Piddlin' Measures

    A board foot was a fiddlin' small measure in the days of my Great Grandpa Augustus. For a time, he was a timber cruiser for Pope and Talbot. A timber cruiser measured the circumference of standing trees, observed their height and condition, their spacing, and could deduce to a fair degree of accuracy the amount of lumber a tract of standing timber would yield.
    Timber cruisers taking the measure of the vast tracts of virgin Pacific Northwest forests in 1890 faced a number of problems. In order to measure a standing tree you first had to walk around it with the tape, and a good many inexperienced cruisers left their bones at the foot of a large specimen because they starved to death trying to do just that. Experienced cruisers knew enough to place food caches and carry a tape long enough to measure the largest tree.
     A powerful man like my Great Grandpa Augustus could carry such a tape, an ax, a week's rations and his tally book but no more. Consequently a large tree from the Belfair Valley or Tahuya River was referred to as a "fair weather tree" because no man could carry his tent and camping gear. He had to sleep on the bare ground.
    After measuring such enormous trees there came the problem writing down the tally. You could tell a timber cruiser in those day because his writing arm was overdeveloped from all those figures so he looked like a fiddler crab. Since the tally book was carried in a leather pouch on a strap that went around the cruiser's neck, some became hunchbacked from the weight of all those figures.
    A man could go cruising Monday morning with a notebook and pencil that together weighed only a few ounces and after a week in the woods he'd come back with a hundred pounds of figures. The only thing that saved him from permanent injury was every day he ate about as much weight as his tally book gained.

    Those problems were greatly simplified with the invention of the circular shot pistol, the block and the book.
    The circular shot pistol had a calibrated barrel that curved to the left, and the bullet was shaped like a tiny boomerang. When he came to a large tree, the cruiser fired a shot with his pistol and the bullet, curving left, circumnavigated the tree. The cruiser stood nearby and erected a target while waited for the bullet. When the bullet hit the target, the cruiser consulted his watch (or if it was a particularly large tree, his calendar) and from this he could deduce the board footage of the tree.
    The block was a theoretical measure where 10,000 board feet of lumber built a house and it took 100 houses to occupy all the lots in this theoretical block. This cut a timber cruisers labor by a factor of one million.
    The book was too large a unit for convenient use, being that a cruiser's tally book had 200 pages and it took two pages to cover each ten square mile tract using the new methods, so 100 blocks equaled one book. Therefore the book was used in stock reports and annual statements but never by the average fellow.
    There was a proposal for a unit called the town which contained so many blocks but no-one could agree on the proportion of houses to saloons and churches and stableyards.

    Great Grandpa Augustus marveled when the railroad came in. The ties were laid crossways instead of a single tie a couple of hundred feet long made from a single Douglas fir plank ten inches thick ripped down to 9 to 11 feet wide. He thought all those little skinny ties a terrible waste of labor.
    The telegraph poles were so tall the linemen got nosebleeds when they went to string the wire. For a while they dug the holes deeper to reduce the height but then someone got the bright idea of cutting the pole in half. That was OK but wasteful because nobody could figure out what to do with the other half. Then someone noticed (Great Grandpa Augustus said it was his idea but I never believed it) a Pacific Northwest telegraph pole laying down was plenty high enough to string wire from and you didn't have to dig a hole.

    Until recently, we in Western Washington never had much use for the unit "Board Feet". Nowadays, all that has changed. Timber cruisers measure trees with micrometers and loggers harvest them with combines. There's talk of establishing a board micron but I hope it will never come to that.

. . . Forrest Addy

 

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