“In all the country there is scarcely a more interesting group of men—interesting because so wayward and prodigal in life and habit, while their forest home appeals to every leaf-loving soul. They are the nomads of the west—farm hands and railroad constructionists in the summer, woodsmen in winter—with no settled abode, no place they call home.”
—Thomas D. Whittles, The Lumberjack Sky Pilot. (Chicago: Winona Publishing Co., 1908.)
At the turn of the twentieth century, the harvesting and transporting of trees remained a traditional business that necessitated the use of hand-tools and men capable of enormous feats of physical strength. The men who sought out this type of work in the frontier regions of the United States often labored under fierce weather conditions, faced extreme danger from falling trees, and led uncertain, migratory lives, following jobs from state to state and living in company-run bunk houses on the far outskirts of towns.
Although lumberjacks were romanticized for their rugged individualism and heroic masculinity, they were also maligned for their heavy drinking and bawdy, uncivilized behavior. Living in isolated areas, loggers often spent their free time and meager earnings in gambling houses and saloons. Most gave little thought to attending church and were deeply skeptical of roving preachers.
But to the lumberjacks working in the forests of northern Minnesota, Presbyterian minister Frank E. Higgins (1865-1915) was affectionately known as the “lumberjack’s sky pilot” because he guided their wayward souls toward heaven.
Brought up in a family of homesteaders in Shelburne, Ontario, Canada, Frank E. Higgins was accustomed to the toil and hardship of frontier life from an early age. Although he dreamt of becoming a minister from boyhood, running the family farm left Higgins little time for schooling, a failing that he would try to remedy for much of his life in order to qualify for ordination. Higgins preached his first sermon to the lumberjacks in 1895. Accompanying a member of his congregation to a log drive at Kettle River, he was surprised when the lumberjacks asked him to deliver a sermon.
That day marked the beginning of a ministry that would make Frank Higgins a national figure and one of the best known logging missionaries in the United States. In 1902, after several years of preaching to the lumberjacks in his spare time, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. made Higgins a full-time missionary. In 1908, the Board of Home Missions appointed him Superintendent of Lumber Camp Work. By 1912, he had established logging missions in Washington, Oregon, Arkansas, and the Adirondacks modeled on his work in Minnesota. Acting on the conviction that a missionary should be one with the people he is serving, Higgins won the loggers’ respect with his willingness to work alongside them and his informal yet dignified style of preaching.
As demand for Frank Higgins’ work in the lumber camps grew, he began to recruit additional sky pilots to carry out his mission. One of the men to follow him into the mission field was Richard Ferrell (1855-1956), an ex-prizefighter and blacksmith who experienced a religious conversion after hearing Rev. John Timothy Stone (1868-1954) preach at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Illinois.
Like Higgins, Ferrell lacked a formal education and gained acceptance among the lumberjacks by working alongside them. In 1914, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Board of Home Missions commissioned Ferrell to do logging camp work in the panhandle of northern Idaho. Eventually, his parish would extend to eastern Washington and to a portion of western Montana.
By the 1940s, the nature of lumber work changed in the United States. Instead of living in temporary housing, loggers took up permanent residence with their families in nearby towns and commuted to work by automobile. Ferrell’s responsibilities also evolved. On top of his regular duties of preaching the Gospel and bringing religious tracts to the men, he began to perform marriages, baptize the lumberjacks’ children, and establish Sunday schools in isolated school houses and abandoned camp grounds.
Originally ordained by the Mennonite Brethren Church, Herbert M. Peters (b. 1904) was received as minister in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) by the Presbytery of Duluth in 1948. That same year, he began a full-time career as a Sunday school missionary to lumberjacks and miners in northern Minnesota under the PCUSA Board of National Missions.
At that time, the area under the Presbytery’s care consisted of many sparsely settled communities, the inhabitants of which could not always reach an organized church. To bring these small communities together under a single ministry, the Presbytery granted Rev. Peters permission to organize the North Pine Presbyterian Church at Large in 1955. The organization of the church included a building program to erect chapels in various logging areas. Much of the timber used in the construction of the chapels was cut and sawed by lumberjacks who would later worship in the buildings.