As easy as falling off a log
During the great lumber and logging era, log rolling, as a sport, gained popularity in the late 1800s. The long standing tradition, spiked the interest of recent Sparta High School graduate Jessica Janzen while she was looking for a project to earn her Gold Award for Girl Scouts.
Janzen’s father mentioned Ryan Pawlisch, with the Sparta Parks and Recreational Department, was attempting to start a log rolling class in Sparta. Pawlisch himself participates in lumberjack shows in Wisconsin Dells.
She contacted Pawlisch to get a better understanding of what log rolling really is and how she could help when Pawlisch asked Janzen to take over marketing and advertising to get the project underway.
“I’ve never log rolled before but it’s so interesting looking back on the history of it and how important it is to Wisconsin, which I didn’t really know until I researched it,” she said.
According to Janzen, towns like Black River Falls and Eau Claire were established due to the logging industry and La Crosse became a center of the lumber industry because logs cut in the interior of the state could be rafted down the Black River toward sawmills in La Crosse.
In the 1800s, logging and lumbering was a leading industry in Wisconsin. More than 23,000 men worked in Wisconsin’s logging industry and another 32,000 worked at sawmills turning timber to lumber. Each winter, lumberjacks occupied nearly 450 logging camps and in the spring, they drove their timber downstream to more than 1,000 mills.
“Logging, which log rolling originated from, was very popular in the La Crosse area and has been carried along over many years from the lumberjacks of the 1800s to the modern day sport,” Janzen explained. “The act of log rolling itself was actually an important necessity.”
Logs were floated down rivers to mills for processing on what were called “river drives.” The rivers were only so wide in certain areas and logs would become jammed, clogging the easy flow of timber. Men were hired to prevent the jams.
“Lumberjacks had to walk across the floating logs and dislodge the ones causing the jam, which was very dangerous. One wrong move and an entire pile of logs could crush or drown an unfortunate lumberjack,” Janzen said. “They needed to be able to move quickly atop the logs as they floated in the water and roll them back onto the right path down the river.”
As soon as an individual stepped on the log it would spin, dumping them into the river. They had to learn to roll the logs and the men began challenging each other to see who could stay dry the longest. It wasn’t long before lumberjacks began holding log rolling competitions in logging camps to amuse themselves.
According to Janzen, the first official log rolling competition was held in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898, the winner of which was Tom Fleming of Eau Claire.
“When the industry died out, lumberjacks continued to pass on their skills and knowledge to their children and it was as fun then as it is now,” she said.
Log rolling is still as popular for its entertainment value now as it was back then. Today, the Three Rivers Roleo is a log rolling tournament held on July 14 and 15 in Onalaska at a historic logging site on the Black River.
Starting this week, Pawlisch, assisted by Janzen, will begin instructing two sessions of a log rolling class for both youth and adults. On the last day of class, there will also be an in house log rolling competition.
The first session for adults begins on Friday, June 15 from 5 to 5:40 p.m. and 6 to 6:40 p.m. at the Sparta Family Aquatic Center. There is also a session for kids ages 6-years-old and older starting today (Monday) from 8 to 8:40 a.m.
Interested parties should register at spartawisconsin.org or by visiting the Parks and Recreation Office in Sparta on Montgomery Street.
“Balancing on top of a wet log in the middle of a river may not be everyone’s cup of tea,” Janzen said. “But the cultural and historical importance of the sport is something that can still be appreciated by the everyday individual.”