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Garb Day: memories of a (minor) sporting triumph

Crosscut sawyers in a bush competition at Big Brook in Western Australia.

Villages in parts of Europe in medieval times had an interesting tradition. Immediately after the marriage ceremony, the newly-wed husband and wife would be put one on each end of a crosscut saw, and they would have to saw a large hardwood log in half. The idea was that this symbolised their life ahead, each assisting and supporting the other, sometimes through tough times, both contributing to a (hopefully) happy outcome.

Reading about this the other day I was reminded of another tradition, a more modern one, but also involving crosscut saws, and one in which I once participated.

This was the annual Garb Day event at the University of Washington, in Seattle, USA, where I was a forestry student in the mid-1960s. Garb Day was a celebration of the timber industry, at that time the mainstay of the economy of the Pacific Northwest, and a significant supporter of the University and its College of Forestry. I was myself supported by a grant from the giant timber firm Weyerhaeuser, and there were numerous students who would be looking for jobs in the industry after graduation, or with the Forest Service whose job was to regulate the timber industry. But Garb Day was more than just a celebration, it was a day of fun, and an opportunity for the University’s forestry students to show off some of their bush skills.

The College of Forestry was a significant player on campus back in the 1960s, before forestry and the timber industry became politically-incorrect. The college was housed in a lovely old mock-Tudor four-storey castle called Anderson Hall which dated back to the 1920s, supported nearby by a modern timber and glass building (Winkenwerder Hall) nestling under a lovely grove of Douglas-fir trees. I shared an office in Winkenwerder with a charming young English forester Roger Phillips; I was amused by the fact that Roger “spoke” scientific German, something all British forestry students had to learn in those days, and he always referred to our building as “Vinkenverder”).

Anderson Hall, the College of Forestry at the University of Washington (photographed in 2011)

There were, in my time, perhaps 300 undergraduates studying forestry at the University of Washington, and another fifty or more graduate students, working on their Master’s or Doctoral degrees in subjects like silviculture, forest soils, inventory, fire science, timber management or pathology. Unlike many rather sleepy academic institutions in which I have studied at various times, the College of Forestry at UW was a bustling scene of energy, hard work and laughter.

A view of part of the UW campus, with spring blossom on the cherry trees

Garb Day was the forestry students' One Day of the Year. The students would come dressed up as old-style loggers with checked flannel shirts, bush hats, belts and braces and heavily studded boots. They took over the southern half of the campus, and there would be displays and competitions, followed by a big party in the huge, timber-lined common room on the fourth floor of Anderson Hall.

Although the fun and games were basically confined to the undergraduates (we graduate students considered ourselves to be above all that nonsense), I found it fascinating. I was newly arrived at the University, having resigned from my job as a forester in the karri forests of Western Australia only a few weeks earlier to travel to the USA and start my Master’s degree. It was a brand-new world. I was readjusting to being a student again, living in a dormitory with eight hundred other students, mixing with fellow grad students and lecturers from all over the world, and absorbing all the new sounds and sights of this extraordinarily stimulating country. Seattle was quite a small city in 1965, about the same size as Perth where I had grown up, but it was very beautiful with its parks, lakes with wooded islands, Puget Sound to the west, and the Cascade Mountains to the east.

The UW campus was also beautiful, with its historic buildings and lovely gardens and trees. It was autumn when I arrived in Seattle, with morning fog and drizzle dripping off the dark green Douglas-firs and red cedar trees, and glorious splashes of vivid colour from the many deciduous hardwood trees planted on campus.

The Garb Day displays were well done, especially the scale-model logging operation with a little steam engine, a fully rigged highlead pole, all in full working order, snigging miniature logs to a landing and loading them onto a rake. The faculty had also taken the opportunity to put out some literature and posters, advertising their wares, perhaps hoping to attract even more students.

But the main thing was the competitions. These started in the morning with the tree climbing and lasted nearly all day. I found them interesting and impressive.

For the tree climbing, three transmission-pole sized Douglas-fir trees near the library had been selected: they were about the same size, stood in a row and had been pruned of their limbs up to a height of about 15 metres. At the top of the climb on each tree, a bell had been rigged. The three climbers stood at the foot of the tree, clasping a rope around the tree trunk and with climbing spurs strapped to the insteps of their boots. At the starting signal they swarmed up the tree, the first to ring his bell being the winner.

I had climbed trees using climbing irons many times, and knew how it was done, but the irons I had used were heavy and poorly designed; they would cut into the calves of your legs and put an enormous strain on your ankles. I had always done it cautiously, taking great care to ensure that each spike was firmly imbedded, and my safety rope secure, before I took the next step up. But these young racing climbers were in a different league: they went up the tree, as if running up a flight of stairs. I took a look at the equipment used by one competitor and I could see these were far more sophisticated than anything I had used. They were "racing irons" you might say, as distinct from the work-a-day hardware I had used.

I found it breathtaking. Even more impressive, the climbers also came down in a rush. In my climbing iron days I had always found the retreat down the tree trickier than the climb.

A young Garb Day tree climber, about to start his race.

After several heats and semi-finals, there was a final, and a winner. This young man had made three climbs that morning, but still scampered up the tree like a squirrel.

The big crowd of spectators then moved to the next event. This was the log rolling, and it was held in the famous Drumheller Pool in the centre of campus. This was a spot I often visited, and I always paused there when walking across campus because the pool had been built at the top of a long, open, tree-lined vista, and on a clear day there was a view to the distant Mt Rainier, a massive snow-capped peak way off in the Cascades. There was a lovely set of fountains in the pool, and these made a particularly fine display on a sunny autumn day.

For the log rolling, the fountains were turned off and the pool equipped with two or three nice little logs, floating buoyantly, each maybe three or four metres in length and half a metre in diameter. The two competitors, each fully dressed and wearing cleated boots, would step nimbly onto the log facing each other and the log would be pushed gently out into the pool. The log-rolling would then commence, each man trying his best to stay on while upsetting his adversary, spinning the log this way and that, with little mincing steps, arms akimbo. Mostly both toppled off together, to the roar of the on-lookers, but eventually there was a final and one of them emerged a winner. I watched his footwork closely and thought to myself that if this young man doesn’t make the grade as a forester he will be an outstanding ballet dancer.

The Drumheller Pool in mid-summer, with fountains flowing, and Mt Rainier beyond

Garb Day drew an enthusiastic and cheering crowd. All of the forestry students were there, of course, and most of the faculty, but the numbers were swelled by several hundred students from other faculties, come to see the fun.

After the log rolling there was a picnic lunch (with beer) in the sunshine, and then on to the crosscut saw and log chopping competitions. Although I have entered some competitive events over the years, I have never enjoyed crosscut sawing. I did enough of it to last a lifetime when I worked the summer of 1958/9 in a forestry gang at Dwellingup. Our main job that summer, apart from firefighting, had been opening up old tracks in the jarrah forest for access for more firefighting, and as this was before the invention of the chainsaw (or at least before the acquisition of a chainsaw by the Western Australian Forests Department), all the logs across roads had to be cut off by hand-power using a crosscut saw, axes and a kangaroo jack. Like the villagers in medieval Europe, I well understood that crosscutting was a job that called for teamwork and stamina.

On the other hand, I decided I would enter the log chop. For one thing, I was quite an experienced axeman, not only having been a member of a forestry gang in the pre-chainsaw era but also a forestry student at the Australian Forestry School in the days when you were required to have your own axe, and expected to use it on silvicultural exercises. I had used an axe on an almost daily basis when I was a young forester, blazing trees, chopping logs off forest tracks or at the camp woodheap. Moreover, I had been taught racing log chopping by Laddie Parkinson when I worked at Mundaring Weir in 1963. Parkie was the overseer of a forestry gang and was an expert, high handicap racing axeman. He had the gear set up in his back yard and would bring a log or two in from the bush so he could train after work. I sometimes joined him, mostly to watch, but he gave me basic instruction. Strength and stamina are important in the champion axeman, but technique is critical; there is a right and a wrong way to go about it. Parkie also sharpened my axe for me, revolutionising it. Log chop competitions were held at the Weir pub on a Sunday afternoon in those days, and I always liked to attend, although I was not good enough to compete.

However, I felt I might be good enough to compete against undergraduates at the University of Washington. I not only knew how to do it, but in those days I was fit, lean and bush-hardened. So, I put my name down.

But I quickly discovered I faced two unusual hurdles. Firstly, there was the log. All of the competitors chopped the same log, which was the trunk of a Douglas-fir tree about 30m in length set up on blocks. Each axeman chopped by himself, in turn, at a nominated spot, and was timed with a stop-watch. The log, of course, tapered from crown end to butt end, meaning that each competitor had a slightly different-sized target. The judge/organiser had measured the diameter of the log at the point of each cut and thus was able to calculate the winner on the basis of his time for a corrected "standard" diameter. This meant you were racing against yourself and the clock, not the other competitors, so the usual flurry and excitement of a competitive log chop was absent. I felt a bit like a solo violinist, rather than a log chopper, with all eyes on me, as I stepped up to my mark.

The second factor was the axe. Unlike Australian axes, the American axe (and here I am talking about the standard axe, used in the forest or on a farm) is double-bitted:

In other words, they have two blades, back to back, the theory being than you can cut with one until it is blunt and then use the other. Also, the handle is straight, like a pick or mattock handle, not moulded and curved like the sort of "true" axe handle I knew and loved. I had a bit of a swing of one of these double-bitted mattocky things and found it stiff, with no aerodynamics, none of that lovely feeling of power and flexibility you get with a good Plumb, Kelly or Hi-Test head on a nicely moulded hickory handle.

A Garb Day student, sharpening my axe with a file, and doing a pretty good job.

On the other hand, the axe was sharp, and the wood was soft. Douglas-fir (known as "Oregon" in Australia) is superb timber and although it is a softwood, an axeman can block it out. Unlike pine it is not sticky and gummy or heavily knotted. I did a neat chop, without a miss-hit, got through the log clean and fast .... and ended up the winner.

I was quite pleased about this, but soon discovered that I was a less-than-popular winner. The log chop was regarded as the ‘Blue Ribbon’ event of the day, and the winner received a special trophy donated by one of the big Washington timber companies. This was a carved wooden statuette, known as the "Ollie", a new one being commissioned and sculpted every year. It was rough-hewn, but had a rakish charm, and his double-bitted axe was at his side. Each Ollie was unique. The current holder of the Ollie held a special cache amongst his fellow undergraduate students. Apparently I was the first post-graduate student ever to win the Ollie, and also the first overseas student to do so.

Oblivious to all this, I attended the Garb Day party that night and collected my trophy, along with the luke-warm congratulations of the organisers. There was an amusing sequel: in reporting the day's events, the campus newspaper (published by the University's School of Journalism and written by the students, who invariably lived up to the best traditions of journalism), miss-spelled my name. The Ollie trophy winner, they reported, was some foreigner called Rogen Underwoo, from Taiwan, or possibly Latvia.

I must have learned a lesson from all this, however, as I did not compete at Garb Day the following year. Mr Underwoo retired gracefully.

Ollie sits on our mantelpiece to this day, occasionally leading to a question from a grandchild or a visitor, and always giving me a good excuse to recount the story of my greatest sporting triumph.

"Ollie" - the traditional backwoods logger, trophy of the log chop champion of the University of Washington, standing on my mantelpiece in Palmyra to this day.

Nearly forty years later, in 2011, I revisited the scene of my Garb Day triumph at the University of Washington, strolling around the campus under an umbrella on a day of pouring rain. I paused as I had always done at Drumheller Pool, and despite the gloom, reflected on the beauty of the scene.

It is said "you should never go back", but I am glad I did. I was reminded of the days when I was young and fit, could swing an axe, and spent happy days in the beautiful and stimulating surrounds of the College of Forestry at the University of Washington. I made friends there that have lasted a lifetime.


My good friend (and contemporary at the Australian Forestry School) Bob Edmonds, who recently retired as Professor of Soil Science at the University of Washington, tells me that Garb Day was banned by the University authorities many years ago. They were concerned about students bringing axes onto campus, fearing a bloody massacre ....

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Aug 12, 2023

Great story Roger

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