Norman Barnhart: A Legendary Logging Camp Superintendent
November 21, 2021
A Man with “A Fearfully Bad Temper at All Times”
The nineteenth century lumber industry was a very difficult and risky business, that had very tight margins, and those who survived generally tried to employ the least expensive labour possible—except for a few positions like hewing square timbers that required skill. John Langton described the workers as “a light-hearted set of dare devils and the greatest rascals and thieves that ever a peaceful country was tormented with.”
Most timber barons believed that they needed a very strong willed man to keep all these “rascals” in line. Mossom Boyd of Bobcaygeon, who was among Canada’s most successful timber barons, had Norman Barnhart. He was one of the strongest, toughest, hardest driving and most feared men in the shanties—without doubt one of the very best at his job. His friend and protégé, George Thompson described him as having:
A fearfully bad temper at all times, and was liable to ‘blow off’ at any time, although his bark was usually worse than his bite, for none after all had a kinder heart than he… He was of a surly disposition, but when he chose, and that was seldom, he could display amiable qualities in a huge degree. When in one of those moods he would sometimes be as playful as a young bear, but about as safe to fool with as an old one. … Norman had a habit of visiting the depot shanty when all the crew were in, and he would take a seat on the foreman’s side and remain there for hours at a time with his head down in utter silence. Not a word would he speak, nor would he take the slightest notice of any one. All the same, not a word or move escaped his attention.
Around the shanties, Barnhart’s word was law.
One day, another shanty boss, “Black Alick” Macdonald decided to pull a prank on Barnhart:
There were a number of barrels of pork piled up at one end of the shanty; Alick took the head out of one of the barrels and took out half the meat, then put the head back in the barrel. All the river crew, consisting of nearly 100 fine strapping fellows, were in the shanty when Norman came in, and nearly all of them were aware of the job Alick had on hand. Shortly after Norman had taken his seat Alick got up, and with a big oath, said in a loud tone of voice, that he was going to do what no other man in the camp could do. Alick said if any one thought he could, to follow his lead, at the same time picking up the barrel that had been tampered with and walked out of the shanty with it on his shoulder. Norman in an instant was on his feet. He strode over to where the barrels of pork were piled, and picking up the first he came to, shouldered it and followed out through the door, and took a turn around the chip yard at Alick’s heels. Both laid their barrels down at the same place. A storm of applause from the crew followed as soon as Norman had laid his full barrel of pork down. He, without a word or even a look at the crew wheeled on his heel and marched out of the shanty. I may say that a barrel of pork weighs nearly 350 pounds, but the great difficulty was in getting through the doorway five feet square.