The crew of six men, shanty boys, as they were known had been working since dawn. The weather was spring warm and they wore colorful wool shirts in red, green and blue. Some wore jeans, others were in brown canvas pants, precursors to Carhartts. Some of the crew was French, as shown by their grey berets. “Deplacez ce bois,” said Jacques to Pierre as they shoved giant White Pine timbers down the sparkling, pristine river. They balanced on the wood—poking the timbers with cants and pikes, to better maneuver the logs down the river to mills where they would be stripped of bark and used to make sofas, chairs and desks for Grand Rapids’ burgeoning furniture industry. The smell of pine filled the air and their hands and boots were tacky from the sap.
The work took coordination like an orchestra—for everything to work on the river—the men had to be working in unison despite the noise and chaos. One wrong move and a man could slip under a log and not be found until the raft of logs met the sawmill, sometimes days or weeks later. In his four years of logging, Mike, the crew leader had not lost a man to drowning. It would be part of his job though, to retrieve a body if one of his men were to slip. He dreaded even the thought of it. In a grey shirt with suspenders at over six foot four, he was tall among men in the 1860’s, but led his men with a fair hand. “Ok let’s move these logs and watch out,” he called. The water was high, ideal for the work they would do that day, all for the pay of $20 a month. And all the food they could eat.
Just before lunch it was over. Just like that, the men were toppled, sprawled among the logs and in water. Only Mike remained standing. His crew, for the most part was face up, except for Karl. He lay facedown across three logs almost cheek to cheek with Pierre. Both were wearing bright green shirts that caught Mike’s eye. “Karl, are you ok?” he called, trying to get his friend’s attention. Mike felt glued to his log, he could not move to help his men.
It was horrible. Pike poles and cants were tossed everywhere like toy Pick Up Sticks. There was no blood that Mike could see, and oddly, the men were still smiling. Jacques and Pierre’s berets remained firmly on their heads, but a log had fallen on Jacques face. Mike averted his glance. “It’s all over,” he said.
It wasn’t a logjam or a dam letting loose that took the men, it was the digital age that ended the life of this diorama log crew.
The word diorama was first used in the early 1800s and literally means “through that which is seen.” Dioramas are still used in museums as they have been since the 1900s. Some are life-size, like those with animal specimens. Dioramas give context to objects, showing animals in a habitat cavorting with other species that might be in the nearby woods or stream. Miniature dioramas, like the loggers at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids Archive help tell stories that otherwise people might not be able to understand, that of frontier life, a famous battle in a war or a peek into a one room school house. Dioramas are detailed and complicated, just like the lives of the people depicted.
But, as more modern story telling devices are used, old dioramas are sent to the archive where they remain, protected and preserved, but probably not to be displayed again.
Roberta F. King is the Vice President of PR & Marketing at Grand Rapids Community Foundation and outside of her writing about philanthropy, her work can be found in Solace magazine and in The Rapidian. Presently she is completing work on a memoir with the working title, I Was a Mother. When Roberta isn’t writing, she might be running, reading, cooking vegetarian meals or traveling with her long-time (first and only) husband, Mike Miesch.