During the second half of the 19th century, the vast forests around Eau Claire seemed endless and lumberjacks worked long hours throughout the season to harvest millions of trees and float them down the Chippewa River to market. 

Unfortunately, the enthusiasm to cut down trees exceeded the forests themselves, and by 1910, the Wisconsin logging industry was done and the landscape was forever changed. 

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Photographs, clothing, tools, and other memorabilia help visitors imagine what the life of a lumberjack in Wisconsin would have been like. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Capturing that piece of history, the life of a lumberjack in a logging camp during the peak of their work in Wisconsin, is the goal of the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum.

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The blacksmith shop at the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum is filled with items that kept the logging camp running. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia


“We want to make you a part of the lumber camp and immerse you in what it was like to be a sawyer or a swamper,” said Mike Ekenstedt, executive director, “and see what it was like to live in a place for four months where your place in society was based on how skillful or dangerous your job was.”

Ekenstedt said visitors often ask what life was like for a lumberjack, and he tells them it is like kids at a summer camp — some had a great time and some just wanted to go home.

“Most camps had three to six languages spoken in them,” Ekenstedt said. “It was young men from across northern Europe and America coming into the north woods and working for four months straight, 12 hours each day, six days each week. They were paid a dollar a day, which translates to $24.50 today.”

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After working 12-hour shifts, the lumberjacks would have been happy to return to the bunkhouse for a night’s rest. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

In 1890, one out of every six trees chopped down in North America was floated down the Chippewa River, and as the settlers moved farther west, they needed wood to build homes and farms on the prairies of Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota, Ekenstedt said. The railroad ties and buildings covering the Great Plains were built from Wisconsin and Minnesota timber. 

 “Without the logging industry and this time period,” he said, “there is no great expansion of the American story.”

While these events seem like the historical past, the repercussions of those times still affect Eau Claire, the region, and beyond today, according to Ekenstedt.

“Wisconsin became the nation’s dairyland because we were out of trees,” he said. “What do you do with those empty fields? You put cows on them.”

Ekenstedt said the logging museum captures a time period “that affected the state and really helped write the history of this nation.”

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The cookhouse is where the lumberjacks ate breakfast and dinner. The cook and assistants brought lunch to the worksite. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

EAU CLAIRE — There are still about 2,400 people in the Eau Claire area who had jobs before the pandemic but are not currently employed.

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development released statistics on Wednesday showing the difference between how many people were working just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Eau Claire metropolitan area compared to the current employment level.

Last month there were 85,500 people employed in Eau Claire and Chippewa counties combined, based on preliminary, seasonally adjusted figures. In March 2020 there were 87,900 employed in the Eau Claire metro area.

Officially declared a pandemic in mid-March 2020 — just after that month’s employment statistics had already been calculated — the impact of COVID-19 on the job market was dramatically apparent the following month. In April 2020, employment in the Eau Claire metro area plummeted to 75,300. Since then jobs have been coming back, but some sectors including leisure and hospitality have not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

The unemployment rate is continuing to decline in the Eau Claire metro. In March 2020 it stood at 4% and jumped the next month to 13.4% as the pandemic delivered a quick shock to the economy. But it has receded since then, reaching 4.7% last month — an improvement on February’s 4.9%.