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Were Lumberjacks Really the Strength Kings They’re Made Out to Be?

‘Jacked’ might be right there in the name, but for a variety of reasons, they were far smaller than legend would have you believe

When you think about the number of variations of lumberjack functions that are broadly approximated by CrossFit — from swinging sledgehammers, to flipping tires, to carrying bags of sand — it’s hard not to presume that every lumberjack who ever lived possessed a world-class physique. 

In fact, it’s enough to make you wonder why some CrossFitters don’t quit their box, and try to sweat their way through paid shifts at a logging camp instead. 

And that’s just the half of it. There are strongman barbells available for purchase that have been fashioned out of legitimate logs, with plenty of other “log bars” made from more standard gym equipment. Meanwhile, the flannel-clad mascot for Brawny paper towels is said to be more than capable of overwhelming spills with his strength alone. To say nothing of the most iconic woodsman of all — Paul Bunyan, who just happens to be a 94-foot-tall lumberjack who casually carved out the formation of the Great Lakes with his mislaid ax. 

So just how muscular was the average lumberjack? Or, I guess: Does the reality match the myth?

Well, they certainly ate like very big boys. For good reason, too: The daily grind of a lumberjack was no doubt exhausting, with frequent stories of their workdays consisting of multiple six-hour blocks. 

In order to sustain such a murderous workload, thousands upon thousands of calories would have been required to be consumed on a daily basis. Along those lines, in a nationally syndicated interview from 1935, Dr. Francis G. Benedict of the Carnegie Institute stated that the average sedentary worker of the era required 2,500 calories per day, farmers 3,500 calories and lumberjacks a staggering 7,000 calories.

But while lumber camp leaders were keenly aware of the caloric requirements of their workers, many of the meals were nutritionally deficient in critical areas. In his book Recollections of a Busy Life, one-time Canadian lumberjack Horace Greeley described camp meals consisting primarily of “fat salt pork in barrels, flour and peas,” with later additions of beans and occasional potatoes. What may appear at first glance to be an adequate protein source — the salt pork — is not only notoriously high in calories, but also deceptively low in protein and very high in sodium.

Similarly, a 1906 article in The Houston Post explained how Maine lumber camps were supplementing their lumberjacks’ diets through a combination of “beans and molasses.” Basically, their solution to making up the caloric deficit was to feed their lumberjacks gallons of pure sugar.

That’s disgusting!

It is disgusting, but some prominent individuals did try their best to handle things more responsibly. For instance, when R.S. Kellogg of the Northern Hemlock and Hardwood Manufacturers Association attempted to standardize the meals of Wisconsin lumberjacks in 1914, the sample breakfast, lunch and dinner menus were reported to be as follows…

Breakfast: Oatmeal, pancakes, fried potatoes, beefsteak, bread and butter, coffee, cookies and donuts

Lunch: Pea soup, pot roast of beef and gravy, boiled potatoes, macaroni and cheese, beans, bread and butter, tea and apricot pie

Dinner: Tomato soup, carrots, baked potatoes, fresh fish, prunes, beans, bread and butter, tea, cookies and cake

Whether or not these meals were ever approved by the association — or widely used — is unknown, but subsequent reporting made it clear that their development was driven by a conspicuous lack of meat in lumber camps, and a commensurate shortage of protein

How much protein did lumberjacks need?

In a word: a shit-ton.

To make that a bit more quantitative, let’s look at the diets of modern endurance athletes — typified by marathoners who might be running 10 or more miles daily in the final stages of race preparation. The suggestions for daily protein consumption for them range from 1 gram per kilogram of body weight to roughly 1 gram per pound of body weight. If we assume that a lumberjack working 12 hours a day was maintaining the average weight level for a man who was also of average height in that same 19th century era (165 pounds), he’d have needed to consume somewhere between 75 to 165 grams of protein daily — and probably much closer to the high end. 

One hundred and sixty five grams, however, could still be on the low side; as again, my projection is based on what’s required for a couple of hours of running, not struggling with axes, saws and fallen trees from sunup to sundown.

Either way, this would have been a tough requirement to meet if there were indeed meat shortages. In terms of what such a protein gap would have meant in terms of physical aesthetic, there’s no way that a majority of lumberjacks would have been able to work for long stretches of time minus the necessary protein without the substantial degeneration of their muscle tissues. And this is before accounting for some of the other problems that typically afflicted them as well.

Problems like what?

Alcoholism, for one. 

Tales abound of lumberjacks practically soaking themselves in booze at the conclusion of a work day. In one anecdote from 1905, The Billings Gazette in Montana recounted local lumberjack Fred Johnson’s drunken trek around town: “While in a drunken trance, he wandered around on the south side and in the course of his ramblings he went into the residence of Barney Schneider in south Thirtieth Street. Mr. Schneider found him in the kitchen in the act of appropriating a pair of overshoes that belonged to the former and he called an officer. On account of his condition Johnson was not held accountable for his attempted theft and a charge of drunkenness was placed against him. His punishment was fixed at a fine of $5.”

It’s a fun old story, but here’s my point: Alcohol impairs protein digestion, reduces muscle protein synthesis by about 30 percent and also initiates hormonal changes that slow the body’s metabolism. So in addition to their protein-intake shortfalls, lumberjacks would have been further debilitating themselves by drinking alcohol — especially in the quantities they were throwing back. 

All of which is to say, nearly every ingredient was present for our fabled lumberjacks to have developed into the ripped, beefy hunks they’re often portrayed as in pop culture. But in reality, their physical exertion was incessant, their protein consumption was inadequate and their boozing was too off-the-charts for them to have ever even come close to Bunyan-esque proportions.