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Logging like our ancestors  

  • John Clapp

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm secures a pine log to be pulled out of the woods by his team of draft horses including a Belgian named Shorty, pictured right, Nov. 15, 2017 in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm uses a team of draft horses including a Suffolk Punch named Rosa, left, and a Belgian named Shorty Nov. 15, 2017 to pull logs out of the woods to be used in building a timber frame barn in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm mans the reigns as his team of draft horses including a Belgian named Shorty, pictured, pull pine logs out of the woods Nov. 15, 2017 in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sage remounts the log arch, a log loading apparatus. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm secures a pine log to be pulled out of the woods by his team of draft horses Nov. 15, 2017 in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A log is pulled out of the woods to be used in building a timber frame barn in Montague Nov. 15, 2017 by licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm and his team of draft horses. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm secures a pine log to be pulled out of the woods by his team of draft horses including a Belgian named Shorty, pictured right, Nov. 15, 2017 in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm uses a team of draft horses including a Belgian named Shorty, left, and a Suffolk Punch named Rosa Nov. 15, 2017 to pull pine logs out of the woods to be used in building a timber frame barn in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A team of draft horses including a Suffolk Punch named Rosa, left, and a Belgian named Shorty rest briefly Nov. 15, 2017 after pulling pine logs out of the woods to be used in building a timber frame barn in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm pauses atop a log arch as his team of draft horses including a Suffolk Punch named Rosa, left, and a Belgian named Shorty rest briefly Nov. 15, 2017 after pulling pine logs out of the woods to be used in building a timber frame barn in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Courtesy of the Clapp family. Photo by the Howes Brothers

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm uses a team of draft horses including a Belgian named Shorty, pictured, and a Suffolk Punch named Rosa Nov. 15, 2017 to pull pine logs out of the woods to be used in building a timber frame barn in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm releases a pine log pulled out of the woods by his team of draft horses including a Suffolk Punch named Rosa, left, and a Belgian named Shorty Nov. 15, 2017 in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm uses a team of draft horses including a Suffolk Punch named Rosa, left, and a Belgian named Shorty Nov. 15, 2017 to pull logs out of the woods to be used in building a timber frame barn in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Tyler Sage of Sage Farm in Montague uses a team of draft horses, including a Suffolk Punch named Rosa, left, and a Belgian named Shorty, to pull logs from the woods; they’ll be used for building a timber frame barn in Montague. At right, Sage secures a pine log to be pulled out of the woods by his horses. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm secures a pine log to be pulled out of the woods by his team of draft horses Nov. 15, 2017 in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sage pulls pine logs out of the woods with the draft team. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Licensed harvester Tyler Sage of Sage Farm uses a team of draft horses including a Suffolk Punch named Rosa Nov. 15, 2017 to pull logs out of the woods with a log arch to be used in building a timber frame barn in Montague. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



For the Gazette 
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

If you happened to drive along Chesterfield Road in Florence at the end of the summer, you might have caught a glimpse of a large draft horse pulling logs from the red pine forest at the end of Reservoir Road. It is not a time warp sending you back to the 1850s, when the farmers of Roberts Meadow used a team to haul timber to sawmills. This is a present-day logger who likes to feel the reins in his hands, while he deftly controls a 1,700-pound animal, pulling log after log out from the woods to the roadside.

Tyler Sage is a soft-spoken, 31-year-old man originally from northwest Connecticut who now hails from Montague. He has been contracted by the city of Northampton to do a selective thinning operation, cutting the red pine. The trees were planted in the 1930s by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps to establish a watershed for protecting the reservoir built to supply the growing city of Northampton.

A few days a week, Sage trailers his two draft horses, a 14-year old Belgian named Shorty and an eight-year-old Suffolk Punch named Rosa, to Florence for a day’s work. When I arrived at the site, they were contentedly feeding from a bale of hay outside their trailer while waiting to be harnessed. Their massive unshod hooves looked like something to stay clear of, but I was assured the pair were careful where they stepped.

When the horses were harnessed, Sage drove them a short distance into the woods, where a dozen trees had been felled the previous week. And with the command “whoa,” the horses stopped short. Rosa was tied to a tree to patiently wait for her turn, scratching her neck against the tree’s rough bark. Shorty was led to the first log, guiding to the right at the command of “gee.” With another “whoa,” he stopped at the butt end of a 16-foot log.

Having complete grasp of his craft, Sage quickly slipped the choke chain around the log, which tightens when pressure is applied, then attached the pull chain to it and prepared for the first pull. Shorty’s first owner used him at country fairs where he competed with other teams pulling a stone boat weighing as much as 10,000 pounds — a history that has left him a bit jumpy, always at the ready for a quick pull.

With a snap of the reins, Shorty effortlessly proceeded forward, Sage walking alongside to the road, occasionally jumping aboard the log for a ride. After an hour, it was Rosa’s turn; alternating the two gives each horse a chance to rest, especially important with summer temperatures that were near 90 degrees. With the logs piling up, it was time to transfer the day’s work with a forklift to the landing, an area used to stockpile the logs until a truck picked them for transport to a sawmill.  

I am quite familiar with logging, minus the horses. I grew up on Hampton Divide Farm, in Northampton, which included a sawmill about a mile up the road from the house. During the winter months, I would drive a bulldozer, with a logging sled in tow, to the woods where we would fell white pine, hemlock and oak. When the logs were cut to length, we would pull them with a cable that was attached to a power winch.

My job was to run out the cable and attach a set of tongs, sinking the teeth into the log, while my partner pulled them with the winch and piled the logs on the sled. Though a team of horses seems more hands-on — and maybe even fun — the dozer could manage many more logs per day.    

My ancestors have been logging and farming in this part of Northampton since 1826. That’s when my great-great grandfather bought land in what was then known as the Village of Roberts Meadow, in the northwest corner of Northampton; it’s now a part of Florence. Henry Clapp logged, operated a sawmill, and worked as a blacksmith into the late 1850s.

My family’s roots go even further back. The first Clapp to arrive in Northampton was Preserved Clapp, along with his wife, Sara Newbury Clapp, in 1663, nine years after Northampton was established. His father, Capt. Roger Clapp, sailed to New England from Devonshire, England in 1630 and helped settle Dorchester.

In those early days, logging was a way of life. For starters, lumber was needed for the homes and barns early settlers built. Forests were also cleared for pastures to feed livestock, while many trees were cut to supply the 25 to 30 cords of firewood needed for each home during winter. This went on for hundreds of years until much of New England had been deforested.

By the 1900s, more ethical logging practices had been established, with loggers cutting only the mature trees and leaving enough seed trees and young growth to insure a healthy forest. While forests are still clearcut in other parts of the country, many loggers choose to practice selective cutting in New England.

Harvesting timber by horse certainly fits that bill. Sage’s contract included harvesting 40,000 board feet of red pine trees that have reached maturity and will eventually die from an infestation of red pine scale. Cutting them now would insure a harvest of still-useable timber.

Red pine scale is a tiny, non-native insect that bores into the bark of red pine trees and robs them of nutrients, killing them over the course of a few years. These reddish-brown insects, only 1/32nd of an inch long, first appeared in New England in 1946, probably making their way from an exotic species of pine imported from Asia that was planted at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. With no natural predators, the insects have steadily spread through most of the northeastern states.

Northampton was not spared, and much of the red pine stands around the city’s water supplies are now infected. Over the last few years, the city has been removing trees that threaten roadways and power lines. If left standing, the pine will eventually come crashing down. 

Previously, Cotton Tree Service of Northampton used a crane to lift the 100-foot-tall pine from the forest. Both aerial logging with a crane and logging with horses helped insure the least amount of impact on the sugar maples that are growing amidst the red pine. According to Mike Mauri, forestry consultant for the city of Northampton, “The cutting is part of the broader Maple Project the city is implementing, which centers around removing red pines while protecting well-established small sugar maples in the understory, a project that requires extremely careful logging methods.”

I first met Mike when I was working in the woods next to my home in Florence. I had volunteered to place some boulders across the Mineral Hills hiking path as a way to limit all-terrain vehicles. I had just finished rolling the large boulders into place with my Kubota tractor when Mike walked out of the woods and asked what I was doing. I told him I had spoken with Northampton’s head planner about a way to help keep motorized vehicles from using the newly established hiking path.

Relieved that I was not just committing vandalism, Mike explained his role as the city’s forestry consultant. He had just finished marking boundaries on the land the town had recently purchased and placed into a conservation restriction, which added 210 acres to the Mineral Hills wildlife corridor. This land now extends from Chesterfield Road in Florence, south to Turkey Hill Road in West Farms, a distance of two miles.

The next time I bumped into Mike was after I called the Department of Public Works to let them know that logging equipment had been dropped on a section of land where an old house existed 150 years ago. I was concerned the site and stone-lined well could be disturbed. The house was last occupied in the 1870s by the Widow Clapp, who was my great aunt. I am probably the only one who was aware of its existence, as I had only discovered it while doing research for my book, “The Lost Village of Roberts Meadow.”

Mike came out to investigate and remedy the situation; he called the logger, who was more than happy to move his equipment, with no damage done. As Mike and I chatted, we discovered we were both writers: He writes poetry, while I write prose. He went to his truck and retrieved a hand-bound copy of one of his poems, an untitled one, which he gave to me. 

Mike recently led a hike that I attended in the part of Florence where Sage had been hired to cut and haul logs. Mike was explaining to several Northampton residents the importance of thinning the infested red pine and the attempt to encourage the growth of young sugar maple.

***

Tyler Sage, the young logger, has been working with his own horses for two years at his farm in Montague. He also offers custom tree cutting for clients who prefer the low-impact logging a single horse provides, as opposed to a large skidder that tends to rip up the ground and can damage trees that are left uncut.

He had previously apprenticed with Natural Roots, a CSA in Conway where the owners worked their fields with a team of draft horses. There Sage learned how to drive horses while cutting hay. After the growing season, he stayed on to help with logging with draft power and operated a bandsaw mill, cutting lumber for constructing a new barn.

Sage hasn’t always been a farmer: He received a bachelor’s degree in photography from the Art Institute of Boston. While in school and for a short time after graduating, he did a stint as a bike messenger in the city before leaving the area to begin a series of farm apprenticeships. 

Sage says he’s always enjoyed building things and working with raw materials, and his interest in logging grew out of that. “As I began to learn more about carpentry, I became interested in the source of the materials I was using, so my interest shifted to logging and milling.”

Now a world away from Boston, Sage divides his time between logging and running his own farm, where he raises a herd of 200 heritage breed hogs; he also has a self-serve farmstand at 119 Old Sunderland Rd. in Montague.

His approach to raising meat is similar to the one he’s followed for logging.

“I was the head butcher at Sutter Meats [in Northampton],” he says. “That job was also part of wanting to understand all aspects of the products I was producing as a farmer. Similar to the way that I can be a part of the whole process of stump to lumber, I wanted to be a part of the whole process from pig to pork chop to plate.”

You can read more about Tyler Sage at brooksbendfarm.com.

John Irving Clapp is the author of “Tale of Two Cabins” and “The Lost Village of Roberts Meadow,” available at Collective Copies. He lives in Florence.