Although crosscut saws were invented earlier, it was not until about 1870 that they replaced the ax as the preferred instrument for felling trees. Competitive chopping and sawing soon became a part of logging camp life as restless timber cutters known as wood hicks spent their Sundays matching skills. As the log camps were phased out, fairs and festivals began holding competitions. The current champions are well-trained professional athletes. Some work in the woods, but most do not.
The third-oldest lumberjack contest in North America is held annually at the Mountain State Forest Festival in Elkins. In the beginning, the show was dominated by a burly logger from Webster County named Howard Paul Criss Jr., who by the 1930s was affectionately called Paul Bunyan Criss. He was the first acknowledged world champion.
As his fame spread, the Kelly Axe Company of Charleston hired Criss to advertise its products. He gave chopping exhibitions across the country, performed in Radio City Music Hall, shaved bearded men with his five-pound ax, and split apples held between his wife’s thumb and forefinger on a block of wood that was also split with the same powerful blow of the ax. He and his sawing partner, Upton Sears, also of Webster County, used a specially made crosscut saw to cut the famous Mingo Oak after it died in 1938.
Arden Cogar Sr., of Webster Springs, started the Webster County Woodchopping Competition, now the Southeastern U.S. World Championships, in 1960. Cogar became the first American, and one of only three or four ever, to win a championship in Australia, where woodcutting contests are also popular. He has since won 56 other world titles plus dozens of regional titles and hundreds of contests.
Some record times set at major competitions include Arden Cogar Jr. of Charleston, chopping through a 13-inch horizontal white pine log in 14.02 seconds in 2001 and a 13-inch vertical white pine log in 15.01 seconds in 1996. Arden Cogar Sr. cut a 12-inch yellow poplar horizontal log in 15.15 seconds in 1978, an eight-by-eight inch horizontal yellow poplar in 7.05 seconds in 1975, and a 10-by-10 vertical white pine in 14.45 seconds in 1972. Melvin Lentz is credited with chopping a 13-inch horizontal yellow poplar in 18.85 seconds and a 12-inch yellow poplar vertical block in 15.97 seconds, both in 1995. Melvin Lentz and Paul Cogar, using a crosscut saw, in 1999 cut two times through an eight-by-eight yellow poplar log in 5.08 seconds, and Lentz, using a one-person crosscut saw, cut through a 20-inch ponderosa pine in 19.76 seconds in 1990. Lentz, using a modified chain saw, cut through a 34-inch ponderosa pine log in 4.85 seconds in 1993.
This Article was written by William H. Gillespie
Last Revised on October 07, 2010
North American Axmen's News, vol. 8, 2001.
Stafford, Thomas F. The First Mountain State Forest Festival. Goldenseal, (July-Sept. 1979).