Charlie Boon, Logger, of
A tinkering entrepreneur in the old Illinois style
November 24, 1978
Illinois in the late frontier phase seemed crowded with tinkerers and entrepreneurs such as John Deere or the several men who, bit by bit, perfected barbed wire. Another such was Charlie Boon, a one-man logging team I met when doing a story about commercial forestry—pulp wood, mostly—on the sandy margins of the Illinois River where the land is not fit for corn.
The complaining whine of a diesel engine comes from somewhere back in the pine woods, at the end of sandy track that weaves almost imperceptibly between two tangled stands of jack pines. The jack, which stands in rows as if in parade formation, is part of the seven thousand acres of scrub oak, sand dunes. and pine plantations that make up Illinois' Sand Ridge State Forest, twenty miles south of Peoria on the Illinois River. The track runs past a fuel tank perched crookedly on stilts beside a parked semi truck and trailer and a contraption of uncertain function—it looks like a steel praying mantis— that's nearly as big as the semi rig.
The insistent complaint of the engine leads eventually to a clearing in the woods. A big wind stomped through Sand Ridge a couple of nights before, and left three acres of jack pine looking like a bomb had been dropped on it. The forest floor is littered with the corpses of ruined trees, and chugging back and forth through the carnage, riding a bucking, battered tank tractor like a cowboy aboard a nervous cow pony, is Charles W. Boon.
Charlie Boon cuts down trees for a living. He signed a contract with the State of Illinois to thin out the pine plantations at Sand Ridge. He cuts the trees and chips them up and sells the chips to a paper mill in Peoria that uses them to make roofing felt. He's been in the logging business full-time for seventeen years. He's learned a lot about logging in that time, and about logging machines—most of the equipment he uses at Sand Ridge he built himself.
"Howdy, howdy," he shouts as he shuts off the tractor engine and clambers down to the ground. Everything about Charlie Boon is a little off center. His baseball cap juts to one side, his smile hangs crookedly toward the other, with a cigarette dangling precariously on the ledge of his lower lip. His shirt is grimy with sweat and motor oil, and dust clings to him like a second-skin, so that when he smiles the white of his teeth appear startlingly bright, as if someone had switched on a light in a darkened room.
"Boy, it looks like that wind just come down and"—Charlie makes a violent twisting move with his closed fist—"and scrunched it out. I heard it a-screamin' through my window screens over at the ridge." The "ridge" is Goofy Ridge, a collection of trailers and retirement cottages where Charlie stays between weekend trips back to his home in Fort Madison, Iowa, just across the Mississippi, eighty miles away. "Scared me to death. They asked me to come over here to clear out this stuff instead of letting all this timber go to rot."
Charlie finishes his smoke, then climbs back into the saddle of his harvester. It looks like a cross between an Army tank and a Maine lobster. He built the thing on a war surplus M4 high-speed artillery tractor he bought in 1967. On the front he mounted hydraulically-powered grasping steel arms that can grab a tree in the ground and hold it upright while twin steel shears pinch the trunk off flush with the ground. The cutter—tractor, shears, and all—is eight feet wide. Sometimes Charlie has to maneuver between rows of trees only nine feet apart, and in places the paint has been chewed off so the bare metal shines like a mirror.
Revving up his engine, Charlie noses the cutter toward a row of jack pines twenty-five feet tall. Charlie drops the cutter assembly around the first tree, bites it off, then lifts the just-amputated trunk off the ground. Throwing the cutter into reverse, Charlie backs quickly away with the tree swaying violently back and forth, moaning and creaking, as if it were struggling to free itself. Swiveling the cutter arms downward, Charlie gently lays the tree on the ground between his tractor treads, then, shifting into forward, rolls over it on his way to get another. It is logging at its most mechanized, like picking flowers out of a garden.
When a half-dozen or so jack are lying in a pile, Charlie warms up a rubber-wheeled skidder parked nearby. His skidder is an ordinary tractor outfitted with a set of pincer-like log tongs on the back. He drops the steel claw over the trees, lifts one end of the pile and drags them off behind him like a giant travois, disappearing through a gap in the phalanx of trees into a magical cloud of dust.
His destination is the chipper—the mysterious praying mantis—parked nearby. The chipper is the pine tree's doom. Charlie runs it from a lifeguard-type chair, using a hydraulic arm called a knuckleboom (it's jointed, like a finger) to pick up whole trees one by one from the pile left by the skidder and lay them onto a long conveyor, butt end first. The conveyor feeds them into a whirling steel wheel as big around as a tractor tire. The wheel has dozens of tiny knives set into it, arranged in twin spirals, that chew away at each log until it's reduced to a pile of coin-sized chips.
The chipping wheel tears into its meal with a grinding shriek that buries the panting of the diesel power plant and the clanking and thudding of the knuckleboom in an avalanche of noise. Guided by Charlie's hand at the controls, the knuckleboom delicately reduces the pile of trees, like a clubwoman picking tea sandwiches off a platter. Behind him, pine chips spurt out of a goose-neck spout into an open truck trailer while beneath him pine needles and shredded bark— trash—fall onto the sand in pillowy piles. In six hours Charlie, working alone, can cut and chip enough trees for a trailer load—twenty tons on the average. He gets paid fifteen dollars per ton.
Charlie feeds trees into the fuming monster until a light rain begins to fall. Then he quickly slides down from his perch, throttles the big diesel to a stop and jumps to the ground. He takes off his cap, wipes off his forehead, and lights another smoke. "Boy," he exclaims, looking at the darkening sky, "when those electrons start separatin' up there, it's no time to be sittin' on top of all that steel. One of them babies might just come shootin' down through me on its way somewhere else." Charlie leans against the cab of his truck, grinning. "Besides, I'm so sweet, I just might melt!"
Charlie has been working at Sand Ridge since January of 1976. The state bought the land— burned-out farms mostly—in the 1930s for the cost of back taxes and planted pine trees by the million, part of an experiment to learn which species of pine might grow in the dessicated soils common to this stretch of the Illinois. The idea was to raise pine trees as a crop, eventually harvesting mature trees as saw logs or processing them for pulp.
To prevent their stagnating for want of enough light or water, the pine plantations have to be thinned periodically, and that's what brought Charlie Boon to Sand Ridge. Most tree chippers devour trees indiscriminately, spewing out bits of limb, bark and needles along with the "clean" chips from the meat of the trunk. The only way to get clean chips from such machines—and most mills want clean chips—is to feed them clean trees, and that means lopping off the crowns and limbs and bark before chipping them, leaving most if not all of the trash on the forest floor.
But the contract Charlie signed with the State of Illinois called for "whole tree utilization," so he chips whole trees on the spot, limbs, needles, and all. But his chips are clean—if not clean enough for white paper then certainly clean enough for roofing felt—because Charlie's chipper separates trash from clean chips as it chips. His chipper is Charlie's claim to fame. He had it built in 1972, and it was the first chipper in the world so fastidious. "You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear,", he reminds visitors, "but I can separate a higher percentage of trash from a tree than anybody else. Trimming those branches off first," he says, summing up the economics of the logging business in a single sentence, "is plumb uneconomical."
Charlie pays the state for every ton of chips he hauls out of Sand Ridge, and the money is more than the state paid for Sand Ridge in the first place. In his sourer moments, when the bugs are especially bad or when't it's so hot that his equipment will burn a blister on the hand of anyone stupid enough to touch it, he grumbles that the state ought to be paying him.
Goofy Ridge sprawls atop a sand ridge that borders a chain of backwater lakes west of Sand Ridge State Forest. Windblown and fickle, the local landmark refused to stay in one place, and eventually (it is said) the place came to be known by what residents had come to call "that goofy ridge." It is not even a town, just a miscellaneous accretion of dwellings. Its principal attraction to the construction workers, commuting factory hands, and retirees who live there is its isolation; it is a trip of eight miles over back roads (some of them only sandy tracks) to the nearest place that could be called a town.
Charlie Boon lives in what might be called a suburb of Goofy Ridge. Trailers and a few bungalows are scattered about on four corners of a crossroads, as if they'd been swept up in some flood and stranded there. The hub of this accidental universe is a tavern called the Hia-leah Club. Walk out the back door of the Hialeah Club and one arrives practically on Charlie's front stoop.
Inside, Charlie is explaining how one gets into the logging business. "In 1955 the paper mill up in Fort Madison converted from straw to wood pulp to make their paper, and I got a contract to supply 'em with wood." Charlie didn't know a thing about the logging business—he was making his living driving a truck at the time—but he had a friend who did. They worked out a deal by which Charlie agreed to buy the timber and do all the hauling while his friend did the cutting and the skidding in return for a split of the profits.
There used to be hundreds of islands in the upper Mississippi River, so many that only the largest of them were given names; the rest were simply numbered. They wore luxuriant crowns of willow, cottonwood, pecan, and soft maple, and people who lived along the river would buy an island or part of one and cut and stack wood by the cord to dry until winter, when they would cross the frozen river and haul their wood home on sleds. Many of the islands disappeared a half century ago, when navigation dams built downstream backed up the Mississippi and drowned them. By then the wood had lost its value as fuel, and the islands that survived were allowed to grow back to timber.
Charlie poked around in county courthouses, found out who was paying taxes on the islands and negotiated with them for timber rights. He clear-cut what he could and floated the results downstream to the Fort Madison paper mill in barges. He could work the islands only about six months of every twelve, because the rest of the time the water was too high. In 1965 he couldn't take a single tree out because the water was up for the entire year.
Charlie quickly learned every aspect of logging, but for years he continued to log only part time. He drove a truck ("I hauled asphalt. I hauled grain, new cars, steel. Lord, 1 hauled it all!'), put in a stint as a city fireman in Fort Madison, even worked nights and weekends as a bass player in a country and western group. Sometimes, when he was working the islands near Gulfport, Illinois, and playing at night, he took his "pickin' clothes" to work with him and went from Friday to Sunday, logging by day and picking at night, on three or four hours' sleep. Just puttin' in his hours, Charlie says. The Boons (he's been married to the same woman for thirty-one years and raised three sons) bought their first new car with pickin' money, and a pickup truck and a deep freeze and a gas furnace and a living room full of furniture.
When he wasn't putting in his hours, Charlie spent his time "mechanickin'." Necessity was the mother of most of his inventions. "There was trees on those islands that were three-foot on the stump. Most beautiful timber you ever saw," he recalls. "But nobody logged it because they didn't have the machines to do it. So I built 'em myself."
"I build my own equipment for two reasons," he explains. "One, boughten machines are just too darned expensive. John Deere makes a machine that cuts and debarks trees. They get $130,000 for it. That's just plumb out of line. I built one in '67 that does more for $6,000 and time.
"The other things is, they're just too darned complicated. The trouble with the machines the big companies make is that their engineers aren't timber men. They never had to make a living at it. If they did, they'd design 'em different, I guarantee. Now me, I keep 'em simple. That way, if something goes wrong I can fix it myself."
Charlie has some big ideas. His dream is to build a machine able, as he puts it, "to shear off a tree and chip it right there on the spot." He wants to build it this winter, since he figures he's three years behind schedule on the project already. He likes to say that he's five years ahead of everybody else in the sophistication of his equipment, including the big companies like Deere or Morbark. "I don't know if I'll make it so it can harvest one tree per minute or one every thirty seconds. I think—I say I think—I can do it either way. If I get that perfected, then you can talk about harvesting timber."
Here and there in the trailer are writing pads Charlie uses to doodle ideas on. He has a lot of doodling to do before his monster logger is built. He doesn't like to talk about details, because he wants to patent his design and maybe sell manufacturing rights to a big company. "I don't know yet whether it'll be on wheels or on tracks, whether I'll build on a truck or on a M4 hull, whether it'll be articulated or not." Charlie glances at the floor, as if doodling in his head. A lot of questions won't be answered until he gets into the shop—Dick's Machine Shop in Fort Madison, where he'll build it. All he says now is, "I got to think all these things out yet."
Charlie expects to be on the job at Sand Ridge for another five years—"if," he adds, "they don't cut me off at the mill." The economics of Charlie's kind of logging are inexorable and unforgiving. He sells chips to the Celotex plant at Peoria. The price he gets there has gone up only ten percent in five years. Most paper mills buy waste from sawmills; if it weren't for the fact that Celotex needed pine chips to make their product (pine fibers make a roofing paper that's tougher and more absorbent than paper made from hardwoods) Charlie might not have a market at all. "You're competing with a waste product," he explains, "and as long as the mills get what they want, they're not going to give you a raise. What the market'll bear, that's the story. Supply and demand." Charlie has offered to sell his equipment to mills before, and run it for them for a salary, but they always refused, because they knew they couldn't make money at it. "They can't beat the private contractor," he concludes. "That's why 99 percent of the guys in the loggin' business are like me."
Charlie tries to work twelve months a year, but sometimes the weather gets too rough. He says he's just monkeying around, but the truth is that Charlie, now past fifty, doesn't put in the hours like he used to. This year, for the first time, he quit work in the afternoons when the heat got too bad, and he lost more time over the winter, which was the worst in Illinois history. "I laid down pretty good last winter," he says. "If it's colder than fifteen degrees I don't even crank it up. It's too hard on the hydraulics."
Weather isn't the only thing that bugs Charlie. Like any small businessman, he feels himself being squeezed between his corporate competitors on the one side and bureaucrats on the other. And then there are the conservationists. "If they'd let me clear-cut in there it'd go a lot quicker. But the Sierra Club or whoever it is that gives them static about clear-cuttin' won't let 'em. They don't realize that a lot of this stuff that the state planted as an experiment won't ever amount to anything. They'll never get saw logs or anything else out of it. What they ought to do is clear cut all that stuff and replant it in red or white pine." Even thinning the stands irks some tree-lovers. People's stubbornness on the point mystifies Charlie. "You try to tell people that what you're doing is good for the trees and they look at you like you're crazy. One of our foresters over here told me that in nature you might get 20,000 seedlings on an acre that'll have only 150 mature trees left on it fifty years later. That's how much thinning nature does to produce good trees. If we do it, though, boy, they jump all over you."
There aren't any bureaucrats or corporation executives living at Goofy Ridge, and the only conservationists are ones Charlie considers the sensible kind. There are other ways to make money, and Charlie's contention that "a man can get by on what he's got if he thinks he can" only partially explains his attachment to his way of life. "What I like to do is find something to do that hasn't occurred to anyone else to do, then do it," he explains. "Eventually they get wise and get into it—usually they're wrong but they go ahead and do it anyway. Well, sooner or later they're gonna fail, but in the process they ruin it for me. That's when I back off and do something else." ●