Memoirs of Matt Hemmingsen (1876-1967): His Postcard – 1911

PREVIEW

We have told the story of Matt’s years around 1911 twice: once as he made innovations in West Coast logging and again through an oil painting on maple burl that depicted his unique logging operation. This recently received postcard tells his 1911 tale through a deeply personal lens.

PREVIOUSLY

Past posts took Matt Hemmingsen from his 1876 birth, just under the Arctic Circle in Vefsn Parish, Norway, to Bayfield County, Wisconsin. He was eleven upon arrival and began his career the very next year, in the forest around Lake Superior. Cookhouse flunkey was his starting position, but this youngster was destined for success as a lumberman, who would hold the moniker “woods pioneer of British Columbia”. He was self-driven and kindly; a soul of action who never suspected that his was a life of hardship.

NOW COMES THE MAN OF 1911

Matt must have been in wonderment as 1910 rolled by, for it continued to unveil improving fortune. It all began with his decision in April of 1909, to return to Vancouver Island. Recall: he had gone wandering back to the US, agonizing over the death of his first wife and the consequence of his quit of a good job, when he could not fire Old Billie, the loyal logging horse, as directed. Now, he was blissfully remarried.

His Memoirs resume as 1911 dawns. First, a repeat of this passage, for context and tone:

I put in the winter there [northern Idaho], but nostalgia for the Pacific Coast prevailed in a marked degree; so in April 1909 I landed back to within a few miles of my starting point of a year previously, [B.C.] and took on a log booming contract which paid me very well. Later on, I had a chance meeting with E.J., the Manager of the old company. [Victoria Lumber and Manufacturing Company, VL& M] He seemed pleased to see me and wanted to know all about my welfare, etc. After hearing me out, he said “I want you go back to your old job at Camp, and you will be your own boss – and your salary will be raised”. I finished my contract and took over at camp. Old Billie the horse was still there, eating hay and oats. No one knew the whereabouts of the Superintendent.

On June 2, 1910, I married the best girl in the world, Margaret Naysmith Alexander.

That one sentence from 1910 was the last mention of family in Matt’s volume and from there on it continued solely focused on his work. The big Norwegian had a very soft side, though. His grandson, Matt, graciously provided this postcard, in which he remembered the birth his first child in 1911, while away from home, six years later.

COMOX VALLEY

The card celebrated Matt and Maggie’s short time together in the Comox Valley, from their meeting in 1909, through their courtship and wedding, to the birth of Margaret on March 1, 1911. The valley, on its east coast, is an enhancement to beautiful Vancouver Island. It is green beyond imagination, with mountains topped by glacial white. Breath is off the Strait of Georgia, scented by woodland glory; the better for cherished memories, of falling in love. It is where Matt had attended to the Tsolum River, before his wanderings.

1911 ACCORDING TO MATT’S MEMOIRS

The summer of 1911 saw the finish of logging in this area, [Comox Valley] and all machinery moved to headquarters, and I was promoted to Superintendent of all logging operations as designed originally by the President, [John Alexander Humbird] who was now dead, so his plans did not materialize in his lifetime.

ADDING TO THAT ACCOUNT

In 1911, V.L. & M. sold its vast (about 2 billion bd ft.) timber holdings in the Comox/ Courtenay area to a competitor (Canadian Western Timber Co.) for three million dollars.

With this sale, it became necessary to develop other areas of V.L. & M. timber resource to assure a continuous supply of logs to the Chemainus sawmill. [Matt’s head-quarters were then moved from Comox to Chemainus.

John O Hemmingsen Family History, 1999

AN UNEVEN WORK HISTORY; AN UNEMBELLISHED WORK-SKETCH

Matt had an on-again, off-again journey with the vast Humbird-Weyerhaeuser firm of V.L.&M. He contracted elsewhere in between and it seems that sometimes he was simultaneously working on his own. Even when with Humbird, his work place was its whole Vancouver Island operation, not confined to, say, Comox. This overlap in circumstances, and the under tell of his Memoirs, call for all three stories on the table, to show why Matt must have been absolutely bursting with positive outlook as he embraced 1911.

He was a principled man who would quit his own gravy train over a horse. As such, he would report on the horse. However, he was a humble man, whose earned acclaim would seldom escape his pen. Others would tell that Matt would be the man who conducted himself thusly, according to Ken Drushka in “Working in the Woods” as recounted by Matt’s son John:

The story involves a young boy 14 years of age – this boy had wandered into the area of the V.L. & M. logging camp one evening and sat with a forlorn and sad look on a stump near the large bunkhouse. Matt saw him there and told the boy he should go home. The boy replied that he had no home. Matt questioned the youngster and it turned out that he had left home after being beaten so many times — he showed Matt his body bruises.

Matt invited the boy to dinner in the camp cookhouse–and provided a bed for him in the bunkhouse. After breakfast next morning, Matt took the boy to the logging operation –and personally taught him how to “punk whistles”–that is how the boy became a whistle punk and then followed a long career in logging.

This story was told years later by the boy whose name was Ben Ployat, by then a pioneer logger in his own right. He described his benefactor as a big Norwegian named Matt Hemmingsen.

Hemmingsen “Family History” from Drushka “Working in the Woods” 1992

THE HEMMINGSENS LEAVE COMOX VALLEY

The Valley had hosted their romance, for they met in Courtenay, married in Comox, and greeted their first child in Cumberland. Now, with V.L.& M. quitting the area, it was time for them to leave.

However, as dear as Matt’s postcard to Maggie was, there had been three trips to that hospital in 1911. Margaret Naysmith Alexander lost her step-father, Dugald Mitchell, in June 1911, just the week after his last child, Jemima, was born to his wife, Margaret Donaldson Baxter. It was still just three months after Margaret Henrietta Hemmingsen made her appearance.

Maggie’s mother was now twice widowed, this time in Cumberland. Dugald had suffered long, such that some family plans were in place. Agnes Alexander, now about 16, was off to Seattle, to live with the Howat family (Aunt Sybil Alexander). The six half-sibling Mitchell children were 13 and under, including the newborn. Sam Alexander, seasoned by the mine since a tween, ably stepped up to the plate, acting as man of house, at 18.

Matt and Maggie were still enjoying a couple of wonderful years, with rosy prospects for 1912 in Chemainus. With each other to comfort, they detained in the valley as long as possible to help her mother. She was hard-luck miner-poor. Matt knew only too well, what follows “left with six children, 13 and under, including a newborn”, for he had weathered it first, at the death of his mother, and again, at the death of his father. He had always helped. It was the why of the cookhouse flunkey and his early toil in the woods. Margaret, the grandmother, would later confide to her grandchildren, how discreetly he eased her mother’s financial burden. He had his priorities right, her Matt did. Quiet comfort was always in the measure of this selfless man.

MATT and ED and SAM

As Sam Alexander was seeing Matt and Margaret off to Chemainus, Ed and Anna Hemmingsen were establishing their home in Comox. The younger brothers of the happy couple would become dear friends. Soon, Matt and Margaret, Ed and Anna, Sam, and his future wife, Edith Joyce, would enjoy a beautiful life in the Cowichan Valley. This delightful turn in events began for Matt, with that decision in April of 1909, the realization of which, was reflected in his postcard.

Please feel free to leave us a note.

Left: Hemmingsen Logging at Cowichan Lake B.C., ca. 1912. Matt emigrated from Norway in 1887, was logging in the Wisconsin woods at twelve and migrated to Vancouver Island in 1906. Our woods pioneer retired in 1946 after significant innovation. CLICK for our broader genealogy and Memoirs of Matt Hemmingsen (1867-1976).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s