Some years ago I was assigned to write a long piece about the Connecticut River, top to bottom. As I prepared to go north in search of the river’s headwaters, a friend asked me if I had ever read Spiked Boots. When I confessed that I not only had never read it, but that I had never heard of it, he hustled to correct that major breach in my education by lending me his copy. The book was long out of print and I now appreciate that he parted with his copy, bound in red canvas, the pages worn soft from many readings, even for a short time. I was soon to learn of its value. I realize now that this book not only holds within its covers great reading but also a major portal to our northern history. Spiked Boots is the famous North Country compilation of stories and legends of loggers, river drivers and rascals put down so many years ago by Robert Pike, a man with the unlikely provenance of not only being a Latin scholar and a professor of French literature but also a child of the North Woods.
The East Coast – bastion of gentility – never has had cowpokes or outlaws to lionize or romanticize but there were the rivermen on the annual river drives, the log drives that passed down through all the river towns in the spring, back when the river was wild and the men two-fisted. Among these heroes were Dan Bossy and Jigger Johnson and ‘Phonse Robey, hard-drinking, lumber-riding cowboys who lived in the woods and worked the rivers when the water was high and tossed car-sized logs about with picks and peaveys when the river was low. George Van Dyke, the outsized boss of the drives, lives alone in his own legends. In their league these men were every bit as herculean as Wyatt Earp and Butch Cassidy. These East Coast cowboys didn’t have horses or spurs. Instead, they rode logs with their poles and their spiked boots. Spiked Boots records the mythology of those men and of those times.
“When I was polishing up these old boots the last time, I got to thinking about the last long-log drive down the Connecticut and how I wished someone could write it up so’s it would be remembered. You know, the Connecticut River Drive was more than an ordinary log drive. It was an Institution. . .the biggest annual event in the North Country. The people couldn’t imagine a spring without a drive any more than you could imagine a winter without Christmas. . . .It was dangerous work. The women up here who kissed their men goodbye in the spring never knew whether they’d see ‘em alive and whole again.”
This is the voice of Vern Davison, the storyteller Pike uses to propel his narrative through to the very last log drive. Pike grew up on the banks of the Connecticut River, watching the drives come through as a youngster. But he never rode the logs himself. He just loved the stories and the storytellers. Pike was born in Hamden, Connecticut, but his parents died when he was very young so he was sent to live with his uncle Harl, who raised him on his farm in Upper Waterford, Vermont. Harl, then, was his single parent, along with all the woodsmen who peopled the river at that time.
These stories, which crystallize that earlier era with just the right mix of lyricism and truth, were originally told around a roaring fire in camps and cabins, often by the men who were the stories. In many cases, if you weren’t there to hear them, they were lost, like the river, gone on its way south. I read and reread the stories and sometimes, when I’d put the book down, I’d go to sleep and dream about riding down the river on a log. And so, just before I took my upriver journey to the North Country in search of what might be left of this lore, I first headed south, to New Jersey.
Robert Pike lived on a quiet street on the far side of the razzle-dazzle of Asbury Park. His house was furnished in the style of the French renaissance but he still dropped his r’s when he said ‘dark’ and ‘hard’ and up in his attic was a pair of spiked boots. A small man, Pike was 80 years old at the time, pear-shaped and jovial. He loved a good laugh, which lit up his mischievous blue eyes. His first question to me was a way of discovering my authenticity. “Have you ever been to the Fourth Connecticut Lake?” he asked. By some stroke of luck, I had. Otherwise we might never have become the friends that we did. “Yes,” I told him. “I have!” He quizzed me further and when I described my hike up through the woods to the boundary between the U.S. and Canada, and the little beaver pond that I found there, he broke out in a broad smile. I had passed his test.
He had lived most of his life away from the farm where he grew up, away from the Fourth Connecticut Lake and all the water that flowed out of that little pond to become the big log highway that it was in those days. The family farm looked down on Fifteen-Mile Falls, a famous and once-turbulent northern stretch of the Connecticut. Back then, Pike’s Uncle Harl let loggers set up camp in the spring on the part of the farm that was not being used. Like most North Country boys of that time, Pike aspired to be a riverman when he came of age. But as he grew up, the logging industry shifted, becoming mechanized. The river was dammed for flood control and power generation and logs were moved by truck or by train instead. The great spring log drives were becoming a thing of the past. The last long log drive on the Connecticut River took place in 1915 when Pike was ten years old. In spite of or maybe because of Pike’s aspiration to become a logger, Uncle Harl tended carefully to his education. “Uncle Harl sent me to high school even though he never went past the eighth grade himself. He said, ‘Robbie! This is important!’ I read every book in the Upper Waterford Library before I was fourteen,” he told me. The Upper Waterford library, it turns out, doubled as a saloon, so while Pike absorbed the pages of these books, loggers absorbed the contents of the liquor bottles that lined the shelves behind the bar. Even though he traveled widely in his long adult life, every summer Pike returned to the North Country to visit with his Uncle Harl and with Vern Davison, so long as they were alive, and after that, he visited with the others who remembered when. Here’s an excerpt from one of those early visits:
The attic was just like that of any other North Country farmhouse -- cobwebby rafters from which hung mysterious bags, braided traces of corn, and old clothes. . .and then, suspended from a nail, two pair of rivermen’s boots.
The two-inch calks were sharp as needles and looked like new. The leather had been recently oiled and shone dully in the sunlight that filtered through the dusty windows.
“Ice going out?” I joked. “I see you’ve got your boots greased.”
Vern turned from tossing in-the-way objects aside and stalked over to the boots....He took them in one huge hand and held them almost tenderly.
“These boots, young feller,” he said, “may be said to mark the passing of an era. . . .Every spring I take these boots out and file off the rust and grease ‘em. And I know I’ll never use them again. Not ever. . . .When I was polishing up these old boots the last time, I got to thinking about the last long-log river drive down the Connecticut, and how I wished someone could write it up so’s it would be remembered.
Robert Everding Pike was an enigma, a man who lived comfortably in two worlds, the world of the North Woods and the world of academia, the world of the past and the world of the present. He graduated from Littleton High School in 1921. He was descended from the Pikes who had been farming their Revolutionary War land grants for more than a century, but he was the first of them to graduate from high school and he did so at the age of 16. From there, he went on to graduate from Dartmouth in 1925. While he was at Dartmouth, Pike worked summers for the Brown Paper Company of Berlin, surveying the border between the United States and Canada. It was during that time that he met many of the men who later became the subjects in his books. After Dartmouth, Pike attended La Sorbonne in Paris and spent the summer of 1928 living in sub-Carpathian Russia. In 1932, he earned his doctorate in foreign languages from Harvard, and thereafter maintained a prestigious career as professor of foreign languages. A cryptographic officer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Pike lived in Munich and in Bavaria during World War II. But throughout his life, it was the North Woods and its stories that pulled him home, stories like this one:
The water was high and fast, of course. Below one rollway was an eddy that kept the logs inshore instead of letting them float down with the current. They got piled up pretty deep there, so I told the men to wait while I took two men and went down to pole them out into the river.
We were working away and had got them pretty well cleared out, when there came a yell from the men on the bank. We looked up and there all the logs on that rollway had got loose and were starting to roll down on top of us. We turned and ran over the floating logs for the middle of the river. The other two men made it safely but I didn’t.
My first jump, I landed on my left foot on the big spruce but before I could bring up my right foot, another log bobbed out of the water and caught it between the two logs. I stuck my peavey into the log and pulled for all I was worth but I was stuck there as if I was in a bear trap. I caught a glimpse of those logs just leaping over the bank and knew my time had come -- and by God, mister, it would have come, right there and then, if pretty near a miracle hadn’t happened.
There was a riverman named Dan Bossy working up on that rollway. Dan was the best man on logs I ever saw in my life. I’ve seen him do things I’d never have believed if I hadn’t seen ‘em myself. Well, he seen what a fix I was in, and even before the logs came thundering down off the skids, he run out and jumped. So help me, he jumped fifteen feet straight down and landed on that log behind me and drove one end of it deep into the water. The other end snapped up past my head like a flash of light....
My foot was free then and I sailed out of there on my other log as quick and easy as if I were on a feather-bed. And not one second later that rollway landed kerplunk where I had been standing and filled the river ten feet deep with logs. Bossy? He was right behind me, on that same big spruce.
For years, Pike carried these stories around with him in his head. “They were all just busting out of me,” he told me. In 1955, Dr. Pike wrote the stories down and put them together into a book. “At first, I sent the manuscript to Little, Brown.” He showed me the rejection letter which noted that the writing had “considerable flair” but that the book as a whole “lacked dramatic cohesion.” Undeterred, he took the manuscript up to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, to the Cowles Press, where he ordered a print run of 500 copies. When it came off the presses, brightly bound in red canvas, he loaded the books into the trunk of his car and drove north. “When I got to Colebrook, I saw a familiar-looking man crossing the street. I stopped the car. The man turned out to be the son of ‘Phonse Robey, the famous river driver.” Pike took a copy of the book out of the trunk and gave it to the young man, saying, “This book is about your father. I want you to have it.”
“That night, when I checked into the hotel in town, the man at the desk was standing there reading -- the very same copy of Spiked Boots that I had given out that morning. And so I asked him how he liked the book and the man said, ‘Oh! This is a hell of a good book!’ and I said, ‘I wrote it.’ And ever since then, up in those parts, I was known as ‘the man who wrote the book.’”
It was actually the first of seven books that Bob Pike wrote and published himself, all the while heading up the foreign language program at Monmouth College in West Long Branch, New Jersey. He taught during the day and wrote his books at night. His daughter, Helen-Chantal Pike, was raised as an only child, lulled to sleep night after night to the sounds of his Remington typewriter. His first book, Laughter and Tears, is a somewhat sobering, somewhat hilarious collection of photos of interesting gravestones and epitaphs. All his life, Pike had a fascination for these end-of-life markers. He visited graveyards almost compulsively and photographed monuments such as the one carved to resemble a whiskey bottle (for a man who died of the DTs) and one carved to represent a golf bag full of clubs. For a man named Haine, the words of remembrance are brief: “Haine Hain’t.” Another reads: “Talked to Death by her Friends.” He put them all together into a book and published it in 1971, in an edition of 1,000. In 1975, he published Drama on the Connecticut, another collection of stories, these all about the Connecticut River, again printing an even 1,000. In 1967, W.W. Norton published Tall Trees, Tough Men, an anecdotal and pictorial history of logging and log-driving in New England. This book combines Pike’s talents as a scholar and as a storyteller as he approaches every aspect of logging and river driving, one at a time, with separate chapters devoted to the axe, the sawmill, the sawyer, the camp boss, the timber cruiser – twenty-five chapters in all. Complete with glossary and wonderful old photographs of logging and loggers, the book is meticulously researched and known as the bible of the logging industry. Not much more can ever be said about the business of the North Woods in those early days. The book remains in print. But Spiked Boots, which is not, is where his heart lay. An original copy of Spiked Boots, if it can be found in antiquarian book circles, would cost $100. Some consider the book such a valuable family treasure that they list it in their wills.
All this from a man who spoke fluent Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian and who made his career in academia. In 1982, Pike wrote a long letter to Dartmouth, “to aid in composing my obituary.” The last paragraph read thus: “My favorite winter vacation spot is the Island of Martinique. I am not in favor of girls at Dartmouth. I read fine print and drive a car without glasses. My father chawed tobacco; I eschew it. He voted the Democratic ticket. I vote Republican, although I actually I expect they are equally reprehensible. I run one mile every other day because it gives me the pleasant illusion that I am not dead yet. My favorite authors are Jack Anderson and Ann Landers. I drive an old Cadillac and an older Oldsmobile, both paid for. I shudder to read in the New York Times such horrors as: ‘in some counties of New Jersey someone called the Voting Register totals the votes,’ or in the Christian Science Monitor, the word ‘horefrost’ or in the Wall Street Journal, of an ‘excruciating agony.’”
In sum, most of Pike’s books are about loss: time lost, traditions lost, stories lost, loved ones lost. In 1934, just a few years after he graduated from Dartmouth, Pike wrote for a little publication called The Vermonter, a short piece called “Passing of the White Pine,” under the pseudonym of E. M. Nelson. Here is an excerpt:
But what started us on this melancholy exposition is a news item that appeared last winter in the Littleton (N.H.) Courier: “The pine on the Badger lot in Waterford is being cut.” These pine are all that are left of the old first-growth white pine that used to cover so much of Vermont. There is no other stand of virgin white pine in the state. And now it too is gone.
The Badger lot lies high up on the bank of the Connecticut River, just across from Littleton, at the middle of the Fifteen-MileFalls. It was 54 degrees below zero, which means 86 degrees of frost.
In spite of the intense cold another visitor had come down like myself to watch the work. He was a very old man, tall and spare, with a face like tanned leather and two frosty blue eyes. I talked with him. “When my grandfather settled here in 1807,” said he, “they used to cut the pine and haul them into heaps and burn them, just to clear the land for crops. These trees? Well, they’re pretty good specimens. You’ll never see any better. But I’ve seen a single pine log that scaled sixteen hundred feet.”
He waved a mittened hand toward the frozen rapids below us. “I’ve seen the long log drives come down that river for fifty years and more,” he continued. “The last one was in 1915. Sixty-five million feet of logs and five hundred men on drive. They camped here three weeks, clearing the jams off the falls. Lord, what a sight! A solid river of wood for five miles. They had one jam up at Stratford where there was over thirty million feet in one bunch. Washed out the railroad tracks, had a lawsuit, had a hell of a time. But I’ve seen worse jams than that one in the days Van Dyke used to drive the Connecticut. I worked on the river myself those days. . . Then came the pulp, four-foot stuff. Matchwood! But in 1918 they had a pulp drive almost as big as the one in 1915. The War was on and prices were high and over a hundred thousand cords came down the river that spring.
“But now even that is over with. Power companies have built dams everywhere and there’ll never be any more drives on this river. These pine here are lucky they’re going to be cut, for all this valley is going to be flooded. There’ll be a lake here sixteen miles long and two hundred feet deep.”
While he had been telling me all of this, we had been standing beside a pair of sawyers. One of them was a little French-Canadian who looked up at us from time to time with a tobacco-stained grin. Evidently he had heard my ancient companion’s reminiscences before. Presently the saw ceased its song. The other man whipped off his handle and the Frenchman drew the saw swiftly through the cut.
“Timber-r-r-r-r!” he cried at the top of his lungs and gave the great tree a push. The pine trembled. For a moment it balanced on edge and then, with a mighty crash that sent splinters and pieces of branches flying through the air, it fell. A rush of air struck us and snow billowed around the prostate trunk. The old man shouted with excitement.
“How was dat, grandpa?” asked the Frenchman. “I guess Van Dyke hisself couldn’t do no better, w’at?”
The tree was five feet in diameter at the stump and measured 143 feet from the butt to tip, while the rings showed it to be 181 years old.
“Grandpa” shook his ancient head. “I thought they were older,” said he. “I’m eighty-nine myself. Well, they’re the last of their kind. There’ll never be any more.” His clear blue eyes gleamed in the frosty sunlight. He adjusted the tippet around his withered old throat, grasped the staff that served him as a cane and marched away through the trees.
“Funny old geezer,” said the other sawyer to me as we watched the tall, bent figure disappear. “He’s just like these pine – the last one of his kind. They say he used to be a holy terror in the old days here on the river, but he’s getting childish now. There’s no one left he used to know and he’s been coming down here all winter to watch us. Seems to think there’s some affinity between him and these old trees.” He swore cheerfully at his partner and bent to his work.
Even at the young age that Pike was when he wrote this, he seemed to be laying out his destiny, to be the chronicler of the last of its kind, to tell the stories that would never be told again. Pike was an only child, a sometimes lonely man who enjoyed three marriages and, when proposed to a fourth time by a lovely lady of the north, he turned her down, saying simply, “I am all too well aware of my shortcomings.” There was an elegiac tone in most of his writings, and the content only compounded the feelings of loss that permeated the works. He lost his parents at a very young age. He lost his town and the farm where he grew up, drowned under the waters of the Connecticut River, the river where the men he admired had worked and risked their lives and sometimes lost them too. When a logger drowned on the river, whenever possible, his spiked boots were hung from a tree nearest to where he passed. As a boy, Pike came upon a pair of these sharp-soled shoes hanging from a tree and, he often said, the sight inspired his interest in epitaphs. More likely the poignant sight inspired his passion for things lost, not only the life of a river driver, but the loss of the heroes of his boyhood.
In his academic life, Pike taught lost languages. In his books he eulogized the passage of an era, a time when within the big woods, a great industry boomed. Whole cities were thrown up extemporaneously to feed and house all the men who worked there. And when the trees were gone, these little cities disappeared with them.
Dr. Pike was a life-long Christian Scientist and he had never suffered any illness. He never even took out health insurance. Quite unexpectedly, he died in his sleep on August 7, 1997, in his New Jersey home. He was 92. The farm where he grew up in Upper Waterford, Vermont, has long since been under water, inundated when they built the Moore Dam. But his heart and soul remained there. Every summer, he visited his homeplace, as close as he could get to it, and in his New Jersey refrigerator, he kept an open pitcher of maple syrup. In his possession was a panoramic photograph of the village of Upper Waterford, before it went under. Of the photo, he once wrote to me, “In it, you see very clearly almost every building in the village -- the Pike place (where the boat launch is now), the Pike sugarhouse, the Pike Tavern (also the library), my one-room white schoolhouse, the Congo church, the cemetery, now moved, with its contents, to just below the Moore Dam, where my own stone is patiently waiting for me.”
His third wife, the beautiful Parisian dancer, Helene, often accompanied him on his summer pilgrimages to the North Woods. Pike, usually driving his big finned Cadillac, was always greeted like a returning hero. Helene was always beside him, enduring the swarms of blackflies and even trekking through the woods, forging streams in her strappy sandals and European heirloom jewelry. When she died in 1983, Dr. Pike had his stone set next to hers in the Waterford Cemetery, just 150 feet from the Connecticut River. He wrote an epitaph for her so long that his adoring words cover the stone. Then he wrote one for himself, considerably shorter, and had it cut into the stone, missing only the date of his death. It makes no mention of his academic accomplishments. Instead, it identifies him simply as “the man who wrote the book.”
At his funeral, we sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic and Swing Lo Sweet Chariot, songs his daughter selected because she remembered her father singing them off-key around the house. The church in Lower Waterford overflowed with his followers that day. His fans were many and of surprising variety. After all the words had been read and the stories told at the service, the people who had come distances long and short in his honor gathered in the big room in the basement of the church where cider and homemade donuts were offered. In the crowd, a young man carried a copy of Spiked Boots, holding it against his chest. I spotted the beautiful old book, held so lovingly. “I see you brought the book,” I said. The book’s faded red canvas cover had been fortified by a layer of floral shelf paper. “Yup,” he said and he opened the book. Some of the well-read pages fell loose from the binding. The inside cover was scattered with signatures of Bob Pike and the man smoothed them with his big rough hand. “Every time he came up here, I had him sign it all over again.”
I had only known Bob Pike a dozen or so years, all of them during his dotage. He often called me at odd times of the day or night to tell me a story. Even if he’d awakened me at midnight, I was always ready to listen. When he died, I wept and then wondered just what it was that I had lost. Surely, a friend but something else had moved me about his life, about his loss. I suppose it was the connection he gave us to our past. His reassurance of the magnificent and ingenious ways the men of the woods managed our beginnings gave us all strength as well as the certainty that we grew up out of rugged stock, even if we had not, literally. His long, rich life provided a tremendous wingspan that reached from the present back to a distant past. His stories not only recalled those times, which few if any of us either recall or were witness to, but he brought them alive in the telling, he took us to the places, introduced us to the people, coaxed the smells out of the rafters for us and made us feel the rush of the river beneath our feet.
Pike had certain rituals. One was that when he came north in the summer, with his wife and daughter, Helen, and later with just Helen, whenever they reached a certain stretch of the interstate when the roadway starts to climb noticeably toward Vermont, he would recite a little verse:
I’d rather hear a coyote howl
Than be the king of Rome
For when the day comes,
If day does come,
By God, I’m going home,
Yea, man, I said it: Going home.
And so, Robert Everding Pike is at long last home, in that unremarkable Waterford cemetery that holds the remains of both Upper and Lower Waterford, and around which hover all the legends of the North Woods that might have been lost if it hadn’t been for the man who wrote the book. These are the gifts of a storyteller and an historian, these are the gifts that made us love him, the last of his kind, and make us want to walk a log on spiked boots, all the way to the other side of the river.