By Jon Hochschartner
Writing history from the perspective of domesticated animals, the group most exploited under capitalism, is incredibly difficult to accomplish. I recently attempted this, researching the exploitation of draft horses in the Adirondack lumber industry in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Unsurprisingly, given society’s speciesism, the labor of these animals is almost completely invisible. Reading through the various popular histories of the region, mentions of the horses’ forced toil, essential to past logging efforts, are rare.
From a Marxist-animalist perspective, there were differences between the animal and human laborers working in lumber production. The human laborers were proletarians, in that they sold their labor power to logging companies incrementally, under the pretense of free choice.
“A good lumberjack with a sharp ax could cut seventy logs a day for a month,” Paul Schneider said. “For this the lumberjack received, at midcentury , about seventy-five cents a day.” Though room and board was provided, Schneider said, “pay was often in company script that was good only at selected local stores and bars, or at the camp commissary.”
The draft horses were closer to slaves, in that their labor power was sold all at once, without any semblance of agency. “Most of the horses were Belgians, often obtained from farms in Ontario for $80 to $110 each,” according to Bill Gove. “In the years after World War I, the price was over $300.” Due to domesticated animals’ obvious lack of political power, even in comparison to human proletarians, these horses produced surplus value at a much higher rate than the lumberjacks working beside them.
Logging was a massive business in the Adirondacks. In the early 1870s, according to Schneider, “upwards of a million logs a year were floating down out of the mountains.” As Frank Graham, Jr. pointed out, wood was always in demand for fuel in houses and factories. In addition, it was constantly needed to construct buildings, furniture, ships, and countless other important products. However, Craig Gilborn said, the profits from the industry did not remain in the Adirondacks, but rather enriched the capitalists “whose businesses and homes were chiefly in Glens Falls and cities outside the region.”
Logging generally took place in the late fall and early winter, according to Schneider. “This was in part because timber left lying through the summer attracted woodworms, and even more because most loggers preferred to spend the warmer months farming or guiding,” Scheider said. “Smaller crews were employed through the summer and early fall building logging roads and constructing camps where the seasonal men would stay.”
Draft horses were made to haul logs. According to Gove, the best animals, from the perspective of their human masters, could interpret the commands of teamsters and were able to quickly pick up on potential dangers. “A well-trained skid horse could even work alone without an escort, twitching a log from the cutting crew down to the man at the skidway and returning without anyone walking along with him,” Gove said. “If the log hung up en route on an obstruction such as a rock, the horse knew enough to ‘gee and haw’ in different directions on his own until the log came free.”
Working in the winter posed specific challenges. “If a horse fell in deep snow, it became quite difficult for him to get back on his feet with the harness in place,” according to Gove. “He would lie still, as trained, until the teamster unhooked the straps and chains. Most horses would readily walk across a railroad trestle, carefully stepping on the ties.”
This involuntary labor, dragging logs, often ended in death for the non-humans involved. “The mortality rate for the horses was high,” according to Lloyd Blankman. “Sometimes fewer than half of them survived when the drive started in the spring. All kinds of accidents befell them. There were sickness, trees falling, unseen holes and cliffs, icy roads, many occasions for trouble.” Besides being dangerous, the work was gruelingly difficult. “Working eleven hours a day during the season, a horse could be expected to last about six years,” according to Gove. Due to his troubling vagueness, one is unsure whether Gove meant the horses died from exhaustion after this period, were slaughtered, or sold for another form of work.