerable damage as did Hanover. Green Island was the worst hit, but no injuries. There were no injuries at the Army Depot either, but years later there were still great chunks of concrete lying around. That was a night to remember. All phones were jammed. We found out by radio that the explosion was right at home.

One day Slim and I were coming home with the semi tractor trailer loaded with logs. Loyal Brunner had the straight truck about a half a mile behind us. I knew we might have trouble with the trailer as the roads were solid ice. I also knew of a side road which was level. We decided to take this side road and miss the hill. Loyal did not see us leave the main road so he thought he was behind us. Since having a straight truck on ice, he expected to catch up with us in our semi. He didn't know about the side road so didn't think it possible for him to be ahead. At the Savanna bridge he asked if we had crossed. They told him no. At the sawmill he asked again. He could not figure how it was possible to pass a semi on icy roads without seeing it.

Slim and I came in a few minutes later. Loyal wanted to know where we'd been. Now, Slim being a practical joker said in a calm voice, "Didn't you hear our horn?" From the look on Loyal's face, we told him quick about the side road. We wanted him to keep his sanity.

Another time Slim and Loyal were coming home together. They had the new tractor with a load of logs. Slim was driving. When they came in the muffler was blown wide open full length. I asked Slim what happened. He started to grin. Slim told how he was going down this long hill and passing a fellow with a tractor and wagon. I shut the switch off for a while then turned it back on. Boy! Did I ever scare the h-ll out of Brunner. The explosion was bigger than Slim expected. I think it scared some out of Slim too.

On the Green Island bottoms, the American Eagle was very pro­minent. We could see many of them in a season. It was truly a great sight to see the eagle on his home territory.

We logged with our homemade log skidders. We had three of them made out of trucks. We used booms, power winches, and cables on the the trucks, no cabs or fenders, just a seat. We skidded down these water ways on ice, slick and smooth as glass.

"Boys will be boys." Phillip Hottenstein, (Pugh) and Don Fitz­simmons, called (Pinhead) were in a race side by side. Pugh was passing Pinhead when Pinhead's truck hit a stump sticking up through the ice. Pugh's story was: Pinhead hung on to the wheel for dear life, went straight up, then back down. When his bottom hit the seat with all those coil springs, he flew through the air about eight or ten feet high, then landed on his bottom and kept right on sliding down the ice for forty or fifty feet. When Phillip found out Pinhead was not hurt he decided it was funny. We thought it was funny too, but we're not sure how Pinhead felt.

We, Walter and myself, would take our families out on the ice on Sundays and play, "Slide on the ice." We'd try to find eagles, but those old birds stayed further back in the timber. The following summer, ten people were in one boat. All from the same family. A grandfather, mother, and their family. The boat went down and eight drowned. Two swam to safety. All the more reason to respect the Great Mississippi. We walked all over these many thousands of acres while cruising the timber in the summer time. Then, we logged millions of feet of logs on frozen ground, then logged again in August and September. It was exciting! We affectionately called them the Okee Finokee swamps.

We logged again about five years later up river about three or four miles. It was a great timber, a good crew of men, several million feet of logs. We were there about three or four winters over several thousand acres. We left all small trees for a new crop of timber in the 1980's or 90's. At this time in history (1982), we perhaps might have been logging there, but the Environmental Protection Agency, with their do-gooders, plus the Sierra Club, plus Isaac Walton League, all have successfully stopped logging on the Mississippi bottoms. These people do not fully realize the life of a tree is limited. Because of their ignorance, we are losing hundreds of millions of feet of our beat timber every year.

In just one trip from Savanna to Sabula you can see hundreds of dead trees. Some standing, some down, all rotting out due to the ignorance of a few people. Only a logger can really see the terrible waste of our natural resources caused by such a small number of people. I could understand a natural disaster much easier, but for man to allow this is pathetic. We have logged millions of board feet of timber out of the hill country up and down the river. We expect to log more. This is own­ed by the farmers but the government owns the bottomlands and that's where the trees are dying.


In the late 1950's and early 60's, we were successful in purchas­ing several million feet of timber from the U.S. Army. This timber was on the lowlands next to the Mississippi River at the sprawl­ing 14,000 acre Savanna Army Depot. One million feet of logs would load close to 200 railroad cars or a train two miles long or 350 eighteen wheel tractor trailer loads.

Backing up a little to past history, during the Civil War the Rock Island, Illinois Arsenal played a very important part in furnishing the big guns it took to win the Civil War. The Arsenal is still very important in the defense of our nation. It also has a Military Cemetery located there with both Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. In 1917 during World War I the Army purchased the land ten miles north of Savanna. It was to be used for testing big artillery. They lobbed the shells several miles out into the timber by the river. This area was officially called the Savanna Proving Grounds operated as part of the Rock Island Arsenal.

During World War II, the Savanna Proving Grounds had over 8,000 employees, mostly civilians, but some Army Personnel. The first bombs dropped over Tokyo in W.W. II were loaded here. This flight over Tokyo from carrier-based planes was made by the Famous Jimmy Dolittle Squadron.

This 14,000 acre tract was considered to be one of the three largest ammunition storage areas in the U.S. It has since been named the Savanna Ordinance Depot and then Savanna Army Depot. Actually, the full name is Savanna Army Depot Activity Satellite of Letterkenny Army Depot. Chambersburg, P.A. In logging this timber we moved most of it two times. The rules were we could not haul logs if the roads were soft. So, we logged on frozen ground about two to four miles to a higher land storage area. We unloaded, then hauled them to the sawmill during the summer months when the roads were dry. This was a satisfactory way of moving timber year round. There are no tall tales on this job. It went too smooth.

We had good equipment for loading and unloading. By this time in history we had converted to Caterpillar tractors with frontend loaders using forks. This was an all new world of logging. The days of hard, hard work were changing. We logged several years on this timber. I did not personally help as we had qualified trained men. Actually, the Green Island Bot­toms were the last timber that I helped on. I had been logging thirty years from 1928 till 1958. I am at this time in 1982 still active, but I stay at the office most of the time. It has been 54 years since I started skidding logs with horses in the Spoon River Country back in 1928.

We were perhaps about the most efficient loggers on the river. Some days with good luck about ten or twelve men could log up to fifty or sixty thousand feet per day on a two or three mile haul. Many loads were loaded in two or three minutes.

The Forester was hired by the government. He cruised the timber. At eleven million feet, growing about a million feet per year, this timber would sell at about 40,000 dollars on the stump. The Do-gooders, as we called them, the Izaak Walton League and the Sierra Club, had successfully stopped all logging on the Mississippi. We had paid many thousands of dollars for timber on this land. A tract was sold about four years ago. The high bidder barged the logs to Fort Madison, Iowa.

Our next job was about ninety miles up river at Cassville, Wisconsin. We also got a job at Nine Mile Island, five miles below Dubuque, Iowa Both of these jobs were about 1964-1967. Both were islands. Another era in history.

Back to rafting logs on the Mississippi. It was a lost art. We had to start from scratch. We hired some people with a barge to take our machinery to the Cassville Island. I was not involved in the early logging at Cassville due to the heavy workload on pallets, I stayed at the plant in Savanna.

Walter, his sons, Vernon and Joe, plus several other men, including Harrison Osborn, were there. They stayed at a motel and worked long days. Our method was to skid the logs to the edge of the water with the Caterpillar tractor. Then push them in the water, with the men in the boats and on the logs. The logs were all tied together with chains in rafts. There were several hundred logs in each raft. The problems with this method was a story of its own, but proved to be a long tedious job, though we did avoid injuries. we also realiz­ed the danger of drowning.

The rafts were floated and pushed with motor boats to Savan­na, then lifted out with a motor crane and hauled to the Savanna sawmill. With all the elements, plus locks and dams on the river, it took so much time that we knew there had to be a better way. One of the elements was rain and fog. History buffs claim that from Dubuque, Iowa to a hundred miles out there has never been a drought that destroyed the crops.

When we were at Dubuque in 1940, it rained nearly all summer. We had to work in the open with all this rain and we became like frogs. Two years later at Savanna I met Wilber Nichols. They had moved from Southwest of Springfield, Illinois. In April 1941 or about that time, it was still raining. Wilbur asked me if it always rained up here like this. In a joking way I told him I didn't know as I had only been up here eighteen months. At Cassville it rained for weeks three or four days in a row. When the log rafts would start out it would fog them in. And the weather was one big reason to discontinue log rafting on the Mississippi. I have heard the men tell how they would drop anchor partway home on the river in fog. They could hardly see one another. This could last two days sometimes. This crew was Joe Helle and John Maag (now deceased). Walter made several trips down to Savan­na, too.

We started building our own barge, but kept on rafting. Some of the rafting was from the island five miles south of Dubuque. All told, we logged twelve rafts. They averaged over 90,000 feet per raft or a total of over 1,000,000 feet of logs or 6,000 tons.

1965: We had purchased a four wheel drive front end loader for loading logs. The barge was ready to use. We had decided against rafting. It had been too costly and too dangerous. We had about 100,000 feet of logs on the river bank at the Cassville Island. These logs were ready to load. We decided on a new way which we had not tried before. Our plan was to put the Caterpillar front end loader on the island. Our barge had a platform we called an apron. It could be raised and lowered by cables. It was like a gang plank, but large enough for big machinery like our caterpillar or four wheel drive front end loaders. We moved onto the island two miles down stream from Cassville. We then loaded the barge with the frontend loader, one or two at a time. This was a small barge, eighteen feet wide, by thirty feet long, and four feet deep. The logs were carried up the ramp onto the barge. The barge would carry about fifty tons or two or three trailer loads. We could load it in about an hour, then with a motor boat, push it up stream to Cassville. We then unloaded it the same way we loaded it. We had the rubber tired loader at Cassville.

With nearly all new equipment, heavy, heavy enough to do the job, John Maag (Big John) was our boat man for pushing the barge. George Yeager was a professional machine operator with ten years experience in logging. With myself to boss the job, we moved in Thursday morning. We worked steady and by Saturday we were done. We had moved the entire 100,000 feet of logs out to the mainland at Cassville in three days. Trucks would haul them to Savanna. This job had gone so smoothly and easily, I knew we had reached another plateau in history. The days of rafting the logs on the river were over.

We moved to the Nine Mile Island five miles from Dubuque. Ver­non Helle supervised this job. We used a new four wheel drive rubber-tired log skidder with Herb Wisconsin as operator. Vernon used a Case crawler. Its weight was 22,000 pounds. This is where we found mud, mud and more mud. We also found out the big four wheel drive rubber-tired machine would go through mud while the track type crawler would bog down. Another new era in history.

We moved the logs over the water the same way we did at Cassville. We logged about three million feet of logs out. I can also say that was the first job where we had trouble with the people. Some of them resented loggers. It was so much different than the welcome we had received at Green Island. Some of the people who resented us started our high priced equipment and tried to ruin them by trying to run them in the river. There were many acts of vandalism too numerous to mention. We moved out. It was October and winter was closing in.

The next summer we moved back, but to avoid vandalism we installed our own generator set. We kept a twenty four hour, seven days a week crew in the house boat. They also kept the lights on all night. The job was completed on time. We were able to stop the vandalism, but the Izaak Walton League and the Sierra Club both stopped the sale of the bot­tomland timber. What a waste. The trees are dying now by the hundreds of million feet.

A Summary Of Changing Times
1928: We were logging with horses.
1933: We acquired a used Caterpillar tractor
1941: Power winches were used on rubber tire log skidders. 1941: We also acquired a larger Caterpillar.
1942: Power winches were used to load logs on the truck.
1951: A new Caterpillar with rubber tired log carts, plus power winches. With this method, we could use multiple cables called chokers. We could skid several logs per trip.
1966: We started using the large four wheel drive rubber tire skid­ders. These machines are still used today.

Our method of loading logs changed also during the fifties. We used cranes with a drag line. During the late 1950's and early 60's we started using the four wheel drive rubber tire fork trucks. We still use these great machines today. We also use the now famous "Knuckle boom", log loader. Some people call them "cherry pickers". They are mounted on trucks and much more portable than the four wheel drive loader.

We have seen these changes. I am sure we will find better ways in the future, but we have come a long way. It has been challeng­ing, interesting, and even some fun during these "changing times."

For the help on this story:
Thanks to my wife, Hazel, and our children, Louise, Harley and Lorraine.
Thanks to Louise's husband, Konrad, for encouraging me to put my memories in print.
A special thanks to Lorraine and Hazel for the many hours of typing and retyping over the past few years.

Dear Mother
At the table I am sitting on a chair
And I am thinking of you folks up there
I will take some words mix around
I think of Harrison who is a great guy
He shakes your hand and looks you in the eye
He cuts down trees with a chain saw
Us boys think he is a fine brother-in-law
I think of Charlotte his slim tiny wife
When there is a party, boy is she the life
Now I also like to tease her
Now everything in fun we will take
I don't want anybody to feel bad for my sake
Now there is Sharon a lovely Mrs.
Always been one of my favorite misses
The floor is cluttered with toys
Left there by her little boys
And Crystal that cute little dove
A sweet little girl with eyes full of love
Now has a man and girl so dear
Soon be another her time is near
Now Walter, I want you to him tell
That a load of fat cattle I did sell
My taxes to pay, I needed the m oney
Now don't laugh, that ain't funny
Then there's Alice and her blueberry pie
You can't equal them, don't try
And I think of Vernon and his family
And his wife a pleasure to see
Then Stanley and his wife
They have brought into the world a new life
And before, onward I go
I never forget the one we called, "Little Joe"
And how he did use his feeble bad eye
When the wind did lift the girl's skirts up high
And next is Sheldon who gets mean when he drinks
He loves a good story, from telling one, he never shrinks
And Hazel always gracious in spite of her sorrow
May her grandchildren cheer her tomorrow
Now Harley who ever since he was able to suck
Has wondered how much wood can a woodchuck chuck
Now to Gail so fair and slim
He watches the calories, keeps his belly trim
And Berniece his charming spouse
Cook the meals and keeps a neat house
Now there are more up there I love
Including those in heaven above
On April the 2nd I want to bring Geo. and Ruth
That is my desire, that is the gospel truth
We want to stay Saturday night
Where we can enjoy each other's sight
So pass the word around
We will soon be Savanna bound

- Written by Royle Helle
From his book "Inspirational Gems of Spoon River Valley and Hills of Tennessee"

Click here for -
Helle Family Memories

The Twelfth
Written by Charlotte Helle Osborn

The Western Expedition
Written by Sheldon Helle in memory of his son Lyle Helle

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The Helle Family in Fulton County IL

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