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Sarah Nigbor column: It's wood cutting weather

Sarah Nigbor is a regional editor of RiverTown Multimedia 

This time of year I get antsy. Old feelings flair up and I feel the urge to be in the woods. With frost sparkling on the ground, leaves turning brilliant hues, woodsmoke in the air and the shrill cry of birds migrating south. To me, it's wood cutting weather.

That's what autumn meant in my house growing up. My mom and I lived with her parents until I was almost 13, on a small hobby farm just east of River Falls. My grandpa Harlan Lundgren, a retired dairy farmer (he also worked as a custodian at UW-River Falls until 1985), always perked up when fall rolled around. I think it was his favorite season. It was time to get into the woods and cut wood.

Did he have to cut wood? No. We didn't have a fireplace or woodstove in the house, just a small one in his wood shop. But he did not believe in being idle, and selling firewood was a good second income. He also had the nice logs planed into lumber, for his woodworking hobby. Plus, it allowed him to be in his favorite place, out in his woods.

Growing up, I was my grandpa's shadow. My dad died when I was almost 3 years old, so my grandpa became my father. He also became my hero. There was no man who worked harder. He was digging fence posts just weeks shy of his 94th birthday, the week that he died.

When I wasn't in school, I'd help my grandpa cut wood each fall. I loved the feeling of the wind on my face as I rode on the tractor's drawbar out to the wood lot, clutching my grandpa's coat as he rode high in the seat of his red International. I was also overwrapped in coveralls, a cap and a huge jacket as my grandpa worried I'd be cold. I always shedded those garments within 10 minutes of arriving.

My grandpa only cut the dead trees on his 27 acres and the 40 adjoining him. He was a careful steward of the land. One of my earliest memories is playing "house" among the downed logs, and helping him stand up small trees the tractor had run over.

We had our routine with our designated jobs. Grandpa would fell the trees with his temperamental Stihl chainsaw, drag them out of the woods behind the tractor with a chain, then cut them in chunks with the Stihl, or the equally crabby Husqvarna. (I also learned cuss words in the woods).

My job was to run back and forth as quick as I could, piling chunks and longer branches onto the trailer, which we would haul back to the wood splitter by the barn. It was satisfying to see my mountain grow, and my goal was to never keep my grandfather waiting.

Sometimes I rode with him into the woods, as I worried when I heard the International balk or a tree got stuck in another tree (called a widowmaker). I'm not sure what a little girl (and later teen) could've done, but at least I was keeping an eye out.

At about mid-morning, we'd stop for a break. Grandpa would pull out a beat up coffee thermos, and I would chug ice cold water from the jug. Grandma usually sent some cookies, a welcome treat. We wouldn't head home until we had a full trailer, and then we ate lunch in Grandma's cozy kitchen. The days we had chili were my favorite. We'd sit a bit, and soon Grandpa would grab his cap and say "Well, I spose..." and out the door we'd go for the afternoon.

Usually about sunset we'd roll home with another trailer load. Then it was time to split everything into stove length pieces to pile into cords. I remember when Grandpa split it all by hand; he was tickled to get the splitter run by a belt hooked to the International. He usually cut about 30 cord a year.

One of my proudest moments was piling one cord is less than 30 minutes, as the wood came off the splitter. My grandpa laughed and laughed, and told me I scurried and worked harder than any man. I'll never forget that moment, those autumn days, or him. It's wood cutting weather.

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in Febraury 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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